Will Black Panther Inspire Young Africans to Become Scientists?

Shuri, the Black Panther's brilliant scientist sister

When Black Panther opens in China on March 9th, worldwide box office receipts should exceed the $1 billion mark, destroying previous records. The movie, based on the Marvel comic, is set in the fictional African country of Wakanda, ruled by King T’Challa, the Black Panther. His sister, 16-year-old Shuri, loves to tease her older brother. Shuri is funny and daring and the brilliant mastermind behind the high-tech Wakandan Design Group. (Think Q, Tony Stark and Elon Musk, only smarter, younger, and more fashionable.)

How do real-life African scientists view the character of Shuri? To find out, Martha Henry, HAI’s Executive Director, sat down with two Fogarty Fellows from the Lab of HAI Chair Max Essex. Dr. Catherine Koofhethile earned her PhD in immunology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal and is currently quantifying levels of provirus in people infected with HIV. Tapiwa Nkhisang arrived in the Lab after graduating from Smith College with a double major in neuroscience and economics. She conducts research related to the Botswana Combination Prevention Project.

Tapiwa Nkhisang & Dr. Catherine Koofhethile
Tapiwa Nkhisang & Dr. Catherine Koofhethile

Both young women are from Botswana and neither can remember ever seeing an African scientist or a woman scientist on the TV shows and movies they watched growing up.

Martha Henry: When did you first consider becoming a scientist?

Tapiwa Nkhisang: My sophomore year at Smith College. I was exposed to research when I became part of a lab. That was when I was first introduced to the idea of being a research scientist and I thought, this is a field I could go into.

Dr. Catherine Koofhethile: For me, it was around the age 12 or 13 when we started learning about HIV because of the situation in my country at the time. [Botswana has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world.] I wanted to understand more. I’ve always been curious about how things work. I wanted to know, why do we not have a cure? From high school I knew that science was the path I was taking.

When did you first encounter an African woman who was a scientist?

Dr. Sheila Tlou
Dr. Sheila Tlou

Tapiwa: The first time I saw somebody who was very much involved with the healthcare of Botswana, it was Sheila Tlou, who earned her PhD in community health nursing. She went on to become the Minister of Health from 2004 to 2008. I haven’t met her, but when I think about a Motswana woman who is very much involved with science, I think of her.

Do you have African women mentors?

Catherine: Yes, from South Africa, Dr. Christina Thobakgale, is a mentor. She’s doing great things in HIV research. She a research scientist and a senior lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban. She became a supervisor on my project. She’s also a friend and like a sister to me. Most of the decisions that I make or I take, they go through her.

Tapiwa: I’m trying to build a mentor/mentee relationship with Catherine right now because her journey has been interesting. She can impart a bit of wisdom and knowledge to me.

Do you think the character of Shuri, a brilliant young scientist, will have an effect on young girls in Africa?

Tapiwa: Definitely. It shows possibilities. It’s opening the young girl’s mind that this is somebody I could aspire to be, this is something that I also could do. Shuri is not only funny and witty, she’s the smartest person in the STEM field. That’s important for any young girl to watch, especially a young girl in Africa. That’s not a narrative that she’s seen or heard in her life.

Catherine: Shuri is a superhero who looks like us.

Feature image: Shuri, played by Guyana-born British actress, Letitia Wright. Courtesy of Marvel Studios.