“The world is spinning,” my brother told me.
“How come I cannot see it then?”
He just shrugged and smiled as he skipped away, happy to have dropped an earth-shattering bomb on me.
“I lay down and closed my eyes for what seemed like an eternity. I opened them but there was no change to my perspective. I closed them again, wrinkling my eyes with intent, this time for longer. Nothing! I kept on doing this until the moon had risen and I had fallen asleep.”
That was four decades ago, and today Margaret Mkhosi knows that the earth does indeed spin, at 1 675 km per hour if measured at the equator. She can close her eyes until a million moons have risen and still won’t be able to see it, but she knows it is a fact.
It is precisely the mystery of being able to measure something that is not visible to the naked eye and then being able to use the information to better mankind that fascinated Margaret all those years ago and which has kept her interested in science till this day.
Dr Mkhosi, is the first Director of the National Nuclear Regulator’s Centre for Nuclear Safety and Security (CNSS), hosted at the University of Pretoria. CNSS aims to create a pipeline of skills and human capital required to serve the needs of the NNR and the nuclear sector. She was the first black female in South Africa to attain her PhD in nuclear engineering, and also the first black person to do so in the history of the Ohio State University (OSU).
She plays another vital role in supporting girls and women in the science, technology and mathematics (STEM) fields. In her capacity as the president of the Women in Nuclear South Africa (WiNSA) and on a larger scale as part of the executive team of Women in Nuclear Global, Africa region, Margaret is involved in promoting the understanding and public awareness of the benefits of nuclear science & technology.
She has also started an initiative she calls “Charity begins at home.” Her philosophy is simple; teach your children in a way that will excite them, first for their own benefit and second, so they might share this knowledge with their friends and help spread awareness.
Margaret has expanded on this initiative, taking it to schools in her home village where she teaches young girls using hands-on activities that makes STEM, and in particular nuclear science & technology, exciting to learn.
Her ambition is to continue mentoring these young women with the hope that they will one day add to the number of women in the industry and that this will contribute to the skills needed in the STEM industry, and for the envisaged nuclear expansion.
“I especially want to help the young kids in our rural villages. I know that they have all the capabilities, they just need the exposure and encouragement.”
Margaret grew up in a small village. The same problems she experienced growing up are the same problems learners are experiencing now.
“I had no computers, they have no computers, I had no science lab, they have no science lab and the only professionals they have around them to look up to and emulate are policemen, bus drivers, miners and teachers, as was the case in my day.”
“They don’t have to dream about being a teacher or miner or bus driver, because there are many more options available.”
Margaret herself started off studying to become a science teacher. After obtaining her Bachelor of Science in Education. she enrolled in for Honors with Physics as a major. At the same time, she was teaching high school physical science and mathematics full time.
She subsequently taught, as a lecturer at the then Lehurutshe College of Education, a training college for teachers, near Zeerust.
According to Margaret, none of this would have been possible if it were not for the sacrifices of her hero and role model, her elder brother, John Sipho Mkhosi.
“He had received a bursary to continue his studies after matric but declined so that he could work and support us to complete high school and study further.”
In 1996, she took up a position at the University of Bophuthatswana as a junior lecturer and two years later she registered for a Masters degree in Physics. Having successfully completed her Masters course, Margaret went to the United States to study a PhD in nuclear engineering at OSU.
“She was a young but self-assured woman with some educational experience and two children, when I first met her during the interviewing process to find a suitable candidate for the doctoral programme at OSU,” said Richard Denning, an Adjunct Professor of the Nuclear Engineering Department of OSU at that time.
Richard did not think that she would leave her family to study in the US though but nevertheless offered her the position and was over the moon when she accepted. “Of all the students with whom I have been associated, Margaret is the most driven and the most willing to make personal sacrifices to achieve her goals.”
Margaret left her children in the care of her mother initially who later joined her in the US together with her husband. “How she supported them, I have no idea. Her husband did not have a visa that allowed him to work,” Richard remarked.
Margaret said that it had been very difficult to leave her five-month old daughter, her son and husband behind.
Margaret remembers the negativity and wild beliefs that she was subjected to prior to boarding the plane.
“When people heard I was going to the US to study nuclear engineering they told me I was going to end up with three eyes and would give birth to deformed children.”
“Now I know that those things are far from the truth but tales that play on your mind if you are not properly educated regarding a subject.”
A tale she will always be thankful for though, is that seemingly tall tale about a spinning universe her brother told her so many decades ago and that shaped her future.