Growing up in the Umzumbe area of the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, chemistry lecturer Bongiwe Mshengu’s interest in science was piqued at a young age. But it was only in the final year of her BSc Degree that she made the connection between science and the study of the medicinal properties of plants. Today, Mshengu introduces students from disadvantaged backgrounds to the science of everyday things.

The chemical solvents and pipettes of a laboratory appear at face value to be worlds apart from a painful boil on a little girl’s foot … treated with herbal medicine. But that is exactly how Bongiwe Mshengu’s journey to a career in science as a chemistry lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal began.

“I was taken to a traditional healer who used herbs and from that day I wondered how plants can cure different diseases. So then fast forward to high school, I chose science subjects because I was a top achiever and teachers recommended that I can do science and I wanted to be a doctor, so I thought science was one way I could be a doctor.”

While Mshengu’s matric marks were not good enough to secure her a place to study medicine, she discovered that a chemistry major could open the door for her to study the medicinal properties of plants and that became the topic of her postgraduate studies, all the way to her Ph.D. But she says this was not without its struggle.

“ I was not exposed to the laboratory, and I didn’t know the apparatus. I didn’t know what to do in the laboratory. So then this was a challenge for me because in the laboratory you are expected to take out the apparatus and use them for the practicals and I didn’t know how to do this. So what I used to do I would watch my neighbour who had started in the Science Access Programme and they knew what apparatus to use, so I would look at them and use whatever apparatus they were using.”

Today, Mshengu lectures in the Science Access Programme for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who did perform well enough at school to smoothly transition to tertiary studies. Her message to them is that science is not something to be afraid of.

“Normally they have the attitude that science is hard because it was hard at school. So now the teaching approach that I use is to use our everyday examples in my teaching. And if you do this they actually see that science is everywhere and they relate better to what you are teaching. So I feel this helps because science is not a foreign language. It is our language; you just need to incorporate it into our everyday lives.”

She says it is rewarding to know that her work is contributing to the development of medicines.

“In South Africa as a developing country most people actually can’t afford to buy medicines and Western medicines are normally very expensive. So traditional medicine as an alternative for those people is actually better because it is much cheaper and it is accessible in their communities. And we know that it works because literature supports this. It supports that a lot of drugs are actually derived from medicinal plants.”

Mshengu is one of the academics who are part of the university’s Wonder Women in Science Programme that showcases the passion, innovation, and sets an example for other women. Mshengu says women are naturally strong, inquisitive, and have perseverance, all qualities of a good scientist.