Life is a refining process – Anne Chisa

Anne and I attended the University of KwaZulu Natal, but I got to know her through a mutual friend called Atlang Mompe. Here is our interview about Anne’s STEM experience:

Hi Anne, thank you for joining us today
You are welcome, Winnie! It’s a pleasure to be here. Wait, did you go to UKZN? Maybe we have met before at the international office. I know your previous interviewee, Justine, and Edna Manda.

Oh really! Those two are my good friends. I must have left UKZN before you joined but I am glad we have gotten a chance to meet now, haha…

Who is Anne?
My name is Anne Chisa from Malawi. I am currently a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, specialising in agricultural science, specifically, crop science. In simple terms my project is about using human excreta – urine and poo – to develop fertilizers that can be used to grow indigenous trees to restore degraded environments and also improve livelihoods of local communities in the areas of eThekwini municipality, KwaZulu Natal. The beauty about this project is that its transdisciplinary with a biophysical approach (natural science element) also a societal approach (social science element). This is something I have never done before so it gets me excited for the new challenge.

I am the host and founder of a Podcast called “The Root of the Science”, which I started in March 2020. The purpose of the Podcast is to interview Africans in STEM, globally, to help amplify their voices and give them a platform to talk about their research or projects. It also aims to showcase the diversity of the STEM fields to the younger generation and show them where they could be. These are sessions where I speak to Africans in STEM all over the world! I want that young person in Malawi to stop thinking that their abilities are limited to the borders of Malawi. They can do so much more and end up in different places. To me, the most interesting part is when my guests get to communicate their science in a manner that can be understood by a layman. I mean, during this pandemic, we have realised how important science is. So, finding people who can break down that complexity into words that can be understood by everyone is very important. It’s been an amazing journey, I have interviewed over 70 people in such a short time!

How did you end up where you are?
I was born in Malawi but moved to South Africa with my parents when I was around 6 years old. I have done all my schooling here. It was in high school that I started enjoying subjects in STEM; mainly Biology and Geography. I didn’t think I would be a scientist initially, haha, I wanted to be a lawyer! Again, this goes to visibility; I used to watch these shows where lawyers seemed very articulate, intelligent, confident, and 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.

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! I looked in a direction that had a dermatologist, and close to her was an audiologist. That was my first time to hear that! I didn’t know anything like that existed, haha. 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 exciting to me but I failed to pursue it academically because of financial constraints.

A family friend of ours talked to me about a different career path; he knew I enjoyed biology and geography. So his suggestion was for me to try agriculture since it has a combination of those two subjects. And this is a field where you can find a job anywhere. Looking back now, I realise this was a good suggestion. My mother has always been a gardener – she just loves planting things. Something I used to hate it, haha, I think because I was young! Every time she asked for my help, I just came through because she is my mother but,…. I really hated it! That’s where I got the exposure from.

My first year at university was tricky because I couldn’t find myself. We were doing all these basic and general courses. I didn’t quite understand why we had to go through all that. But my second year became better because 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 field – 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 groups, so we could talk about 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. From here I learned the importance of picking supervisors, haha…. I am very grateful that after finishing that degree I changed supervisors and kept one who was very beneficial to me. Prof. Alfred Odindo has always been great in my academic journey. I call him my academic dad because he has been that to me every step of the way. He is phenomenal, I will forever not stop praising that man!

Landing this Ph.D. opportunity was not something I planned, hahaha…. I needed a visa to stay in South Africa with my family and there was a PhD offer around. It was during the pandemic and no one was hiring at that time. I spoke with my supervisor and he knew of a scholarship. We applied within the craziest two weeks of my life! We had to develop a lot of documents within that short time. We finally applied and waited for 3 weeks before hearing back. He called me someday with the amazing news that led to my current position. I am 6 months into my PhD now. 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 for me. I am mostly appreciative of my parents who are of great support – my mom and dad equally in their ways have been instrumental in making me the woman I am to them. My little sister Tapiwa, wow she is my biggest push! She’s 11 and looks up to me so much! She’s always proud to say I am her big sister haha. I always try to be the best version for her to show her that anything is possible. As you can hear, I come as one woman but with an army behind me haha!

What have been some of your challenges along this STEM journey?
My current challenge so far has been doing my PhD! When people see you doing it, they assume you are incredibly smart and intelligent. This is true to some extent but I am learning that this journey is more about perseverance than anything else! Research is not like a normal class where you have to read what someone has taught you, write it on paper, and pass! This is you digging into things that are sometimes new to you, trying to understand them, writing your way of understanding, only for someone to tell you it’s all wrong, hahaha….. I have learned that I need to get comfortable with failing and not knowing a lot because that’s the only way I will be able to learn what I don’t know – which is A LOT! The process hasn’t been easy, I now know that I have to write something and defend why I am writing it that way. Initially, I didn’t know I needed to, I thought if my supervisors disagreed with me it meant they were right and I was wrong. I am learning that that is not the case in a PhD. I need to build that confidence in myself and say why I think my point is valid. The supervisor is meant to help advise my thoughts and ideas, again, I am grateful to Prof Odindo, my supervisor, who values my opinions and ideas. As a black woman, I think many of us have been taught that when people (older/ higher authority) are speaking, you sit in a corner and keep quiet. This then diminishes our greatness when in fact we are brilliant, smart and capable. However now, I know that I need to speak up, especially about things I truly know. That confidence is still building, sometimes imposter syndrome creeps in. To me, it has been and still is a refining process.

What keeps you going?
I have a dream! I have a dream to show my young sister that she can do anything she wants to do. And, just because you are a doctor, it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else! I want her to know that she can do as many things as she wants. The human brain was created to be flexible. And this is not only for my young sister, it’s for all young girls out there. My dream is to inspire as many of them as I can.

My other motivation is what the future has for me, hahaa… I feel like every step I am at is just a stepping stone for a greater future. I actually keep a small notebook for my reminders and reasons why I am doing a PhD. I need that reminder constantly. There are days I don’t want to do anything at all haha….. but I somehow find myself reading through that book and I immediately find myself on my feet again.

I also want to thank my amazing support system; my family who has always had my back, my partner who believes in me so much, and my friends,… these people help me push harder each day.

What are some of your prestigious achievements?
Last year was a pandemic year but it was very nice for me! I was recognized as one of the top 40 UKZN students inspiring greatness. I was also a finalist for an organization called Falling Walls Foundation.. My Podcast work was selected as a finalist in the science engagement category. This was great because I was 1 of 2 South Africans with 30 other people from across the world. I was also selected among the top 50 inspiring women in STEM in South Africa. These are some of my very prestigious moments. It’s been so humbling that my work has been rewarded in that manner. It makes me believe that I am living in my purpose. The hardships become worth it when you are recognized.

Who is Anne outside work?
I love to cook! I can cook for 12 hours straight, haha….. I hate dishes, haha…..but I love to cook. I usually tell my partner that if I ever become a housewife, I will start a mini catering thing on the side. Cooking gives me that inner peace – I actually do it so much when I am stressed. Food is my love language, I love the way it brings people together. If I am not doing Netflix, Podcasts, work,…..I am definitely cooking.

What’s your favourite quote?
When I become excellent, it won’t be by accident, I would have laboured ~ Anne Chisa

People only see the final result forgetting that you have put in the hard work. I don’t believe in luck but in God’s grace and your hard work. In the Bible, it says “God bless the works of my hands”, my understanding is that you have to go out there and work. So I want people to know that when they see me, the awards or recognitions, it is not by chance! Those are the fruits of my hard work.

My word of encouragement to girls out there is; that we all have this thing that we know we have to do. Deep inside us as human beings, there is always this thing that you know you have to do, and if you die without doing it, no one else will do it. That passion needs to come to life! It takes a leap of faith, but you need to believe in yourself and go for it. For example, that’s what I did for my Podcast. I had no equipment, no idea what I was doing but just went for it. It might not be fully shaped but you will only know if you start. I believe that you need to start where you are. Even if people don’t support you now, they will when things get better – that’s what people do. Go for it, and God will bless the works of your hands.

Surprising and small world, haha.. it turns out we have more mutual friends. This was one of those “whhaattt!!” interviews! Thank you very much Anne for making this very warm and comfortable for both of us, and for your time – much appreciated.

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