Senamile Masango - Not Your Everyday Nuclear Physicist

Written By: Rebecca Mqamelo (Guest Writer)

From teen mom to nuclear physicist – Senamile Masango is a shining example of how success is a non-linear process. Self-confidence, support, and hard work are the key, she says.

It’s not every day that you meet a nuclear physicist whose story reads something like this: grew up in a rural area under the Apartheid government in South Africa; started university at sixteen; failed a few modules; fell pregnant; nearly dropped out; and then went on to become the first African woman to conduct an experiment at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Senamile Masango’s story exemplifies the idea that success comes in different packages and through circuitous routes. Her journey of hardship and resilience is an inspiring lesson for us all. In speaking to her, it becomes clear that it’s not where you come from or even what happens to you that defines who you are – rather, it’s who you choose to become that really matters.

From humble beginnings

Senamile Masango grew up in Nongoma, a rural village in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. She comes from a polygamous family of teachers; she says her family ensured that the value of education was instilled in her from an early age. As is often the case, her parents’ attitude to education left an indelible mark; they were rigorous, dedicated, and unequivocal in their respect for education. The idea that “education is the one thing no one can take away from you,” was reinforced to her by her father.

She became fascinated with science at the age of eleven when her geography teacher introduced the class to the concept of space exploration.

“I wanted to be the first African to land on the moon, but in 2003, Mark Shuttleworth beat me to it,'' she jokes. She deviated from family tradition and chose to pursue a career in science. She hasn’t made it to the moon yet, but she is one of South Africa’s very few black female nuclear physicists.