I grew up in Zimbabwe in a large Roman Catholic family. My first passion was chemistry. My aunt and godmother, whose name I share was a chemistry teacher. She died when I was 14 and I think I chose to work hard at chemistry to honour her in some way. Somehow the hard work gave way to a real enthusiasm for the subject and it was the obvious thing to study at university. In 1996, I obtained a bachelor of science degree majoring in chemistry and biochemistry from Rhodes University. In 2002, I obtained a PhD in medicinal chemistry from the University of Cape Town.
I have tried to escape chemistry three times (after my undergraduate degree, after my PhD and after my second postdoctoral fellowship) but each time it seems something draws me back. I have finally submitted to its pull and I am now in the painfully slow process of building my academic career as a chemist at Stellenbosch University. I am thoroughly enjoying the process of introducing my research students into the creativity of chemistry. There is nothing quite like holding the only sample of an entirely new molecule. My chemistry research is focused on making new molecules as potential anti-malarial drugs.
The three forays out of chemistry were not just attempts to escape, there was a significant pull in another direction on each occasion. More importantly though, each exploration has enriched the way I view the world and I have no doubt adds to my sense of self. On the first occasion I spent a year teaching in a Jesuit school in Harare. In that year I discovered an enjoyment of teaching and coincidentally, it also provided the foundation for my adult faith journey.
While I was doing my PhD I made the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola. This shifted faith from being an important peripheral concern, to being central in my life. As part of exploring what that meant, following a brief postdoctoral fellowship in France, I trained as a spiritual director at Loyola Hall in the UK. While I was on the training course a job on the team opened up and I ended up remaining there for four years. I learnt a great deal during this time. I began to trust fundamentally in God’s love and care for each individual. I faced a bunch of my own presuppositions about what it meant to be a ‘good Christian’. In the end, though, I missed the scientist in me and I headed back to Cape Town and to chemistry.
After my second postdoc, I did a year in education research. That year I discovered how I could be an academic. I realized that I didn’t have to deny the spiritual director in me, that ultimately I would be a better academic (and I would enjoy the job a whole lot more along the way!!) if I stopped trying to be a good chemist, and started being myself. I recognized that the hurdle to embracing academia wasn’t a fault of the university environment, but rather was an internal barrier created by my own expectations.
So, here I am: a chemist, an educator and a spiritual director. The purpose of the blog is for me to hold those worlds together.
(If you are interested in my academic research – you can find my profile on Researchgate http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Margaret_Blackie/ )