Professor Ngece-Ajayi – Chemist

Thanks to the amazing grant of £1000 given to us by the Royal Astronomical Society, we’ve been able to hire writers for our blog posts on scientists of colour. This incredible article was written by the wonderful Erin Dreyden! You can find Erin on twitter @eadreyden.

Who is Professor Ngece-Ajayi?

Professor Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi (born 17 February 1983 in Cape Town, South Africa) is a senior lecturer in Physical Chemistry at the University of the Western Cape. She is also a research leader in the field of drug metabolism nanobiosensors for antiretrovirals and tuberculosis (TB) treatment drugs. When Professor Ngece-Ajayi isn’t inspiring university students in the classroom, she’s inspiring the next generation of scientists with AmaQawe ngeMfundo, the non-profit organisation she founded to help children in the townships of South Africa. [1]

Education

BSc (Hons) in Chemical Sciences

MSc in Chemistry

PhD in Chemistry

Early Life

Professor Ngece-Ajayi is the eldest of four siblings. She was raised by her mother in Khayelitsha, the fastest-growing township in Cape Town. A township is an under-resourced urban area that was reserved for Coloured, Indian and Black people under the apartheid government. [2][3]

Her mother made ends meet as a domestic worker, raising four children on her own. Professor Ngece-Ajayi then took it upon herself to start braiding hair and working with her mother to support herself through school and undergraduate studies. When asked what kept her going through this tough time, she said she knew she had to get her mother and siblings out of poverty, and the only way was through education.

Professor Ngece-Ajayi initially chose to study medical biosciences, but realised chemistry was a better fit for her as she’d always excelled at it. She now always encourages people to study what they like and what they can do well.

Research

Professor Ngece-Ajayi’s research is in the field of drug metabolism nanobiosensors for antiretrovirals, TB treatment drugs and antidepressants. It’s based on making a sensor to detect the quantity of drugs in the body. The research is important because it can change the way that drugs are prescribed. [1]

Professor Ngece-Ajayi explained that your metabolism affects the quantity of drugs you should be prescribed, but no one is ever asked if they have a slow or fast metabolism before they’re prescribed new medication. Those who have a fast metabolism expel the drugs quickly and thus need a higher dosage, while those with a slower metabolism retain the drugs in their system for longer and will need a lower dosage. One danger of over-prescribing drugs is the accumulation of these drugs in the liver. An accumulation of drugs in the body often has secondary effects which can be harmful to your health.

The National Research Foundation recognised her remarkable achievements so early in her career by awarding her the Emerging Researcher Award in 2019. Professor Michael Davies-Coleman, the Dean of the Natural Sciences faculty at the University of the Western Cape, said “The best emerging researchers are characterised by their energy, enthusiasm and commitment to excellence.” He went on to say that Professor Ngece-Ajayi has all of these qualities and more. [4]

She has also been recognised as the one of the 50 Inspiring Women in Technology for 2018 by Inspiring Fifty and has most recently been selected for the Next Einstein Forum’s 2019-2021 Fellows cohort, a platform for Africa’s best young scientists to help solve Africa’s most demanding problems.[4][5]

Outreach Work

AmaQawe ngeMfundo is a non-profit organisation that was founded by Professor Ngece-Ajayi in 2017. The vision of the organisation is that children from marginalised communities in South Africa have sufficient access to STEM resources, learning support materials and interventions to excel in the STEM fields. [1][6]

According to Professor Ngece-Ajayi, most schools in the townships of South Africa are under-resourced – many high school students have never even seen a science laboratory. Consequently, it is common for these students to be overwhelmed when they enter a laboratory for the first time at university. Drop-out rates are therefore quite high. This is assuming they attend university in the first place, as many will not secure funding.

Professor Ngece-Ajayi identified this problem and decided to use AmaQawe ngeMfundo to firstly, encourage students from disadvantaged communities to pursue careers in science, and secondly, provide them with the tools to be on an equal playing field with the more privileged students in the country. The professor and her team of academics do this by taking the laboratory to the students. They conduct experiments with the students such as investigating the heating and cooling curve of water. The team teaches students how to apply for funding for tertiary education.

They also take the children on field trips to various places such as the Cape Town Science Centre, so they can see the fun side of science. One student, inspired by this trip, now wants to become a forensic biologist. [1][6]

A Teacher

Often scientists are only recognised for their research, but it is important that they share their work with the next generation of problem-solvers as well. Somebody who takes this part of the job especially seriously is Professor Ngece-Ajayi. Ngece-Ajayi lectures Physical Chemistry to third year and honours students at the University of the Western Cape.

Professor Ngece-Ajayi is “everyone’s favourite lecturer” according to some students who have taken her class. She has the ability to break down complicated concepts in a way that everyone can understand. She connects with the students unlike any other lecturer. One student said that Professor Ngece-Ajayi has a way of walking into class and diffusing all the tension the students have. The student went on to say that Professor Ngece-Ajayi “has a way of solving problems that other people don’t typically have.”

Professor Ngece-Ajayi puts her all into helping the students because she recalls how lecturers helped her when she struggled during her own student years, for example, lecturers would pay for her train or bus tickets so she could attend campus. She considers being from a township and becoming a professor to be a blessing. [7]

When asked what advice she’d give to aspiring scientists in Africa, she said you firstly need to dream. She went on to say that you must never give up, work hard, ask questions and always believe that you are worthy no matter your circumstances.

Author’s Note

There was a time during my third year of study when I was lost. I’d fallen out of love with science and I thought there were no career opportunities. Professor Ngece-Ajayi sat down with me for an hour and gave me real advice. She inspired me to keep going. Without her, I might have dropped out before I finished my science degree.

I decided to write about Professor Ngece-Ajayi, who is in the relatively early stages of her career, rather than an older scientist because it’s important for young people to see the scientist before the huge discovery. Professor Ngece-Ajayi has accomplished a ton, but she will definitely achieve even more soon. Science isn’t just about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; it’s also about the little fluffy clouds that you get to admire on your way there.

How You Can Help

Contact AmaQawe ngeMfundo to get involved:

Facebook: https://web.facebook.com/Qhawez/about/?_rdc=1&_rdr

Instagram: @amaqawe.ngemfundo

Cell phone contact number: +2779 3586 225

If you’d like to contact Professor Ngece-Ajayi, she is on Twitter @FanelwaA and Facebook here: https://web.facebook.com/profile.php?id=813036169

References

[1] 🗒️ I am UWC: Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi Academic Changes Community Through Science: https://www.uwc.ac.za/news-and-announcements/news/i-am-uwc-fanelwa-ngece-ajayi-science-changes-communities-797

[2] 🗒️ Khayelitsha – Go2Africa: http://www.go2africa.com/south-africa/cape-town/khayelitsha

[3] 🗒️ Pettman, Charles (1913): Africanderisms; a glossary of South African colloquial words and phrases and of place and other names.

[4] 🗒️ Fanelwa Ajayi Honoured: https://www.uwc.ac.za/news-and-announcements/news/uwcs-fanelwa-ajayi-honoured-for-emerging-research-excellence-at-national-research-foundation-awards-2019-236

[5] 🗒️ Next Einstein Fellow: https://www.uwc.ac.za/news-and-announcements/news/science-to-change-lives-uwcs-fanelwa-ngece-ajayi-selected-as-next-einstein-fellow-288

[6] 🗒️ AmaQawe ngeMfundo: https://www.linkedin.com/company/amaqawe-ngemfundo

[7] 📹 Courageous Conversations Documentary: https://www.uwc.ac.za/news-and-announcements/announcements/courageous-conversations-documentary-4973

Links to Notable Research

[1] 🗒️ Electronics of Conjugated Polymers (I): Polyaniline: http://ir.mksu.ac.ke/handle/123456780/1519

[2] 🗒️ Impedimetric sensor for tyramine based on gold nanoparticle doped-poly(8-anilino-1-naphthalene sulphonic acid) modified gold electrodes: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0039914018312074

[3] 🗒️ An aptasensor for arsenic on a carbon‑gold bi-nanoparticle platform: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214180419300315

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