Growing up in the rural South African village of Kopela, alumna Margaret Mkhosi never imagined that she’d become an engineer—let alone the first female nuclear engineer in her homeland. Today she leads the National Nuclear Regulator’s Center for Nuclear Safety and Security in South Africa and mentors other women so they too can be successful in STEM.
The farm where she was born, Boschpoort, was so remote they didn’t even have a radio station to listen to. The middle and high schools lacked critical resources like computers and labs. “We wouldn’t do experiments, we wouldn’t go anywhere to see where what we learned was being applied,” she explained. “We just learned from textbooks.”
Mkhosi finished high school with some help along the way. One of her principals paid her middle school fees when her parents could not afford them. Her older brother, Sipho, put his own education on hold to make sure his sisters fulfilled their potential.
Professional careers in the village were limited to becoming a teacher, nurse, police officer or maybe a soldier, Mkhosi said. So she earned a bachelor’s in education and taught first at a high school and later at North-West University as a junior lecturer. In 1998, she began a master’s program in physics at the university’s urging. They wanted to add the first female physics lecturer to their ranks and Mkhosi was the most qualified.
During the Physics Society’s educational tour in Cape Town, South Africa’s second largest city, Mkhosi made two life-changing visits to a nuclear power plant and a research laboratory focused on nuclear science and radiation medicine for cancer treatment.
“It was fascinating to me because, for the first time in my life, I realized that I can use what I’m learning in the world and it can be of benefit to people,” she said.
Although there weren’t any nuclear engineering programs offered in South Africa at that time, Mkhosi vowed that if she ever got the chance, she would do whatever necessary to enter that field.
Pursuing opportunity abroad
Her chance came in 2000 when she applied and was selected to pursue doctoral studies in nuclear engineering at Ohio State through the Tertiary Education Linkages Project supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and United Negro College Fund.
Due to administrative delays, Mkhosi arrived in Ohio three months after the academic year began. She faced many obstacles at first—she was behind, she had no prior experience in nuclear engineering and she had left her five-month-old daughter, young son and husband to pursue her studies.
But the encouraging environment she found at Ohio State helped her find her way.
“The support was just awesome. The whole faculty, the graduate students—everybody wanted to be part of my success,” Mkhosi said. “They wanted you to succeed and be welcome on campus as well as in a foreign country.”
In 2007, Mkhosi became the third woman to earn a PhD in nuclear engineering at Ohio State. One of the first women to do so, Professor Audeen Fentiman, was one of Mkhosi’s mentors.
Applying her skills at home
After completing one year of postdoctoral research at Purdue University with Fentiman, Mkhosi returned home early because the country needed her expertise. She began working for PBMR, the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, as a senior nuclear engineering analyst.
As she ascended in her career in South Africa, Mkhosi discovered a passion for shaping new initiatives. “For me, what is really exciting is the ability to make contributions to new programs … ones that don’t have a blueprint, that no one has done anywhere.”
At the Technology Innovation Agency she managed programs that help researchers and innovators develop their ideas into products that could eventually be commercialized. She also established the Youth Technology Innovation Fund, which is geared toward innovators age 30 or younger.
Today as the inaugural director of the Center for Nuclear Safety and Security, Mkhosi leads efforts to create a pipeline of trained talent who can support the National Nuclear Regulator and the nuclear sector. The center also leads nuclear safety education and training, R&D, and provides safety expertise throughout the country and to other African nations.
The advanced training she received as a Buckeye continues to be relevant in her work at the center. “The training that I received, the interaction with the professors and advice from my academic advisor and thesis supervisor Rich Denning, is handy, even now,” Mkhosi said.
Achieving her dream wasn’t easy, she shared. There were those who told her she couldn’t succeed, but she didn’t listen.
“In the beginning, people would ridicule me, people would tell me you’re crazy, you can’t major in physics. No woman at North-West University has majored in physics,” she said. “But I did and I succeeded. Sometimes, even if we are motivated or have the ability to reach our potential, we don’t pursue our goals just because people put it in our minds that we cannot do it.”
Showing others the way
Inspired by those barriers, she vowed to help other women succeed as well. Mkhosi mentors women of all ages, from girls in her home village to work colleagues. She first saw the power of mentoring at Ohio State while participating in the Women in Engineering Program and knew the impact it could have in her homeland.
Since returning home she’s been active in Women in Nuclear Global, a worldwide association for professional women working in nuclear energy, and Women in Nuclear South Africa, where she served two terms as president. She is now the Women in Nuclear Global Executive for Africa Region, providing mentorship to the women across the continent.
Mkhosi also launched Charity at Home, an initiative that aims to get kids excited about STEM fields so they understand the role these fields play in everyday life. She returns to her home village frequently, using hands-on learning activities to inspire girls in grades 8-12 to pursue STEM careers.
Those efforts are paying off. In May she attended the graduation of two girls she had worked with since high school who both earned bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields and are pursuing honors degrees. Four others are pursuing undergraduate STEM degrees, including her own son who is a second-year physics student. Mkhosi’s daughter, now in grade 12, aspires to study forensic science.
And this year math pass rates improved at one of the high schools she volunteers at—a school that still lacks resources like science and computer laboratories—thanks to interventions Mkhosi helped implement.
Her advice to the young women she works with reflects her own secret to success.
“When there’s an opportunity that someone is giving you, work hard and do everything with diligence and integrity,” Mkhosi said. “If you work hard, and have integrity and self-motivation, you will be able to achieve your goals, because the results don’t lie.”
Decades from now, other South African firsts will likely cite an opportunity given to them. Not from just someone. From Margaret Mkhosi.
by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org