Highlighting Anne Chisa, a phenomenal PhD Candidate, Founder and Host of The Root of the Science Podcasts and a Project Kuongoza Mentor.
Meet Anne Chisa
Anne Chisa is a Malawian and a PhD student in Agricultural Science, specifically Crop Science, at the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa. Her PhD research project involves using human waste – food and organic waste, urine and feces – to create fertilizers that can be used to grow indigenous trees in order to restore degraded environments and improve the livelihoods of local communities. The beauty of Anne’s project is that it is trans-disciplinary, with a biophysical (natural science) approach as well as a societal approach (social science).
She is the Host and Founder of the podcast “The Root of the Science,” which she launched in March 2020. The podcast’s goal is to interview Africans in STEM around the world in order to help amplify their voices and provide a platform for them to discuss their research or projects. It also aims to show the younger generation the diversity of STEM fields. The most interesting part for Anne Chisa is when her guests get to communicate their science in a way that a layperson can understand. We can attest that this has been an an incredible journey and milestone with Anne Chisa interviewing over 70 people so far.
Please tell us why you got into STEM? Did you encounter any challenge?
It was in high school when I started enjoying subjects in STEM; mainly Biology and Geography. I didn’t think I would be a scientist initially, I wanted to be a lawyer. This goes to visibility; I used to watch these shows where lawyers seemed very articulate, intelligent, confident, bold! I just wanted to be like them. And I was really good at writing and speaking, so I thought being a lawyer was my thing. When I was in grade 11, we were required to shadow a person; it was like a shadow job study. I naturally enjoy doing things that not everyone is doing so I chose to shadow an audiologist. I didn’t know anything like that existed. I spoke to her and she was very positive about training me. My mother got her contact details and I started my audiology journey. It was something very interesting to me but I failed to pursue it academically because of financial constraints.
A family friend of ours talked to be about a different career path; he knew I enjoyed biology and geography. So his suggestion was me trying agriculture since it has a combination of those two subjects. My first year at university was tricky because I couldn’t find myself.. But my second year became better because that’s when we dived deep into real agriculture; things like soil science and agricultural production. I did a 4-year degree and went for a masters degree in the same area – agricultural crop science. My masters degree was very difficult for me. It wasn’t because of the content but the emotional battle was tough. I believe it’s because during my undergraduate we had a chance to work on projects in group, so we could talk about the stress and anxiety in common. And then, here I was, fighting with my project alone – something I wasn’t mentally ready for. It took me some time to fully understand what my project was about.
“When I become great, it will not be accidental. I would have laboured”.— Anne Chisa
Landing this PhD opportunity was not something I planned, however I am grateful to be here. I believe that my PhD journey is getting better because of the podcast. Many of my guests have become close friends and have taught me the importance of speaking about your mental health, especially on this PhD journey. They have become a very good support system to me. Most importantly my family and partner are great support- equally in their own ways they have been instrumental in the women I am now.
What is the one thing you would like to change or address in STEM for young women and girls in Africa?
I think the one thing I’d like to address for young women in STEM is that they don’t have to conform to stereotypes or molds of what a scientist looks like or does. They have the ability to break the mold. Do other things that will brighten their lives while also excelling in STEM. The field should not limit your ability to pursue other personal interests. It’s okay, because there are women are doing it all, and you can, too!
How do you think more young women can get involved in leadership positions?
I think we need to not be afraid, to enter the leadership positions. Imposter syndrome is a real thing that makes us doubt ourselves. Also another tool that can help is mentorship or people you can model after. It very hard to aspire to be something if you do not have visible role models.
How do you manage your role as a PhD Student alongside your personal life? (Please feel free to share tips or how you navigate through managing work, life and academics)?
I have a dream! I have a dream to show my younger sister that she can do anything she sets her mind to. And just because you’re a doctor doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else! I want her to understand that she can do whatever she wants. The human brain was designed to be adaptable. And this isn’t just for my younger sister; it’s for all young girls out there. My goal is to inspire as many of them as possible.
Another source of motivation for me is what the future holds for me. Every step I take feels like a stepping stone to a better future. I actually keep a small notebook for reminders and reasons why I am doing a PhD and my other goals .That’s something I have to remind myself of all the time. There are days when I don’t want to do anything, but I find myself reading through that book and I’m back on my feet in no time.
I’d also like to thank my incredible support system: my family, who has always had my back, my partner, who believes in me so much and my friends who are constant inspiration these people inspire me to work harder every day.
Please tell us about the challenges you have faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them?
So far, my current challenge has been navigating and settling into my PhD. People assume you are extremely smart and intelligent when they see you doing it. To some extent, this is correct, but I am learning that this journey is more about perseverance than anything else. Research isn’t like a regular class where you have to read what someone has taught you, write it down, and pass. This is you delving into things that are new to you, trying to understand them, writing your own way of understanding them, only to have someone tell you it’s all wrong. I’ve learned that I must become comfortable with failing and not knowing much because that is the only way I will be able to learn what I don’t know – which is A LOT! The process has not been easy; I now have to write something and justify why I am writing it in that manner. I didn’t realize I needed to at first because I assumed that if my supervisors disagreed with me, it meant they were correct and I was incorrect. That is not the case, and I am learning, in this PhD program. I need to gain confidence in myself and explain why I believe my point is valid. As a black woman, I believe many of us have been taught to sit in a corner and remain silent when people (older/higher authority) are speaking. This diminishes our greatness, despite the fact that we are brilliant, smart, and capable. But now I know I have to speak up, especially about things I truly know. That confidence is still growing, and the imposter syndrome occasionally creeps in. To me, it has been and continues to be a process of refinement.
I have a dream! I have a dream to show my younger sister that she can do anything she sets her mind to. And just because you’re a doctor doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else!Anne Chisa
What comes to your mind when you hear “Women Breaking Ceilings”?
I believe this is a woman who pursues her dreams. Yes, it scares her, but she still does it. She enters situations that may be uncomfortable for her and thrives in them.
What is your advice to young girls or budding women in Science, Technology, Engineering or Innovation? And can you share practical advice/steps and tips that young women and girls can use as they accelerate in their career or academics?
We all have that one thing we know we have to do. There is always something deep within us as humans that we know we must do, and if we die without doing it, no one else will. That passion must be realized! It requires a leap of faith, but you must believe in yourself and go for it. That’s what I did for my podcast, for example. I had no equipment and had no idea what I was doing, but I just went for it. It might not be fully formed, but you won’t know until you start. I believe you should start where you are. Even if people don’t support you right now, they will when things improve – that’s what people do. Go for it, and God will bless your efforts.
Please share your social media handles you’d like people to reach you on?
Twitter and LinkedIn: @Annelinda_c and @rootofscipod
Facebook: Anne Linda Chisa; The Root of The Science Podcast
LinkedIn: Anne Chisa