Overcoming stereotypes, blazing a trail for others

Ramatsemela Masango

“Listen to people talk and read, you will be amazed at what you learn. Then put into practice what you learnt.”

Bursaries, scholarships, grants and prizes

Bursary from Mpudulole Bursary Fund for the National Diploma in Chemical Engineering

Eskom bursary for the BTech Degree in Chemical Engineering

Fulbright Scholarship to study towards a Masters degree in Nuclear Engineering

Pennsylvania State University Tuition Scholarship to study toward the PhD in Nuclear Engineering

“I was the first woman to operate Koeberg’s water production plant, and that was just a short time ago in the 90s,” said Dr Ramatsemela Masango, Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of Mzansi Energy Solutions and Innovations.

“It came as quite a surprise to end up working in the nuclear industry and initially I was very scared and uncomfortable at the thought of being at a nuclear power plant,” Said Ramatsemela. She was first appointed as a trainee during her obligatory one year in-service training that was required as part of her National Diploma in Chemical Engineering, after she had applied to all the chemical companies she could think of but none of them called her for an interview. Things were looking bleak but her then Head of Department informed her of an interview at Koeberg. “There were no cell phones or emails during those days,” she recalled. The invitation from Koeberg came through the office of the Head of the Department of Chemical Engineering. “I was initially confused as to why they would be calling me because I could neither remember applying there for a job, nor did I think of them as an industry needing chemical engineers. Later on, I realised that I had applied to Eskom and, of course, Koeberg is owned and operated by Eskom. ”

Her permanent appointment at Koeberg followed the completion of a BTech Degree in Chemical Engineering, which she passed cum laude.

Her initial fears were quickly quelled, partly because of the rigorous induction training, which included courses in safety, quality, plant systems, etc., and partly because of the support she received from her superiors and colleagues in the laboratory of the chemistry department.

“I was offered a permanent position as a technician in charge of operating the water production plant after the first year, and I have been in the industry ever since.”

Her job then entailed producing high-quality demineralised water, checking water levels, starting up the plant when the water level dropped, dosing tanks, ensuring that high-quality demineralised water was available for the nuclear reactor and liaising with other departments as needed.

In 1999, Ramatsemela left Koeberg to join the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR). During this time she embarked on a journey to obtain her PhD. First she obtained a Fulbright Scholarship to do her Masters degree in Nuclear Engineering. On acceptance she left with the blessing of the NNR for Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in USA. Two years later she returned to the NNR with a Masters Degree and as a PhD candidate.

“I wanted to get my PhD but knew that it would be difficult to find someone or an organisation to fully pay for my expenses; so I had to come up with a plan to make it a reality.”

Ramatsemela approached Penn State and asked them to pay her tuition fees. They agreed and she received a tuition scholarship. She then approached the NNR (as her employer then) to pay for her travel costs, which involved three or four trips to the US per year. They also agreed and Ramatsemela was able to pursue her PhD studies on a part time basis.

In 2005, before she had concluded her thesis on the Pebble-bed Modular Reactor (PBMR), the government-funded PBMR project offered her a position to join the project.

“I accepted their offer with the proviso that I would still be allowed to have professional contact with Penn State who were still supporting me in obtaining a PhD.”

A big difference between the reactors at the Koeberg Plant and a PBMR is that a PBMR is cooled by gas whilst the ones at Koeberg are water-cooled.

The fuel assemblies used at Koeberg are different to PBMR’s fuel. For Koeberg’s reactors, the fuel assemblies used are identical in shape, size and the distance between the assemblies is constant; this makes reactor core neutronics modeling (tracking the neutron population) somewhat easier compared to the PBMR configuration. A PBMR’s fuel is in the shape of pebbles (almost the size of a tennis ball). The fuel pebbles are constantly moving through the core, removed at the bottom of the core and recycled back into the core, depending on a number of characteristics. Given the design of the reactor, the size and shape of the fuel pebbles, and the residence time of the fuel in the core, each fuel pebble is at a different burnup to the one next to it. This presents interesting dynamics in the neutronics of this reactor, which meant that Ramatsemela could not model the reactor core of the PBMR the same way as the Koeberg type. For her PhD research project, she developed a unique computational methodology to address this challenge for PBMR’s.

Ramatsemela then moved to the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA) before joining the Mzanzi Energy Solutions and Innovations as a partner and Chief Technological Officer.

Ramatsemela remembers being astounded by some young people that would draft a report five minutes before having to deliver it, or arriving late for meetings or think that someone else would get them from point A to B.

“It struck me that they were missing mentors in their professional lives,” she said, adding that she now takes every opportunity to encourage young people to develop their goals and reach for their dreams.

Their key message to young women and young people in general is: Have a dream and set goals for yourself. Take control of your career and dream big, but don’t do it alone, get a mentor who has it in their heart to support you to be the best person you can be. You need to have a good support around you because in every journey, challenges are imminent.

“My first mentor was Mr Peter Brown who appointed me all those years back at Koeberg. Since then I have had many mentors, I guess some didn’t even know it; I just looked at an individual and identified attributes from that person which I needed to learn to make me a better engineer, manager, leader or simply a better and wiser person; and then learned it. It doesn’t have to be a formal mentor-mentee relationship.”

“Listen to people talk and read; you will be amazed at what you learn. Then put into practice what you have learnt,” she added.

A big achievement for Ramatsemela is knowing that she survived the challenges of the industry and managed to grow as a person while developing her technical, managerial and leadership skills at a time when there were no other woman nuclear engineers for her to look up to and be mentored by.

Ramatsemela is currently a Non-executive Director of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). She is also an Non-executive Director and Chairman of ArioGenix (Pty) Ltd.

She puts her success down to hard work and making sure that she enjoyed every assignment she was given, even the ones that looked undesirable at first. It is in hindsight that she has come to know that every assignment she undertook was in preparation for the next, bigger and more exciting one.