Going to great lengths to reveal the science that styles our hair

21 Oct 2021

Image: Reabetswe Zwane

Hair is beautiful. It’s political. And it’s a scientific wonder. At least, when Reabetswe Zwane is explaining things, it is.

Reabetswe Zwane previously told Siliconrepublic.com how she gets to spend her time “understanding some of the coolest things in the world” as a PhD researcher in SSPC.

SSPC is the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for pharmaceuticals. From her base at Dublin City University, Zwane is a materials scientist using high-level computation techniques to understand the chemical and physical properties of various substances.

This kind of research leads Zwane to see the world through the prism of materials science, breaking things down into their components and characteristics for a deeper understanding.

As a recent entrant in the FameLab science communication competition, Zwane helped the audience see something as everyday and ordinary as hair through the eyes of a materials scientist.

‘My talk is a journal entry as I vacillate between an African woman and a materials scientist’

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I have always been interested in understanding the smaller parts of things that surround us, being able to take a material apart and explain what about the smaller parts make the material behave the way it does.

What has been your experience with FameLab?

I decided to take part in FameLab as a personal challenge and a way to acquire skills to disseminate my research in a different and fun way. To prepare, I would think about ordinary things around us that are so common but the science behind them is important and unknown. For example, my heat talk was on the chemistry of chocolate.

How would sum up your presentation for the FameLab final?

My talk is all about hair. It touches on the sociopolitical impacts of hair that I have suffered as an African woman in the western world.

In my PhD, I do not study hair per se but since I normally study properties of materials around us and also develop them, I explore hair as a material – what gives it the colour, texture and shape we see across ethnicities, what is its function and, most importantly, what gives it beauty.

What drove you to focus on hair and materials science for your presentation?

Ever since I came to Europe from South Africa, I noticed people were curious about my hair. The curiosity ranges from innocent and cute, to simply rude and intrusive, where people ask to touch my hair. This is not my unique experience but many of my friends and people who look like me.

Naturally, I was driven to think about the significance of hair in our society, especially my type of hair. And being the materials scientist I am, I was also curious about the design of hair. My talk is therefore a journal entry as I vacillate between an African woman and a materials scientist. To try find a resolve, I consult materials science and aesthetics.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in science communication?

Having to talk about technical scientific concepts without sounding robotic and rigid is a challenge for me. I am not naturally funny and comic relief is a good place to start to reduce some rigidity when you are talking about hard concepts (if you’re good at it), but learning other skills to do this that suit my personality has been a plus in my FameLab journey.

What common misconception about science would you like to correct?

In general, a lot of scientific breakthroughs are often met with tremendous failure. It is something I wish I caught on earlier in my science journey, that to do science is to fail again and again, and try again and again.

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