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Interview with Materials Engineer Phylis Makurunje

This week, we had the pleasure of catching up with Materials Engineer Phylis Makurunje whose focus is on materials fit for hypersonic flight. Phylis also sits on the President’s Council of Student Advisors of the American Ceramic Society, and serves on the Space Generation Advisory Council. Phylis was also chosen as a delegate at the United Nations 21st session of the Committee on Sciences and Technology for Development focusing on space technologies and space security.

In this interview, we discuss her childhood, how she got into the materials research field and how she sees STEM and entrepreneurship in Africa continuing to rise. Here’s her story:

Newnham: What were you like growing up? How would your friends and family have described you?

Makurunje: Vivid memories of my childhood and the stories that get retold by friends and family are centred on wire cars. When I grew up, I was obsessed about designing and making wire cars. I was fascinated by the fun in shaping the car body to suit a particular performance, or tweaking the steering and the suspension systems in the wire cars to suit particular roads. My childhood friend and I would go as far as designing various roads to test our car designs. I remember how parents in my neighbourhood would come to my mother to ask for me to make wire cars for their kids. My imagination was taken to the next level when I met an older boy who had made a helicopter which rolled on wheels, and I said to myself, “I want to make a helicopter too.” Since then, I fell in love with air-borne vehicles.

Newnham: What led to you following the career path you ultimately chose?

Makurunje: Although I was bent on Mechanical Engineering, I wasn’t sure of what exactly I wanted to study. I grew up with the social conditioning that if you were good at science subjects in school then you had to study Medicine. On the other hand, my dad had dreams of me becoming an engineer. He would sit me down and explain to me the different types of engineering and would persuade me to apply for engineering courses. I settled for Chemical Engineering at the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe. If the universities around me had Aeronautical Engineering on their list, I certainly would have fallen for that. From Chemical Engineering, I startlingly leaped back into my dream when I got the opportunity to study aerospace materials at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

Newnham: Can you tell us about your work including some highs and lows?

Makurunje: My work involves answering the materials question in upcoming hyper-fast aircrafts. Hypersonic flight is the next-thing in aviation; it involves shattering the sound barrier and zooming travellers to their destination via the fringes of space. Such daring speeds mean that one can fly across continents in just one hour. The extreme speeds involved mean that temperatures on the (plane) body soar to ranges beyond which most metals melt however. As such, the aim is to have reusable materials that give the planes as many flights as possible before replacement. That is why I work on ultra-high temperature composites (UHTCs). The questions, “Why can’t it be from Africa?” and “Why can’t it be inexpensive?” keep me going.

I had my greatest moment of inspiration when I visited NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Centre in Florida in America. Getting to see the technical aspects of space access was a dream come true. The centre is both a working spaceflight facility where rockets launch, and a museum of historic spacecraft. It also has facilities for simulated space experience and astronaut training; it was a remarkable experience.

With all the excitement I had, however, my bubble momentarily burst when I first shared the ideas of hypersonic technology on social media. Most of the naysayers felt that outer space technologies were trivial on the African continent where more pressing issues like poverty, starvation and disease needed to be addressed. I realised that a lot people thought that outer space was all about walking on the moon and conquering Mars. This prompted me to really intensify my space awareness campaign. Everyone needed to fully understand the opportunities that space technologies brought in telecommunications, transportation, public health and agriculture.

Newmham: Why are you so fascinated by hypersonic plane/travel specifically? What drives you?

Makurunje: Hypersonic flight is the “next big thing” in aviation. If a plane were to take off from the runway at the same instance that one hollered, the plane would touchdown in 12 seconds whereas the sound of the voice will only arrive in a minute. Hypersonic technologies push science to the limits and that is what challenges me. There is a lot that still needs to be done technically in addressing the cost of such technologies. For example, the cost model for hypersonic flight is finely correlated to issues around powering engine designs, the fuels to be used and the materials of construction of the plane. Environmental issues like noise pollution around populated areas and emissions into the above-atmosphere layer are topics of concern as well.

Overall, I am driven by the potential impact that space technologies can have on humanity. Just like the “Internet of Things” revolutionised the globe and essentially how everything is running our lives today, the “Space of Things” as I call it, is the next revolution and it is already here. Outer space is the hotspot for the next big disruption.

I also see hypersonic technologies becoming a commercial reality. Since the bold forecast by President Ronald Reagan in his 1986 State of the Union address “A new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport and accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low-earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours,” it has long been concluded that hypersonic technology was birthed prematurely when there was still a lot of unknown phenomena surrounding it. Costly lessons have been learnt and so much has been invested in the research and development of hypersonics that the late 2020s look promising.

I see spaceplanes dominating transoceanic travel. The cost of space tourism will plunge; that is for those travellers who will prefer to depart from the airport, fly high up above the Karman line (100 km altitude) to feel space, and then back to the same airport. I think unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will also go hypersonic, and I hope aviation taxis will also move at similar near-teleport speeds.

I hope to see the youth of Africa rising up to the occasion of the “Space of Things” revolution. I dream of an Africa in which outer space technologies will be a priority, where African entrepreneurs will disrupt the outer space business platform; where aerospace training, degrees and programs will be accessible to space enthusiasts; where STEM awareness and promotion will be incomplete if it does not include the possibilities of outer space technologies, and the youth can contribute to the research and development of space-related possibilities. The Africa I want is one where participation in space programs is the responsibility of every citizen and the initiative does not solely rest on the shoulders of governments.

Newnham: As a woman in STEM in Africa — what are some of the challenges you have faced and how do you overcome them?

Makurunje: My journey has been fun, fascinating and, of course, my fortitude had to be put to the test continually. Getting female mentors in aerospace was not easy. I only realised recently that I was actually fortunate to have met a few women from other career sectors, mostly non-technical, who would mentor me occasionally and informally. I learnt that sometimes a mentor may not necessarily be the perfect career role model, but it is a big privilege to have one.

Newnham: How has the tech landscape in Africa changed since you started?

Makurunje: I found the future of Africa well described in a quote by a former president of World Bank, “The 20th century saw the stunning rise of countries like China, India and Japan. The 21st century may belong to Africa.” The 21st century has seen the birth of Africa’s own space race. Most countries are establishing space institutions and programs. Despite the relatively low budgets allocated to such initiatives, the future looks bright. The rise of the nano-satellites concept has turned space dreams to reality in Africa, especially looking at the limited costs involved. Also, most African countries are collaborating with space giants like China and India.

Overall, it is up to Africa to shake off the historical narrative of trailing on technological issues. The positive is that many African countries are taking significant strides on increasing the number of students taking STEM subjects in schools. These are the important steps that point to a brighter future. My message to the continent: Enlarge your capacity. Spread out. Think big. Spare not.

Newnham: And how do you think we encourage more girls into specialist STEM subjects like yours?
My top two approaches are “real modelling” and “role modelling”.

What I call “real modelling” is when the realities of science applications are made available and accessible to the girls. There is something that gets sealed in the mind when you bring science that is merely imagined is brought to the realm of reality. Science that can be experienced is science that can be esteemed. One such initiative is that of the Girls Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA) foundation when they allow young girls to experience the realities of flying a plane, sitting in a simulator and having access to otherwise expensive experiences. This can be a reality when corporations help sponsor such experiences.

On the other hand, “role modelling” is when women in STEM step out and reach out to young people for inspiration and guidance. The traditional thinking was that it was the sole responsibility of young girls to pursue mentors. The equation has to be balanced on both sides — the girls are often willing to be mentored; now the mentors have to avail themselves.

Newnham: What is the most important lesson you have learned in your career?

Makurunje: I have learnt that the “people factor” is really important on any journey. The famous African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” gives the wisdom of valuing mentorship, networking and collaborating. When I decided to walk the aerospace road in Africa, I realised I needed people who would support me, who would believe in me when streaks of doubt started setting in, and who would reinforce the bold moves I dreamt of taking.

Newnham: What advice would you offer a younger Phylis just starting out?

Makurunje: Follow your dreams and see them through! The words of Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian-American woman to go to space, have stayed with me, “The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.”