In 2010, Thifhelimbilu Daphney Bucher’s talk at a TED conference stirred internet giant, Google, to donate $1 million to the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), an organisation founded by renowned South African physicist, Neil Turok.
“I was telling the audience what I needed to go through and do to get educated and how AIMS was helping me gain my PhD in nuclear physics,” Thifhelimbilu explained. “That talk also gave me the opportunity to have dinner with Will Smith.”
Thifhelimbilu came from Ngwenani Ha Mapholi, a village so small that she had to walk to the next village, Vhufuli, every day to attend school. The six-kilometer walk, come rain or sunshine, was just one of the obstacles she faced in getting her matric at Tshivhase Secondary School.
The school had a serious lack of resources. There was neither a library to loan books from nor books at home. She did not have access to a computer, never mind the internet, so all studying was done through regular text books only.
“A lack of teaching materials meant that teachers could only show us a select few science experiments and there was never ever enough tools and materials for pupils to conduct their own experiments,” Thifhelimbilu explained. Her family also did not have enough money either for her to take a taxi to the University of Venda to read the books in their library.
“Looking back, we should have been afforded those opportunities, but back then it just seemed normal. I loved and was happy to go to school because I had it in my heart to get an education and give myself a chance at a better life.”
There were no role models in her community to inspire or encourage the youth to dream big dreams or to whet their appetites with stories of what was available to them out there in the cities of South Africa.
Thankfully, her mom had instilled in her and her siblings the importance of getting an education from an early age. Her two elder brothers and elder sister pioneered a way forward for her by taking their studies further at tertiary institutions.
“My brothers told me that if I wanted to get a decent job one day I would need to go to university,” she recalled, “but it was really my mother’s words of wisdom that drove the point about tertiary education home.”
“Education is the husband that will never leave you,” Thifhelimbilu’s mother said on several occasions.
Thifhelimbilu’s mother sold Mahafhe, an African beer, from home and her father worked at Eskom as a cleaner. With six mouths in the family to feed, money was often very tight. While in Grade 11, Thifhelimbilu’s uniform got burnt. Her parents did not have the money to buy her a new one so she had to go to school in civil clothes, which made her stick out like a sore thumb. When a friend asked her why she had come to school like that she burst into tears while explaining the story. “My friend was very kind to me and offered me her old uniform,” said Thifhelimbilu. For the next year she wore that uniform to school, even though it was old and a few sizes too big.
After Matric, her mom borrowed money to get her to Mafikeng Campus where she was hoping to attend the North-West University (NWU). According to Thifhelimbilu, she had decided to enroll there because her brothers had told her that the tuition at NWU Mafikeng Campus was cheaper than the University of Venda, even though the University of Venda was closer to home.
Thifhelimbilu enrolled for a BSc course with majors in mathematics and electronics. After registration she applied for a loan from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme which she received.
“Growing up I was fascinated by mathematics and electronics, I loved playing around with circuit boards and I would connect lights and fix things that were not working.”
When she found out that the NWU did not offer the course she wanted to do, computer science, it was an easier decision to choose a BSc degree with majors in mathematics and electronics. When she completed her BSc degree, she desired to further her studies but could not access financial support from home, and there was an expectation that she would find a job so she could help the family, financially. With it being too late to apply from the National Research Foundation scholarship, she did not have too many other options. Fortunately, her electronics lecturer Dr Katashaya new about AIMS and knowing how focused she was on her studies, told her about the full scholarship AIMS Cape Town was giving to South African graduates who wanted to study honours in mathematical science. She successfully applied for that scholarship.
It was there, on the white shores of Muizenberg, that Thifhelimbilu was to hear about something that would change the course of her life in a multitude of ways. Electricity load shedding was a frequent occurrence in South Africa at the time and Thifhelimbilu was curious to understand the complexities of electricity supply and demand. Her tutor introduced to her that studying nuclear physics could lead her to a job in Eskom Koeberg where the electricity was generated using nuclear energy. It was in this conversation that her interest in nuclear physics was piqued and she was in.
Later on she would hear about iThemba LABS, a research facility where ground-breaking research into this particular branch of physics was being conducted.
“I was hooked the first time I visited iThemba,” Thifhelimbilu recalled. The year after completing her postgraduate at AIMS, she found herself at iThemba LABSs where she did her MSc project, this time through the University of Cape Town (UCT).
Here Thifhelimbilu rubbed shoulders with Dr Elena Lawrie, who was to become her mentor later in life. “She was supervised by a colleague, who’s known as a tough supervisor,” Elena recalled. “Daphney (as Elena calls her) is not a tall girl, but her voice is loud. I often heard her arguing, wanting to know why something had to be done in a particular way or asking why something couldn’t be done in another way which she thought would end up being better. I thought at the time that my colleague, her supervisor, seemed to have found an excellent opponent.”
“A highlight of my life was being able to fly my mom down for my MSc graduation ceremony,” Thifhelimbilu remembered fondly, “it was the first time that she had ever been on a plane and for her to see me standing up there on the stage with only a few other people made her proud.”
Her mom had apparently thought that Thifhelimbilu’s student days were over and that she would, again, be going to get a job and help her financially, but Thifhelimbilu, who had bigger dreams, sprung another surprise on her. “I want to wear a red gown,” I told my mom. “She was very understanding for someone who did not really know what a red gown meant at the time. She said ‘If that is what you want my daughter, I wish you all the best.’”
Not long after that, Thifhelimbilu’s mom was back on a flight to Cape Town to see her daughter standing on stage again, this time with even fewer people and wearing a red gown to accept her PhD degree at Stellenbosch University.
Thifhelimbilu went back to iThemba LABS to do pursue her postdoctoral studies, a place where she has now become an integral part of a research team headed by Elena. “I have gotten to know Daphney well and have found that my first impressions of her were quite one-sided,” Elena stated. “She is always helping people around her, advising, assisting and encouraging not only our students but also anyone who needs help.”
Incidentally, it was at the iThemba LABS that Thifhelimbilu met her husband, who is also a physicist but who works in the material science department. No stranger to doing things out of the ordinary, Thifhelimbilu crossed cultural lines in getting married. “Love does not look at colour, I fell in love with a person, not a particular race,” she explained.
Her work has caught the attention of the international scientific community resulting in an invitation to the 65th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany in 2017, where she will be meeting more than a hundred Nobel Laureates in physics, physiology/medicine and chemistry. She is hoping another dream will be realised then – meeting Physics Nobel Laureate, Francois Englert, who, together with Peter Higgs, led further research on the Higgs Boson.
Although Thifhelimbilu has achieved so much success in her life thus far, she has never forgotten her roots and the struggles she faced in getting to where she is.
In 2012, Thifhelimbilu was invited to visit a center established to help feed less fortunate learners. Some of these learners did not have proper uniforms and so she was stirred to lend a helping hand. “I know what it feels like going to school with a poor uniform or no uniform at all and how this affects one’s self-esteem. I do not want others to feel this, so I bought some uniforms for some of the learners,” Thifhelimbilu explained.