02 August 2021 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Supplied
Prof Maryke Labuschagne, a successful scientist who is doing great work to enhance food security on the African continent, admires women who have made an impact, often in male-dominated environments.

Maryke Labuschagne, Professor in Plant Breeding at the University of the Free State (UFS), is known to many for her work to enhance food security. 

She holds the National Research Foundation’s South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair on Disease Resistance and Quality in Field Crops, travelling all over Africa to do research on the genetic improvement of staple food crops in communities. Through decades of research and collaboration, she has also contributed to the establishment of a strong network of researchers on the continent.

During an interview in celebration of Women’s Month, Prof Labuschagne talks about her experiences as a young scientist and how she believes young female researchers should be supported and nurtured. 

Is there a woman who inspires you and who you would like to celebrate this Women’s Month, and why?

Besides the scientists she had the opportunity to work with in countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Eswatini, Tunisia, and Ethiopia, she also met women who are working the fields to produce crops for their families, raising their children, and living in difficult conditions. “These women, who make it work against all odds, inspire me,” says Prof Labuschagne.

Other women she admires and who have made an impact – often in male-dominated environments – include role models from the past, such as former UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher; physicist Marie Curie, who was far ahead of her time; and American geneticist Barbara McClintock, who won a Nobel Prize in 1983. 

What is your response to current challenges faced by women and available platforms for women development?
“When I started working in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS in 1989, it was a different world. It was a totally (white) male-dominated environment. The number of women scientists could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and they were often not given the same opportunities as their male counterparts,” she recalls.

Prof Labuschagne continues: “With women having so many opportunities today, it is now totally different.”

She believes women will always have a double burden – being responsible for a family and having to compete on an equal footing with male colleagues in the workplace. There are now, however, many platforms and support systems specifically for women, and she encourages women to make use of every available form of assistance they can get.

I would say you can have it all. Work hard, believe in yourself, follow your dreams, focus on your goals, see the opportunities – not the challenges, and leave a legacy. – Prof Maryke Labuschagne
What advice would you give to the 15-year-old you?

“I would say you can have it all. Work hard, believe in yourself, follow your dreams, focus on your goals, see the opportunities – not the challenges, and leave a legacy.”

She is convinced that young women can have a family and a career, even if they believe it is not possible. 
What would you say makes women of quality, impact, and care?
“I see many women at the UFS making their mark, making an impact in their chosen fields.”

According to Prof Labuschagne, what would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago, such as women serving as deans and in top management positions, is now a reality. 

“I see young female researchers boldly taking on the world, believing in themselves and their abilities, and knowing they will be successful.” She states that each of these women should be supported and nurtured, as they will have a huge influence on the course of the university’s future.

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