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SHEs In STEM: Kolisa Yola Sinyanya

Kolisa Yola Sinyanya is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Her area of specialization is Oceanography, exploring the biogeochemistry of the Indian and Southern Oceans. She has a mind blowing passion for SCIENCE that has propelled her to reach the education levels she has managed to reach today, regardless of the difficulties she has faced growing up under the inequalities of the South African education system. Kolisa, in 2017, became a runner up in the Cape Town leg of the science communication competition, FameLab. Her mission is to change the world for better with her field of sciences and communicating her findings to society through various platforms.

SHEs in STEM: Kolisa Yola Sinyanya


Name: Kolisa Yola Sinyanya

Company: University of Cape Town

Industry: Oceanography

Age: 33

SHEroines: My mom, Lulama Sinyanya


Tell us about yourself: who are you, where are you from, what do you do? 

My name is Kolisa Yola Sinyanya, a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town. I was born in a small town called Mthatha in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

What was your path to becoming a SHE in STEM? Which area of STEM are you a part of?

I did not start out as an Oceanographer. My journey started at Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in my town of birth, where I studied a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Biological Sciences and continued with my studies to obtain an Honours degree in Botany, focusing on terrestrial microbes, a biotechnology based study. For my Master of Science (MSc) degree I enrolled with the University of Cape Town where I completed a  MSc in Botany, focusing on rhizobia (soil bacteria) that are found in different habitats of the Fynbos biome. I am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town in the Oceanography department. I have basically moved from working on terrestrial microbes to ocean microbial communities of the Indian and Southern Oceans.

What about being a SHE in STEM brings you the most joy?

I LOVE SCINCE! Science in general brings me great joy, however, what gives me the utmost joy in my field are the new discoveries.

We are uncovering the secrets of the universe one scientific discovery at a time.

The world is advancing and we are slowly, but surely, making educated decisions on how to manage our planet and understanding (or trying to understand) what happens elsewhere in our galaxy and beyond.

What is the most challenging part of being a SHE in STEM?

The most challenging part about being a SHE in STEM is that you are predominantly undermined by both men and women, especially when you are a black woman like myself.

For me it is not a matter of proving myself because I am fierce all day every day, but it is a matter of just being myself and getting the recognition I deserve.

However, this is not always the case as women in STEM are still seen as less than. As a SHE in STEM you can be a force to be reckoned with, but (in my experiences) your abilities will still be somehow downplayed.

What’s the professional achievement that makes you the most proud?

What makes me the proudest is that I have educated myself till this far. Where I come from, education is fashionable and a huge deal, but not everyone can afford to get to this level. Moreover, very few black South African women, since the beginning of time, have made it to PhD level. As you may know, our country went through apartheid and black people were not allowed to get quality education- we were subjected to Bantu education. Imagine not being allowed to get proper quality education.

My point is that we as South Africans are only starting out (since 1994) and in terms of education things have drastically changed for better and I wish to see more and more black South African women post PhD.

What and who has motivated you the most in your journey as a SHE in STEM?

I have been inspired by so many women in this journey, in my undergraduate years I was inspired by my Biochemistry lecturer Dr. Idah Madamombe- Manduna, who was a black woman in STEM, and she made it all look so easy. She would make everything so complicated and required each person to apply themselves. We hated that about her but knew full well that it was necessary. During my Honours year I found another woman, Dr Toni, who supervised me and was HoD of the Botany department at WSU. I found her extremely intriguing, and I vowed that I wanted to be like her when it comes to by academic abilities. Today, I am fascinated by my current supervisor, Dr Sarah Fawcett who is a young woman scientist. She is breaking barriers in her field with her expertise, and I want to be like her!

If you could go back in time and offer yourself sixty seconds of advice, what would you say?

Never ever give up! Winners never quit and quitters never win!

If you could give any advice to young women considering a path in STEM, what would you say?

I would tell them that believing in yourself will take you places.

It does not matter what background you come from, if you are determined to get it, you will!

Additionally, have all the grit in the world because these go together. Believing in yourself and having the will power to preserve through the good and the hardest of times, winning formula!

Who are some other SHEs in STEM to watch?

Look out for Sarah Fawcett from the University of Cape Town, Mmaki Jantjies who heads the Computer Sciences department at the University of Cape Town, look out for ME (wink)! In fact, I run a women in science blog that tells you who is doing what now in which fields. Take time to see these amazing SHE STEMS

What’s the most exciting thing happening in STEM?

The most exciting thing right now are the interdisciplinary sciences taking place around the globe. These are studies that incorporate biology, computer sciences, astronomy, oceanography, mathematics, chemistry, engineering and a range of other scientific fields that blow minds. Side note: Rover on Mars is doing some amazing things and that is one of the most exciting STEM endeavours right now.

What are some resources for SHEs to learn more about your field?

To learn more about Oceanography, SHEs can visit our page here or here. NOOA explains most of what one needs to know about Oceanography in their page.

Find Kolisa on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!


ICYMI: Check out our other SHEs in STEM posts-Melissa Karlin, Rachel StuveKara LutonStephanie ProvenceSamantha Hau, Kira Bailey, I Don’t Know How To Science, Taylor Breland, and Kelsey Caffy. And don’t miss out on SHEspeaks: Rainu Ittycheriah with Eventbrite (ep 5).


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