Meet Dr Thabsile T Thabethe, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow and Assistant Lecturer at University of Pretoria

November 3, 2019


Dr. Thabsile T. Thabethe’s Biography

Dr. Thabsile Thabethe is a Physicist, a researcher, a mother and most recently became a children’s book author. She is currently a Postdoctoral fellow and a part time lecturer at the Physics department of the University of Pretoria where she is a member of the nuclear materials research group.

She pursued a PhD in Physics (Materials Sciences/nuclear materials) at the University of Pretoria with a PhD thesis titled, “The interfacial reaction and surface analysis of W thin film on 6H-SiC annealed in vacuum, hydrogen and argon”. She investigated the solid-state interaction, phase formation and surface morphology of W-SiC upon annealing at different temperatures and different annealing atmospheres. This work contributed in both semiconductor physics studies (contacts and diodes) and nuclear power plant studies (where tungsten is being considered as a coating for SiC to help prevent escape of fission products and reduce the interaction of fission products SiC compromising its compatibility). For her postdoctoral research she has focused on the effect of swift heavy ions on metal-SiC. This research is aimed at elucidating irradiation effects on nuclear materials for generation type of nuclear reactors. 

The research she has worked on has been presented at numerous local and international conferences and published in peer reviewed rated journals.  Her research has won an award at an international conference, where she won the best poster presentation. She has developed national and international networks with outstanding academic scholars and researchers in distinguished institutions. She has productive collaborations following national institutions: University of Zululand and NECSA in some projects. Internationally, she involved as a research group member (Nuclear Materials group) in a research project funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) in collaboration with the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR) in Dubna, Russia. 

When Thabsile is not busy with physics, she writes maths and science books for toddlers. She has taken a new interest in developing activities and curriculum for toddlers. This interest in early child development has led her to write children’s books which introduce toddlers to mathematics and science.

Why did you get into STEM? 

During my first year at University of Limpopo (Medunsa campus), Khombo Dumela (a MSc student, studying Medical Physics) was my Physics tutor and she used to take a class of about 250 students for tutorial alone. The way she would handle the whole season single handed was remarkably. I use to love the way she made us solve all the tutorial problems by ourselves and encouraging us to attempt to do all the problems without too much dependence on her.  In my eyes she was this smart young lady helping us with physics, the hardest subject known to man. This was really incredible to me and I really admired her intelligence. I also hoped that one day I will be the one helping other students with physics like her. That influenced my decision in continuing with physics up to honours level. Dr. Dolly Langa, Prof. Thulani Hlatshwayo and Prof. Johan Malherbe were the people who made me to continue with MSc and PhD in physics. I was enticed by the work they were doing and I also wanted to be part of it. 

What do you consider your greatest achievements? 

Completing my PhD in physics, publishing scientific research articles and publishing maths and science books for toddlers have been my greatest achievements. 

What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them? 

When you work in an environment where there are a lot of men you can sometimes feel like you are being overlooked and undermined. You constantly feel like they are trying to discourage you and look down on you. All these factors can have a major impact on your self-confidence and can lead to self-doubt. But, I have realised that most of them are not even aware they are doing or saying anything wrong. During the course of my PhD I got pregnant, and I remember people telling me that I will never finish PhD, its typical of women to drop out and anyway women are not strong enough for this work environment. Funny enough, these statements came from both males and females. 

Through the help of my family, close friends and some colleagues, I was able to overcome all the negativity around me. When you have people to talk to when you are in need, it can be very therapeutic and helpful. 

What is your advice to budding women in STEM?

Teachers, parents, and the society need to build the confidence of young girls by encouraging them and giving them opportunities to learn from their mistakes. They also need to help remedy any misconceptions young girls might have in a bid to build their logical and scientific reasoning.

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