Episode 64: An Interview with Gates-Cambridge Scholar and Chemist, Sandile Metetwa

Listen to our first in our series of episodes in collaboration with the Royal Society of Chemists. In this week’s episode, Dr Bahijja Raimi-Abraham interviews Sandile Mtetwa, a Gates-Cambridge Scholar and PhD student who works within the field of renewable technologies and sustainable development.

Image of Sandile Mtetwa courtesy of the University of Cambridge.

Dr Bahijja: Could you tell us a little about yourself, to start?

Sandile: Sure, my name is Sandile and I am a PhD student in the Cambridge Department of Chemistry. I am from Zimbabwe, and I focus on chemistry, renewable energy and I am the co-founder of the Africans in STEM initiative. The initiative is for Black students all around the UK and the globe. I am also the founder of a Women’s Empowerment organisation in Zimbabwe.

Dr Bahijja: What is your favourite song at the moment?

Sandile: My favourite song at the moment has got to be In Your Eyes by Peter Gabriel. It has so much meaning and talks about how looking into somebody’s eyes can make everything feel so much better — you feel content, happy and in love. It reminds me of my daughter, my relationship with God, and my mother.

Dr Bahijja: Can you recommend a film and/or a book to the audience?

Sandile: I recently saw Tenent and was discussing it with some friends, as it was very complex and interesting, but also confusing. There is a lot of science, technology, time travel and such, which was interesting. However, a movie I would really recommend is Shutter Island — it is about mental health issues, psychology. It’s very underrated, and I think its worth a watch.

Dr Bahijja: What is chemistry to you?

Sandile: Chemistry to me is bringing some out of nothing, always to solve a cause or to bring about a solution to something. It’s really creativity with the intent of creating a solution for something.

Dr Bahijja: What kind of research are you working on within the field of chemistry and what problem are you aiming to solve with it?

Sandile: Within my research, I am looking at charge carrying materials called “metal organic frameworks”, they are very versatile and have many uses. I am looking at them as being used as catalysts for photo-driven water splitting, as we know water is made of hydrogen and oxygen, so we are looking for a catalyst that can break down those water molecules. That hydrogen can then be used as an energy carrier.

What is a catalyst? Catalysts are substances that can increase the rate (effectively the speed) of a chemical reaction, making it much quicker. Oftentimes they are used to speed up reactions that would otherwise be quite slow.

Most of the reactions that occur within the human body use enzymes at catalysts, as the reactions could otherwise take years to occur on their own.

Sandile: When we are looking at solar panels, we know that when the sun shines and it is converted, it is hard to store. Hydrogen is a great solution for this, as it can easily store the energy. With photo-induction, looking at the sun, it is a source of energy that can aid the metal-framework in its production of the hydrogen. It’s quite a clean energy — with no toxic side-products. It can be used as a fuel for transport and its quite futuristic. There is quite a lot of research going into learning about its usage as a fuel or as electricity. I primarily am focusing on its usage as a fuel, within my research.

What is photo-induction? Induction is a process of energy transfer, and in the case of photo-induction, it involves the transfer of energy from sunlight.

Image of Harare, Zimbabwe by Tatenda Mapigoti.

Dr Bahijja: How and why did you get interested in clean energy, more specifically its use in Africa?

Sandile: When I was doing my third year of may undergraduate, I was completing an internship at a research institution. At the time, there were a lot of power cuts in Zimbabwe and a lot of our work was affected by them — such as the machinery, computers, etc. It also makes it difficult to restart the machinery once the electricity is back up. I became really interested in electricity at this point, just due to the [issues we were experiencing in Zimbabwe at the time]. Fuel is also an issue within Zimbabwe — for example, many people cook with firewood, which can be a health and safety hazard. Those things especially got me interested in clean energy, [especially in the context of Zimbabwe].

A lot of people in Zimbabwe use a lot of solar power now — very heavy duty panels for machinery and such. I think in many ways these challenges have been beneficial as they have pushed the country towards renewable energy technology. Given the challenges we faced, we really had to try and make the situation work, [and it led us toward renewable energy technology as a solution].

Dr Bahijja: I read an article where you discussed your career journey and challenges faced along the way, noting that you started a women’s empowerment organisation as well as co-leading the Africans in STEM initiative. I have many questions about your career journey, relating to that.

Firstly, could you please talk about the impact of being a young mother and pursuing your education goals?

Sandile: I am not going to lie, it is something that is often challenging. I was out of the country during the month of December, to visit my family and daughter, and coming back to the UK is always bittersweet. There is always work to be done, and it is a lot bigger than myself — you know, my daughter is looking up to me as a role model. It is difficult definitely to be in a motherly role while in a different country, but it has pushed me to become the best version of myself. It is something I have to take in stride and it takes a lot of perseverance and hard work — but I am incredibly happy where I am.

Dr Bahijja: Secondly, please tell us more about the women’s empowerment organisation, the Simuka-Arise Initiative?

Sandile: We are a group of young people, mainly female, wanting to tackle issues surrounding women’s empowerment. There are several aspects we are looking at — the social aspect of empowerment, academic empowerment and also economic empowerment. I really started it out of my passion to help young women to become independant and to make beneficial choices that benefit them, such as having strong and beneficial relationships with others. For example, helping single mothers within Zimbabwe.

We are currently in our sixth year of operation and we now have a podcast where we discuss issues of women’s empowerment. We also try and engage men within our organisation and conversations, to show that we can exist mutually together in the world — to show that the genders are equal. People can find us on Facebook, and other social media pages as “Simuka Initiative”, with Simuka meaning “Arise”.

Dr Bahijja: Thirdly — how did you find being an international student, studying your PhD in the UK and was this the motivation behind the Africans in STEM initiative?

Sandile: Being an international student, you know, I think I was really lucky to not feel so isolated, as I was very involved in the African Society at Cambridge University. I had heard many stories that it can be very isolating, with no family or people to reach out to, so I found a lot of solace being part of that community. Being very active in that role really helped me build a community and not feel isolated.

There is one story I always talk about, as it relates to Arican’s in STEM, which was started in 2019. I had gone to a conference and I was talking with others and trying to engage. At the time, I was already at Cambridge and I was meeting many students and staff from other really good universities/colleges, but nobody was really able to relate and connect with me due to my identity and due to being from Africa. It seems that being from a good school isn’t enough, simply due to the way you look and being from Africa, in many circumstances. It can be quite an isolating experience. That is what really prompted me to create a space for Black students and researchers in STEM to share their work, as it can be really daunting when you are the only Black or African person at most academic conferences. Sometimes it feels as if people see you as being less credible or reputable, [even if you are already well known within your academic field].

Dr. Bahijja: It’s definitely a fine line, wondering if you are having a given experience because of your identity — being a Black women or other facets of identity — or if it is academic toxicity, or a combination of the both. I have had experiences where I have had to dissect them and try to figure out if they were due to racism, sexism, ageism, academic toxicity or competitiveness, or all of them combined.

Sandile: [That definitely resonates with me] — I think it is part of the burden women, especially Black women, face in academia. You are always trying to figure out what the reason behind your treatment is — [it it just academic toxicity, or is it racism?]. It can be very tiring, and at the end of the day, you just don’t know. Really, that is what led me towards starting the Africans in STEM Initiative. We are very inclusive and it is a place for Black STEM professionals to hone their skills, build networks and really grow as researchers [..].

Image of Cambridge, UK, by Markus Leo.

Dr Bahijja: What have you been doing during the past year of the pandemic in terms of Africans in STEM and your research?

Sandile: Recently, for Africans in STEM, we set up an exhibition of notable African scientists and many people were really intrigued, such as the head of our department. It started up a discussion about what we were lacking in representation within the department. There are always these issues we are talking about in the department, around the topic of BME people, however BME is an aggregate of many different groups with very different experiences. It is important to discuss the individual experiences of marginalised people and to take steps to ensure better representation, beyond just having Black History Month. Even today, I had a meeting discussing these issues and initiatives and I am really hoping this initiative will last beyond my time as a student at Cambridge.

Dr. Bahijja: Especially this year, I saw a lot of posts online about the mental health impact of racism and microaggressions. 2020 has been filled with challenges, but the conversation regarding lived experiences of Black people and inqualieties has been very powerful.

Dr Bahijja: What does being a Chemist mean to you?

Sandile: First thing, I think chemistry is about being a problem solver. It also means someone allows for impact in whatever area of work they are doing. It’s about having impact really, through that problem solving. It also involves understanding of research skills and approaching challenges.

Dr Bahijja: What are your take home messages for the audience?

Sandile: To the researchers out there and the chemists, it would be really good to try and also involve yourself in issues related to community work and solving global issues. A lot of people in labs are so focused on high impact journal wiring and publishing, but we also need to take a step back and realise the potential for our actions and the impact we could make on peoples’ livelihoods.

To Black scientists, take it in stride. I know there are a lot of issues and discrimination right now, but don’t feel isolated. Make sure to find someone to talk to and participate in your community and Africans in STEM.

To the women, especially young women or single mothers who feel like there is no hope at the moment, I would say, be hopeful and persevere. Work hard and you will always make it. 9 or 10 years ago I never thought I would be here, but now I am. You need to faith to move on in life and you will make it.

If you have any questions you’d like to be answered by Dr Bahijja, feel free to send them in via the website chat, or email MondayScience2020@gmail.com. You can also send us your questions as a voice message via
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Monday Science | Weekly Podcast

Monday Science | Weekly Podcast

An engaging podcast bringing you the latest research in Science, Technology and Health.Hosted by award winning scientist Dr Bahijja Raimi-Abraham.