DAAD prize-winner Nickolet Ncube: achieving something on one’s own


January 19, 2018

She can perfectly recall the first days at her secondary school in her hometown of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. Her physics teacher? A man. The mathematics teacher? A man. The biology teacher? A man. “But then this teacher walked into the classroom and I thought, ‘Wow, a woman who teaches chemistry!’” Nickolet Ncube recollected. “She got me fascinated in the subject, she inspired me, I wanted to be like her one day.”

That was eleven years ago. In the meantime, the 26-year old is doing her doctorate in inorganic chemistry in the working group of Professor Ulrich Kortz at Jacobs University. Nickolet Ncube was recently honored with a prize of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for her outstanding academic performance at the international university and her social commitment.

She does research on objects of the nano-world, polyoxometalates (POMs). She is attempting to combine these metal oxide cluster anions with the element scandium and in addition is working on POMs with interesting characteristics – for example, in the hope of developing materials with antibiotic properties, which could act as an antifouling component in paint for the hull of ships. “That would be a dream,” she said.

Whether it will come true is uncertain. This involves fundamental research, in particular, the synthesis, structure and properties of novel metal oxide compounds. This kind of research demands patience, since many experiments do not work at the first go and it can take weeks or months before it becomes clear whether they have worked at all. Nickolet has already prepared two new compounds and is now working systematically on their properties, as well as on the synthesis of derivatives. “I’m always thinking about what I could try next, since discovering new species is fascinating pioneer work.” Apart from research in the working group of Professor Ulrich Kortz, she also works as teaching assistant, answers students’ questions, supervises them in the laboratory and corrects their work.

Nickolet Ncube came to Bremen via the United Kingdom. She was the best student in her province, received a scholarship from the Pestalozzi International Village Trust and completed her A-levels at Sussex Coast College Hastings in England. After this, the world was her oyster. She could have studied in the USA, but decided on Jacobs University. “That was the best decision in my life.”

She completed her bachelor as well as her master’s in chemistry at Jacobs University and has been working on her doctorate for a year now. What does she like about the university? “The door of my professor is always open, I can always exchange views with him without having to wait in line. The university is big enough for the work you do here to be noticed and acknowledged. And small enough to feel relevant inside its walls.”

However, research and teaching are only one part of her, her social commitment is another. For example, as spokesperson, she represents the interests of graduate students at Jacobs University and is a member in the German Women’s Academic Federation, but her greatest enthusiasm is for one subject: the educational opportunities of women, especially in her homeland. Zimbabwe is a man’s society, according to her. “If a man is in a good position, so is his wife.” But her mother brought her up differently. “She taught us we could achieve goals by ourselves through hard work. That’s what I want to demonstrate too.”

For her family, Nickolet is already an example, as her siblings are also studying. Together with a friend, she has set up the association “Building Dreams Zimbabwe” in her hometown of Bulawayo, which is intended to encourage young girls who want to attend school. “They often don’t attend school for a week, due to the lack of sanitary products. Considering the entire year, they miss a lot of school and this may give the impression that the girls are not interested in education.” The association donates sanitary products and plans to buy some land where the girls can plant and sell vegetables so that they can afford books.

The last time Nickolet was in Zimbabwe was two years ago. She ran into her old teacher on the street, to their great mutual pleasure. She taught chemistry at her old school and hopes she can also inspire others to seize their opportunities and achieve something by their own motivation. “If you see that someone else has done it, you're highly motivated, because you know it's possible.”

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