Black hair – why nappy, kinky and out of control?

Growing up I had the nattiest, kinkiest, toughest, roughest, driest, most unmanageable hair. No blow drier, no relaxer and no hot comb could tame my unruly fro. It is the curse of the wild black hair. They don’t call them “relaxers” for nothing!

Hair and culture
Hair is an outward expression of culture and heritage. It also represents a sense of personal style.  Women’s hair is teased, straightened, crimped, permed, braided – we adorn it with beads and shells and shape it into intricate styles. For the last few centuries, different hair styles have indicated a person’s marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community.

In the very insightful documentary Good Hair by Chris Rock, he estimates that the American black hair industry is valued at about 9 billion dollars. In America,  black women make up about 6.5 percent of the population yet they buy up to 40 percent of all hair care products. South Africa’s black hair industry is estimated at $1.1 billion a year.  We care a lot about your hair!

Byrd and Tharps write in a book – Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America – that for the Yoruba (an ethnic group in Nigeria), braided hair was a message to the gods. They considered hair a gateway to the spirits because hair occupies the most elevated part on the body. Shaving during slavery was soul destroying because hair was culturally and spiritually significant to African people.

Nuba woman of Sudan

Following slavery, wigs became the fashion, to suit European notions of beauty and straight hair. Then came the Afro. The Afro was a sign of rebellion, pride and differentiation in all things black, powerful and beautiful. The Afro was not just sported in America, even in African countries who were vying for independence the Afro was a symbol of strength.

What is hair?
Hair has two parts, the follicle which is in the skin and the shaft which is visible above the head. The hair follicle has several layers with different functions: growth, protection, secretion of sebum an oily substance that helps prevent hair and skin from drying out.

Hair follicle

Hair contains water, lipids, traces of mineral elements and melanin but the main component of hair is a hard protein called keratin. The hair shaft is made of keratin. This protein is actually dead, so the hair that you actually see is dead.

Hair is incredibly strong. Each hair can withstand the strain of 100 grams, meaning that an average head of 120,000 hairs could cope with 12 tons, if the scalp were strong enough!

Hair growth
Hair grows about .3 to .4 mm/day or about 6 inches a year. Hair growth is cyclically with shedding occurring randomly unlike other mammals e.g. dogs which shed seasonally.

Hair growth occurs in the follicle through cells that multiply and differentiate. As these cells migrate to the centre of the hair shaft they become filled with keratin and eventually die. The keratin in the hair shaft is organized into protofibrils which are  held together by chemical bonds. It is the reassembly of these chemical bonds that change hair shape. These chemical bonds are reassembled by heat such as when blow drying or using a hot comb or chemically such as during perming.

Hair colour
Melanin is responsible for natural colour of hair. This process occurs in the hair root during hair development.  There are two types of melanin: eumelanin (dark) and pheomelanin (light).  The level of melanin can vary over time causing a person’s hair to change colour and it is possible to have follicles with different combinations of melanin.

Why is African hair so different?
Did you know that all your hair follicles are developed when you are foetus. By week 22 when you are in mom’s belly you have about five million hair follicles: one million on your head and about 100,000 on your scalp. As we get older our hair density reduces because we do not generate new follicles as our scalp expands. But black people actually have less hair shafts approximately 190 hairs per square centimetre compared to Caucasians who have approximately 227 hairs per square centimetre.

Black hair may appear more dense because of the texture of our hair which is springy and taut. If you look at a cross section of African hair down a microscope, you will notice that it is relatively flat compared to Caucasian hair which is round. This flat cross section may be what renders black hair dry and matte as well as easily prone to breakage when combed and brushed.

Cross section of African hair.

Black hair also grows slower approximately 256 micrometers per day, while Caucasian hair grows at approximately 396 micrometers per day.

Cross section of Caucasian hair

What happens when you relax your hair?
The keratin in hair is arranged in bundles. These bundles are held together by chemical bonds called disulphide bonds. These bonds give the hair strength. Relaxers simply break these disulphide bonds and cap them so that they cannot chemically reform. Classically, hair relaxers use a reducer or a base (the opposite of an acid) such as lye (sodium hydroxide) to break and cap these bonds. Unfortunately, sodium hydroxide can burn your skin and damage your hair. That is why some women opt for no-lye relaxers.

What is the risk of relaxing your hair?
You might be wrong if you think the only risk of relaxing your hair is burning your scalp.
My sister once said to me when I was young girl who desperately wanted a pony tail, those chemicals we put on our hair to make it straight; they must be very strong, who knows maybe they leach into our brain and make us go crazy!  My sister was not that far off, studies suggest that black hair care might be toxic. A study published this year showed that black women are more likely to be exposed to hormonally-active chemicals in hair products. These chemicals in black hair products  (shampoos, relaxers,  conditioners) are known as estrogen and endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDCs. EDCs are chemicals that may interfere with the body’s hormonal system. They are believed to be linked to reproductive effects and birth defects, breast cancer and heart disease to name a few.

Another study from Boston University followed more than 23,000 pre-menopausal Black American women from 1997 to 2009 and found that hair relaxer use and chemical exposure from scalp lesions and burns may be linked to increased fibroids. Fibroids are non-cancerous growths that develop in the womb. Fibroids are fairly common but black women are particularly suspectible and can experience problems conceiving,  pain during intercourse and heavy menstrual flow.

In the end…
Aubrey David-Sivasothy writes in The Science of Black Hair, the two most important things for our hair are products that support protein growth and moisturise our hair.   Black women know how tough it is to manage natural hair and to grow longm beautiful natural hair is the ultimate challenge. Natural hair challenges are all the rage. Natural hair challenges are about healthy, longer, stronger hair. Relaxer kits sales have dropped by 17% between 2006 and 2011, according to an industry study.

After disastrous relaxed hair growing up….I now have dreadlocks. I occasionally have nightmares where I wake up with a long luxuriant perm. I love my dreds! I am not one to judge whether you weave it, perm it or braid it as long as it looks good.


Fundraising for science education in Malawi

What an absolutely fantastic day and turn out for the Malawi fundraiser which was held on the 6th October at UWA. It was a beautiful and fun day for volleyball, face painting, soccer, a barbeque, robot activities and fun games. The event was organized by the Rotary of Crawley (Australia) and the African Students Union of the University of Western Australia (UWA) with the support of the Malawian community in Perth.

Thank you so much to all those who came, participated, donated and helped out.

The event brought together many Malawian, Zambian, Zimbabwean and Australian families, sports fanatics and spectators. The volleyball champions were the Cloud Bursters and the soccer was won by an all Malawian team Zamunda FC captained by Peter Mafuleka and Mcfeezie Tambuli. Zamunda F.C. used the event on Saturday to launch a Malawian national football team in Australia.

We raised $9707.66 – thanks to our major sponsor Paladin Energy, other corporate sponsors Aurecon Group, McRae Investments and Globe Metals and Mining. Also through donations, team registration, sausage sizzle. Less our expenses, $8,413.90 will be split between the two schools in Malawi: Mzuzu Academy for youth leadership training and Nkhomboli CDSS for science education. We envisage that the hand over will be done in November.

Thank you all once again.












New tablet launched by Nigerian company

Africans doing it for themselves! A 29 year old entrepeneur from Nigeria, Saheed Adepoju, has developed a low cost tablet….ok low cost by Western standards if you compare the price of the Inye $250 to $700 for an Ipad. The Inye which means One in Igala (a Nigerian lanugage) runs on Google’s Android System. The first 100 units of the Inye were made in China but developed by Saheed. In a BBC interview with Saheed, he commented on designing apps to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS and water and sanitation. He hopes the Inye will be embraced by students, the Nigerian government and the African market.

When fashion meets science

You may think fashion and science meeting, falling in love, eloping and taking ideas to a whole metaphysical transcendental dimension is new..but it is not….science and fashion have always had a secret love affair; how else can you explain the amazing textiles that cling and flow, vibrant patterns that arouse and inspire, scintillating colours and theatrical accessories. The process of turning that fluffy cotton ball into dyed cotton thread to a masterpiece on the Milan catwalk all involves science – the machinery in weaving, the chemicals in dyeing, the equipment in pattern making and the technology in labeling all involves science and even more could be said about the cosmetics and make up. Designers also play colour tricks and illusions – red being preferred by both sexes and horizontal lines and v necks making one look taller and slimmer. Beyond this less known love else is science inspiring fashion?

Helen Storey’s dissolving dressing at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2011.
” These dresses form part of her research into biodegradable materials: the enzyme-based textile will dissolve over time as it comes into contact with water. They also comment on contemporary society’s desire for a plentiful supply of clothing.”

The sprayed material is a liquid combination of cotton fibres, polymers and solvent.  Once sprayed,  the solvent instantly evaporates on contact with a surface creating a smooth clothing material of any thickness that can be washed and worn like normal fabrics.

HuMo, or the Human Dynamo, is clothing with built-in, kinetic energy harvesting capabilities, using the physical capacity of the body to power devices. This jacket takes power from the natural arm swing of the wearer as they walk or run and applies it directly to lighting, increasing their visibility – and therefore their safety – as they move around the streets at dawn or dusk.

Baumel’s ‘Invisible Membrane’ visualizes the bacteria that covers our skin.

Using a recipe of green tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast Suzanne Lee is ‘growing’ material which she describes as “vegetable leather”. The material takes about two weeks to grow and can then be folded around a mould.

The Fat Map Collection, a fashion collection based on 3D MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans of six individual’s body’s fat deposits.

Wearable technology: Philips LED dress.

A Cornell University scientist and designer from Kenya together created a fashionable hooded bodysuit embedded at the molecular level with insecticides for warding off mosquitoes.


From the “Cuts” collection, which is based on CT and x-ray scans. Image credit: Philip Meech.

Check out this post which discusses other creative scientific ideas for clothing like auto color generating dresses, music dress, magnetic heel shoes.

Will the Square Kilometre Array benefit the African continent…

SKA dishes courtesy of SKA Organisation/Swinburne Astronomy Productions

…not just South Africa? It should.

South Africa is touted as the champion of African development, proverbially like “Moses” leading the dark continent into the light according to the President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. Their successful World Cup bid was hailed as Africa’s world cup  is it the same for the  Square Kilometre Array  (SKA)?

 What  is the SKA?
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be a mega radio telescope, about 100 times more sensitive than the biggest existing radio telescope. Radio telescopes detect electromagnetic radiation emitted by objects in space. The SKA will consist of a large collection of 4,000 telescopes spread across continents costing US$2.2 billion. The combined collecting area of all these antennae will add up to one square kilometre (= one million square metres).

The SKA is being designed to answer fundamental questions in physics, astronomy and cosmology to understand the origin and workings of the Universe better.

It’s a partnership
Although it is referred to as South Africa’s bid, the bid is in actual fact a partnership  with several countries including Ghana, Kenya, Botswana, Mauritius, Madagascar, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique. They have been working on the bid to host the SKA since 2003.  The SKA bid was endorsed in July 2010 by the African Union with the final proposal submitted to the SKA Siting Group on 15 September 2011.

The core of that part of the SKA telescope which is hosted by South Africa will be located near Carnarvon in the Northern Cape, with antenna stations in Namibia, Botswana and the other African partner countries.

The gains
Manpower and brain gain
Since 2005, 70 out of the 398 SKA South African post-doc fellowships, PhDs and MScs and undergraduate bursaries were awarded to non-South Africans. To build the vast collection of telescopes, to assemble and run them will require man- and woman- power: scientists, engineers, IT specialists, these people will have to accommodated, feed and transported so there are both opportunities for blue and white collar employment.

Construction is scheduled to begin in 2016 with the first science to get underway in 2020.

Growing fibre connectivity across Africa is making 20 large telecommunications antennas obsolete. These antennaes will be used to develop the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (VLBI, or AVN).

Paul Swart, Roufurd Julie and Obert Toruvanda with some of the hardware in the digital back-end laboratory at the Cape Town MeerKAT engineering office.

The SKA has already had an impact through the MeerKAT project. The MeerKAT array will be a world class ground breaking radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere until the SKA is completed in 2024. Close to 100 scientists and engineers are already working on this project pooled from the SKA African project partners. The MeerKAT has been the precursor to building the human capacity for the SKA.

Communication and E-everything!

Each dish will produce enough data to fill more than 5,000 160-GB iPods. This data will have to captured and transmitted widely. Increasing South Africa’s bandwidth to the world will have knock on effects for the rest of continent.

In an article in the Conversation, Tshilidzi Marwala Dean of Engineering at University of Johannesburg  writes

“Because of the expanded telecommunication infrastructure it will bring in its wake, the SKA will improve connectivity, allowing vital initiatives such as e-health, e-education and e-government.”

In the same article Tshilidzi Marwala talks about countering superstition “…the elimination of certain elements in our society, such as superstition, that have held us back.”  In my opinion, this is debatable as our Indigenous stories of the creation of the universe should not be contested but should sit comfortable side by side with scientific discoveries.  As Prof George Miley, Vice President of the International Astronomical Union and International Coordinator of the EU Universe Awareness project says

“Astronomy is a unique instrument for development. It links cutting edge technologies, frontier sciences and our deepest cultural layers.”

Pockets of funding
Bernie Fanaroff, director of South Africa’s SKA project in an interview with SciDev.Net said

“SKA will be the biggest research infrastructure in the world, that’s why it will be iconic. Iconic projects do things that incremental projects can’t do: they open up pockets of funding that might otherwise not be available.”

These pockets of funding according to Bernie Fanaroff will develop infrastructure, a legacy of skills, stimulate careers in science and technology, promote high level industry and improve university research and teaching.

Science communication
Jesse Shore, President of the Australian Science Communicators poses the question “What will SKA do for science communication and what should science communicators do for SKA?”. Stealing a few lines from the report  Engaging the world, Science Communication in Australia and New Zealand and applying it to this scenario…

“ Nothing else has the same ability to inspire and engage people as big science. Whether it’s a new synchrotron, a nuclear research reactor or a major telescope facility, people will seek to engage with what it means and to understand its implications for their lives and future wellbeing.”

The opportunities for science communication are immense from moving images, stories, art, music, formal and informal education, policy – hopefully this pushes the capacity for African public engagement with science. Incidentally there is vacancy for Chief Communication Officer at the SKA Organization Headquarters in the UK.

The winner is…..
The independent SKA Site Advisory Committee (SSAC) identified by consensus Africa as the preferred site but for the sake of  inclusivity, the SKA Organisation has agreed to consider constructing one of the three SKA receiver components in Australia. Two will be constructed in Africa.

The announcement of the winning bid coincided with the celebration of  Africa Day, 25th May. This should signal the importance of the announcement to the continent. In the words of Prof Justin Jonas, Associate Director for the SKA project

“For South Africa and our African partner countries this represents a new era, where Africa is seen as a science destination and takes its place as an equal peer in global science.”

What next?
The next two years scientists and engineers will work on a detailed design and pre-construction, following this will be the construction of SKA Phase 1 which makes up 10% of the total SKA instrument. Phase 1 will be ready for scientific research by 2020. This will coincide with commencement of the construction of Phase 2 2018-2023, with full operations expected by 2024.


Public communication of science and technology conference 2012, tell it like it is!

You would think at the biggest biennial international conference for science communicators you would see a formidable display of scintillating presentations, amazing speakers, intriguing and thought provoking panel discussions and Pulitzer prize winning posters but sadly that was not the case. It was my first Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) conference; I have had my fair share of conferences and I know they can be a bit hit and miss but this one fell very very far from the target. Why? Where my expectation high?

The theme was Quality, Honesty and Beauty, I knew to expect well…a few “flowery” presentations but also some “Quality” presentations however the theme did suit the venue of the conference Florence, Italy – what a romantic medieval city! Secondly, the run up to the conference was plagued by several abstract rejections which normally is an indication that only the best of the best made it through. Thirdly, it was a conference for science communicators, communicating well is what we do!

My intentions for going to the conference were to seek out potential collaborators, examiners and or advisors. My area of research is science and culture and film, an odd combination but I was hoping to find people with interest or experience in either. I was surprised that there was a paltry number of science film makers. Efforts to find potential collaborators were made extremely difficult by the absence of a delegates list. There were over 650 delegates, I am sure at least one would have been a useful contact but I shall never know.

By day 2 which guess what…was the last day! Very sneakily the conference was a two day conference…I pity those who travelled so far (like me). 18-20th April, that’s more like 18.9th day to 20th because all that happened on the 18th April was a late afternoon registration and a few key note presentations by people who only spoke about themselves like Giovanni Bignami who showed himself off with National Geographic videos where he was presenting. Semir Zeki’s measurement of beauty using brain scans was interesting but he framed it as response to critiques on his methods. The presentation was directed to his adversaries and not the audience that was actually there.

So A LOT was crammed in the actual two days, 12 parallel sessions, yes I said 12, more than 11 and less than 13.  You couldn’t exactly switch in the midst of a parallel session, so you chose one and stuck with it for the whole 1 hour and 15 minutes even though only one of the four presentations interested you.

I spent a lot of time choosing my parallel sessions, but my strategy of trying to pick the one’s which were most useful failed and on Day 2, I went for the ones that looked interesting and had speakers that I knew were engaging.  I wont even mention the 5 hour afternoon with no coffee break on Day 2 or my butt cramp from sitting on the floor in a packed parallel session. And where was the entertainment during the ball? Beautiful palace with cold food and no entertainment… I know Italians to be excellent hosts so what happened?

Presenters and commentators often wanted to make it clear if they were scientist, science communicators or social scientists and it was obvious we did not all speak the same language.

Besides my movie screening, there were probably only five or so presentations from or about Africa. It got heated though, at least for me during a presentation on PCST surveys in South Africa. Eurocentric PCST surveys are the worst measurement  of “scientific literacy” in Africa but I will leave that for another blog post. As for my  movie screening at the conference well….well…well… as my supervisor put it….one of the worst conference chairing she has seen.

Fine, I have complained enough but there was some really truly awesome stuff. One being Florence, what an amazing historic city of paved narrow alleys, enchanting street markets, delightful cafes and breath taking art!

There were some good speakers Felice Frankel who spoke on visual metaphors and IIaria Capua who spoke about open science and bird flu.  And of course our own Miriam Sullivan who truly captured the attention of science communicators with her great performance on science and tv.

The day of the registration, in the morning, there was a PhD student meeting. They tried to present it in such a way … “Hey we would like your ideas on whether a PhD student network is a useful thing and how would it best work for you and PCST”  but it came off more like… “We know its a good thing to have this network, we already have our opinions on how it will work but we just need to tick the consultation box.”

I think there was some missed opportunities for interaction between PhD students but maybe the next PCST…oops…I should have graduated by then. Which was one of the things that came up…..PCST meets biennial as a PhD candidate, you may only attend one or two  meetings.

The idea of a PhD student network is great but very ambitious. Rather than making it exclusive to PhD students, a central PCST Research network committee with a paid secretariat would be more efficient otherwise it’s a lot to expect from already busy PhD students to manage a network.

I think most of all for me I got a chance to catch up with some old friends and plan some projects (not related to my research) for the future. I met old friends from South Africa and England, including the lady who was the first ever science communicator, I  met her in 2008 in South Africa. She was instrumental in showing me the Science communication light.

With some of my colleagues, we planned our take over of the world with science communication, science cafes and brilliant insightful papers on science communication in Africa! I also made new friends and heard new ideas like Eric Jensen and Emily Dawson’s notion that science communication evaluation is under theorized and that makes it difficult to share findings.

All in all, I learnt a lot from the good and the bad so  I am looking  forward to PCST in Brazil in 2014!

Four incredible African women scientists honoured in Paris

African women scientists…its not often that you hear those three words together and to add to that “award”. It makes me so damn proud that the achievements of four remarkable women are being recognized internationally by the UNESCO-L’Oreal For Women in Science (FWIS). Johannie Spaan from South Africa, Peggoty Mutai from Kenya and Gladys Kahaka from Namibia are the three successful African candidates who will be awarded fellowships in 2012 and most notably South African Professor Jill Farrant, has been selected as one of only five laureates worldwide to receive the prestigious 2012 L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science Award.

This is what this blog, African Science Heroes, is all about identifying and recognizing the amazing accomplishments of African scientists. African Science Heroine Dr. Tebello Nyokong (Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Nanotechnogy at Rhodes University, South Africa) is also a UNESCO-L’Oreal For Women in Science Laureate 2009.

jill farrant

Professor Jill Farrant, 2012 UNESCO-L'OREAL For Women in Science For Africa and the Arab States Laureate


The FWIS International Fellowship programme aims to identify and reward deserving, committed and talented young women scientists from across the world who are active in the field of life sciences. Each fellow receives US$40 000 to put towards their research and Professor Farrant, US$100 000 for her achievements.

Jill Farrant is a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is the world’s leading expert on resurrection plants. Plants which ‘come back to life’ from a desiccated, seemingly dead state when they are rehydrated. Professor Farrant is investigating the ability of many species of these plants to survive without water for long periods of time from a number of scientific angles –  molecular, biochemical and structural. The ultimate goal is to find applications that will lead to the development of drought-tolerant crops to nourish populations in arid, drought-prone climates.  Her research may also have medicinal applications.

The FWIS International Fellows nomination criteria are that the candidate must be in their doctoral or postdoctoral year; working in the field of life sciences; researching a promising project that will contribute to society; and have been accepted to a tertiary institution outside their home country.

Peggoty Mutai

Peggoty Mutai of Kenya, 2012 UNESCO-L'OREAL International Fellow

Peggoty Mutai is completing her PhD in Medicinal Chemistry. While her home universities are the University of Nairobi in Kenya and the University of Cape Town, she has been accepted to Canada’s McGill University to continue her research into finding new treatments for the parasitic worms that plague people in developing countries.

Johannie Spaan is a PhD student studying Zoology/Ecology at the University of Pretoria. Her research focuses on the impact of treating parasitic worm infestations in African buffalo, and has broad-ranging implications for human health. She has been accepted to the College of Veterinary Medicine, Oregon State University, and the University of Georgia in the USA to finish her research.

Johannie Maria Spaan

Johannie Spaan of South Africa , 2012 UNESCO-L'OREAL International Fellow

Gladys Kahaka is doing her PhD in Plant Sciences through the University of Namibia. Her research is centred around preserving Namibia’s rich

Gladys Kahaka of Namibia, 2012 UNESCO-L'OREAL International Fellow

biological resources, which she will further at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom where she has been accepted to complete her studies.

Their research areas are all varied but their results all have significant bearing on society from preserving the diversity of plant species in Namibia to treating parasitic worms. This is all thanks to L’Oreal, a company who most of us associate with “Because I am worth it!”.  A company that  profits from the surface beauty of  the cosmetic industry but also recognizes women’s internal beautiful intelligence.