Professor Spotlight – Dr. Sibongile Mafu

“Take care of yourself because you are the one who does the science.  Make time for yourself, family and friends. This makes the stages and accomplishments more rewarding because you don’t feel like you sacrificed a part of your life for your achievements.” 

– Dr. Sibongile Mafu 
Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

1.When did you know you wanted to become a professor in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology?

During my postdoc I knew I wanted to remain in the natural products field and was open to both academia and industry. UMass had a very specific and unique opportunity that focused on natural product research.

2. How were your experiences in STEM different in Zimbabwe, South Dakota, Iowa, California, and Massachusetts?

At all the institutions I have attended, I have been able to do the research I needed to. Most differences I have experienced in STEM are not related to the geographical location but rather the changes and growth in science, so its universal.

On a day to day level, the machines and the lab look the same, but the places are different. Adjusting to the small cultural differences and to a new position at a different career stage has been the most challenging but at the same time, experiences that have helped me to become better. 

The main difference between Zimbabwe and the US would most definitely be the resources. There is limited funding and laboratory equipment to carry out science effectively both for research and teaching. But I think that also brings an element of creativity and that the research that is done in Zimbabwe tends t be geared towards extension. 

There are much more employment opportunities and variety after graduation. There are very few research institutes in the country and jobs that are available tend to be more in Production industry with very little R&D

3. What is the biggest challenge that you have faced in STEM and how did you overcome it?

It took me a while to adjust to grad school. I had been out of school for a few years, I always felt like I was playing catch up with the coursework. Balancing coursework, research and parenting was a learning curve.

I always appreciate having a great PI. My graduate cohort helped me through all major exams and a very supportive social community. 

Choose good mentors and find support groups. It enables one to face the many daily challenges that we come across as we navigate our lives in STEM. 

4. What has been your biggest accomplishment or proudest moment as a student, post-doc, professor?

Student – I completed my PhD. 

Postdoc – I worked with a few very talented undergrads and seeing them develop their scientific acumen, move onto grad school and do exceedingly well has been very gratifying. 

Professor – In 2018 I received a foundation grant Smith Family Award for Excellence in Biomedical Research. We recently published an article in Antibiotics on Plant derived antifungals that was enabled by this grant. 

My first undergraduate at UMass was awarded a Rising Researcher award in Spring 2020, I am still very excited that he was recognized for his hard work and contributions he has made to my lab.  

5. What advice would you give to young women who are interested in STEM and just beginning their journey?

Be excited to learn new things, learn quickly and effectively. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

Take care of yourself because you are the one who does the science.  Make time for yourself, family and friends. This makes the stages and accomplishments more rewarding because you don’t feel like you sacrificed a part of your life for your achievements. 

Establish support groups and mentors as you move along. Be true to yourself and do what you love.

Calling All GWIS Parents

Are you a current graduate school parent looking to connect with others at UMass? GWIS has created a UMass Parent slack channel for you. If you want to join the channel, click here (link expires 3/1/21) or send an email to and indicate in the subject line Parent Slack Group so we can get you added. Please spread the word!

Gender Harassment Seldom Breaks Through to Public Awareness

Opinion: Use science to stop sexual harassment in higher education
Kathryn B. H. Clancy, Lilia M. Cortina, Anna R. Kirkland
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Sep 2020, 117 (37) 22614-22618; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2016164117


2020 Changes to Title IX Regulations

Concerned about the May 6, 2020 changes to federal regulations made by the U.S Department of Education Office of Civil Rights on how colleges and universities must respond to reports of sexual harassment under Title IX? Join the Advocacy Committee to discuss how the following changes could undermine victims at UMass.

  • New definition of sexual harassment
  • New first response measures
  • New report procedures
  • Informal resolution options
  • New training requirements

Join the Advocacy Committee

Join us to discuss the past/current climate at UMass and get an update on the #safeatwork campaign.

Email with the subject line “Advocacy” to become a committee member.

What Does the Advocacy Committee Do?

Formerly the professional development committee, the charge of the GWIS advocacy committee is to investigate and break down systematic barriers to graduate women’s advancement in STEM. This is accomplished through different avenues, which depend on the current atmosphere and most pressing problems facing our members and community. Leadership and members of the committee sit on several university advisory boards, including the Title IX education advisory board and the Chancellor’s task force on sexual violence, and interface with local and state legislators on behalf of the committee and the #safeatwork campaign, which tackles institutional structures and cultures that undermine women’s physical, emotional, and mental safety inside our work environments through community outreach and education, intervention, policy change. This committee partners closely with GWIS communications and GWIS Quarterly Magazine, and more information about the campaign and associated efforts are on the magazine website!