FameLab 2019 Semi finalists: Taking South African research to the world
UNIVERSITY OF KWAZULU NATAL
Njabulo is a Master’s student in marine biology from a small town called Bergville in Kwazulu Natal at the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains. He is currently studying at the Westville Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and his work focuses on marine conservation.
He loves water and spent much of his time growing up swimming and fishing in the river near his home, but he had never heard of a field called marine biology until he started his studies in biological sciences at the University of Kwazulu Natal. Changing his course to focus on marine biology was the best decision he has ever made, he says.
His research focuses on zooplankton, which are small animals that float in the oceans. These include larvae of fish and invertebrates. Research on zooplankton is important in understanding marine food webs, dispersal of fish and invertebrates and the biodiversity of the marine realm. Data from the research inform the planning of marine protected areas and management of fisheries.
Njabulo believes that the only way science can be effective in changing the world is through effective communication. Science is for everyone, therefore finding better ways to communicate science effectively is important in ensuring that everyone benefits from the work of scientists.
Matia is a food scientist, studying toward a PhD at Stellenbosch University under the mentorship of Distinguished Professor Umezuruike Linus Opara, the DST-NRF South African Research Chair in Postharvest Technology. He says his ultimate goal is to contribute to science and technological innovations that ensure food and nutrition security.
Matia says he has been passionate about science since primary school. He completed a bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Technology at Makerere University in Uganda, before joining Stellenbosch University to pursue a master’s degree in food science under Professor Opara. After completing his master’s in 2015, he continued with his PhD.
His research focusses on packaging of fruit, especially pomegranates, for which there is increasing demand. Poorly designed cartons with inadequate ventilation can profoundly affect airflow, cooling rate and uniformity of stacked produce, which leads to postharvest losses. Studies are needed to look at packaging material, and energy and space efficiency. Matia hopes to optimise the cooling rate and uniformity, energy efficiency, utilisation of space, process throughput and mechanical integrity of ventilated packaging during the postharvest handling of pomegranate fruit, and thereby contribute to the competitiveness and success of this industry in the world market.
Matia says there is always a way out of all problems, but that the solution may not be known to the person affected by the problem. He says this is true for science, as scientists generate knowledge and innovations that can benefit or provide solutions to problems in people’s lives, but often these solutions are not widely shared and are inaccessible to the people who need them, sometimes hidden behind scientific jargon that may not be easily decipherable by the public.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done” Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
UNIVERSITY OF KWAZULU-NATAL
Merrisa is pursuing a master’s degree in marine biology at the Westville campus of the University of Kwazulu-Natal, in collaboration with the Knysna Basin Project. She has a love and appreciation for the ocean, which she says she inherited from her grandfather. In line with passion, she is inspired by a quote from Christopher Columbus who said, “You can never cross the ocean unless you have courage to lose sight of the shore”
Merrisa was born in the heart of the beautiful coastal city, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Her passion for science developed during her high school years and she always appreciated the challenges that scientific research offered. It fostered skills within her such as critical thinking and the ability to solve problems independently. Her key interests within the fields of marine and natural sciences encompasses ongoing research, conservation and sustainability that ultimately contributes towards societal needs and the needs of our surrounding environment.
Over the past decade, marine microplastic pollution has become the forefront of many issues that affect marine systems. Merrisa’s research is assessing the levels of microplastic pollution (i.e. plastic particles less than 5 mm in size) within the Knysna Estuary and its occurrence in juvenile fish and syngnathids (the family of fish that includes pipefish, which are relatives of the endangered Knysna seahorse). The Knysna Estuary is one of the most important estuaries in South Africa in terms of biodiversity, so she was drawn to conducting her research within this valuable national asset.
Merrisa believes that nothing in science has any value until communicated to society. Science communication is integral to bridge a gap between the science community and the public. Communication of research and its findings broadens our understanding of crucial issues that affect our surrounding environment, sparks relevant debates and mobilises action that leads to more informed decisions.
NELSON MANDELA UNIVERSITY
Nikita is pursuing a master’s degree in mathematical statistics, with a focus on data science application to finance, at Nelson Mandela University. Nikita is delving into the world of artificial intelligence and exploring the usefulness of an application known as machine learning to the financial world.
She started her studies doing a Bachelor of Commerce degree, majoring in economics and statistics. Throughout her undergraduate degree, she realised how much she enjoyed the maths and statistics modules and so after graduating decided to study toward an honour’s degree in statistics and continue on to a master’s degree.
Her research aims to identify the most effective machine learning algorithms that can be used to predict whether the stock market is in a high or low volatility state at any given time. Volatility plays a role in equity risk and return, and so her research could prove useful to various stakeholders, such as asset managers.
Nikita believes scientists have the potential to change the status quo – particularly young scientists, with their innovative and optimistic ideas. Scientists should be skilled in effective communication so that their research can reach more people outside the academic community. Otherwise, an idea and its potential to bring about change may never materialise.
Farshad Asl said, “Believing and investing in yourself is the best way to shift your thinking from a paradigm of excuses to one of solutions.”
UNIVERSITY OF WITWATERSRAND
Kelebogile is a Master’s students in clinical psychology at the University of Witwatersrand. Her work focuses on local cultural-specific models of parenting, and on an Afrocentric version of what makes a parent “good enough”. She hopes her work will be useful for the development of more specific parenting intervention programs for local mothers.
Hailing originally from Welkom in the Free State, Kelebogile says she had big dreams from early in life. She grew up as a very curious child and knew from a young age she wanted to be a psychologist. Although psychology is still a relatively young science, she believes it holds much power and hope for our society. In pursuing her bachelor’s degree and subsequently following to her Master’s, she realised how much knowledge was still lacking in the field, particularly the African perspective to the largely westernised, Eurocentric schools of thought in the field.
An interest in infant mental health in early childhood development in developing countries has highlighted that the ways in which mothers manage stress can have an effect on a child’s rate of development, and mental and physical health. Mothers in developing country settings have multiple stressors to negotiate and are at greater risk. Ethnicity and poverty have a significant impact on the way parents raise their children. Increased levels of interpersonal and community violence contribute to this, and high levels of post-partum depression have been found in South Africa. These impact the mother’s capacity to parent. Local mental health professionals have limited knowledge of local cultural-specific parenting.
Kelebogile has realised the value of science communication to disseminate important, beneficial and ground-breaking findings and to facilitate discussion outside academic communities, as we are all important in building a progressive South Africa.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” — Barack Obama
Staci is pursuing a master’s degree in botany, with a focus on invasion ecology. Her research focuses on Australian acacias, which is an invasive species within the Western Cape.
Staci grew up and attended school in the northern suburbs of Cape Town. She always had a passion for nature and science, and this passion was nurtured through her high school years and led to her completing her Bachelor of Science degree in biodiversity and ecology at Stellenbosch University. During this time, her interest in invasive plant species and their impacts on the surrounding environment peaked and culminated into her current research.
One reason that acacias grow successfully in the Cape is their friendship with soil bacteria. These bacteria enhance the acacias’ growth by providing them with more nutrients than what they ordinarily accumulate from the nutrient-poor soils of the Cape. Staci’s research suggests that both the acacias and their bacterial friends were introduced to the Western Cape from Australia. This begs the question of whether Australian acacias would have been as successful invaders if their Australian bacterial friends had not joined them in the Western Cape.
Staci believes science communication is crucial and that research should not be conducted for the sake of research and for researchers alone. Instead, research should be implemented, from informing policy to supporting the pubic on how to live a better and more sustainable life. This is not possible by using scientific jargon in communication. For research to be noticed, implemented and effective, scientists need to break free from the confines of scientific jargon and have straightforward and clear discussions about their research.
“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make” – Jane Goodall
UNIVERSITY OF LIMPOPO
Nomvula is a master’s student in zoology at the University of Limpopo, focussing on biodiversity. Her research hopes to address issues of aquatic pollution, as our freshwater resources have been affected by human activity, decreasing water quality and the amount of aquatic life. Agricultural activities have resulted in the washing of fertilisers and pesticides into water, which results in excessive richness of nutrients and eutrophication. Mining, sewage disposals and other industries have also affected our water bodies. She is looking at how to use fish as indicators of the health of aquatic ecosystems.
Nomvula comes from Barberton in Mpumalanga. She was always a big “fan” of science and grew up being fascinated about how things work. She started her career by studying towards a Bachelor’s of Science in Molecular and Life Sciences at the University of Limpopo. She says she felt out of place until she did courses in zoology and microbiology, which she found interesting and challenging, and which fitted in with her love for animals. After completing her undergraduate degree, she knew she wanted to continue her studies in biodiversity in the field of zoology.
Nomvula says most scientific research affects the well-being of people, and so it is important to empower people with the discoveries of research and the evidence to allow people to make decisions about their lives.
TSHWANE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY
Boipelo Poho is an aspiring analytical chemist from Virginia, a small town in Free State province. She is currently studying at the Tshwane University of Technology, where her research project focuses on improving water quality, by water purification through a process called desalination.
She credits her experiences at high school for intensifying her love for science. She participated in various science and innovative competitions such as the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists and the South African Youth Water Prize, in which she represented her province at the nationals. She says these experiences made her more curious and encouraged her to experiment and explore the field of science.
Her current research investigates using a graphene battery as the source of energy in desalination. The project hopes to provide solutions for improved water quality in rural arears in South Africa, whether there is a scarcity of water or poor water quality.
Boipelo believes that science is of great benefit to humanity and hopes to improve awareness of how science can impact our everyday lives. A quote that inspires her is “You are the best, never settle for less.”
UNIVERSITY OF WITWATERSRAND
Gillian is a PhD candidate at the University of Witwatersrand’s Advanced Drug Delivery Platform Research Unit, under the directorship of Professor Viness Pillay. Her research focuses on improving treatment through pharmaceutical biomaterials and polymer-engineered drug delivery technologies.
Her rise into this advanced medical research field started from a humble beginning in Matsulu village in Mpumalanga province, where her supportive family and their respect for education empowered her. As a young child she got her hands on an encyclopaedia, sparking a thirst for knowledge, which has driven her since. She credits brilliant minds in the Department of Pharmacy at Wits and their innovative thinking in pharmaceutical research for sustaining her passion.
Gillian’s research more specifically focuses on treatment for traumatic brain injury, which often results in irreversible damage due to the limited ability of the central nervous system to regenerate and the lack of effective therapies to aid in the repair/regeneration of neural tissue following injury. Her research aims to develop a novel scaffold that mimics brain tissue to potentially aid in the repair or regeneration of neural tissue following traumatic brain injury.
Gillian believes is takes a village to generate new knowledge through science, and we all have a role to play from the birth of an idea to its fruition. Funders, including tax payers; project supervisors; media and the public all contribute to the investment of time and money into science, so we cannot choose to keep new science knowledge to the “intellectually elite”, she says. Communication needs to be inclusive to truly share the impact of the work.
Guided and inspired by an interpretation of Isaiah 58:11, “Where God guides, He provides!”, she feels blessed in her journey so far.
UNIVERSITY OF WITWATERSRAND
Thashen is a geophysics student at the University of Witwatersrand. His research focuses on studying earthquakes underground, looking for stress trends in seismic datasets, and hopes it will contribute to more effective disaster management systems and improve the safety of miners.
Thashen comes from Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. He initially wanted to become a medical doctor with the desire to help people, but after discovering the seriousness of water shortage in South Africa, he decided to become a hydrogeologist in an attempt to solve this major concern. Through this, he became aware of the field of geophysics, which integrates mathematics, physics, geology and some computer science to solve real world problems. He says he saw great potential for helping people that work in harsh conditions and immediately took on this challenging journey.
Thashen believes science communication is an effective way of sharing and raising awareness of what he does as a scientist. Most people would never be exposed to a career like geophysics, which he feels is sad as we need young and innovative leaders in the field to help develop new or existing methods for the safety of mankind. Thashen’s FameLab talk has already inspired a young boy to want to become a scientist.
“Leadership isn’t about age but rather, leadership is about influence, impact and inspiration.” -Onyi Anyado
UNIVERSITY OF CAPE TOWN AND THE SOUTH AFRICAN CENTRE FOR EPIDEMIOLOGICAL MODELLING AND ANALYSIS (SACEMA)
Rita is a young woman determined to succeed and make the most out of a challenging start in life. With a master’s degree in mathematical sciences, Rita is working in the field of biostatistics, using mathematical models in the field of HIV research.
Rita says she always wanted a life filled with purpose and after someone close to her heart died from HIV infection, she was determined to contribute to and use knowledge of how to treat and cure fast-evolving viruses like HIV. When an individual is infected with HIV, the genetic structure of the virus changes as the disease spreads in the body and as new people are being infected. Whenever HIV is exposed to a drug during an infection, it will eventually become resistant to the drug. Mathematical models that describe patterns of evolution are used to help us understand how the virus will evolve (change) over a period of time and hence enable us to counter drug resistance. I am working at implementing such models that make use of the actual biochemical processes of HIV evolution.
Rita believes that when knowledge is shared, everyone can work towards a common goal. In order to implement scientific findings, it is important that everyone infected or affected by the issue at hand understands the concepts surrounding the problem.
“Successful people don’t have fewer problems. They have determined that nothing will stop them from going forward.” Ben Carson.
Stephanie is a master’s student in clinical anatomy at Stellenbosch University. Her research aims to help identify potential difficult colorectal procedures in men due to a small pelvis, and will help clinicians to determine the most appropriate approach to treating pelvic diseases, such as colorectal cancer. Males from the different South African population groups appear to have significantly different sizes of the bony pelvis. Stephanie’s works aims to quantify the pelvic dimensions within each population group to assess pelvic confinement.
Stephanie comes from Durban originally, but has lived in Cape Town for five years. She says at school science, thankfully, came naturally to her but she never considered becoming a scientist. She was interested in the health professions and had a passion drama. Due to challenges of the entertainment industry, she did not consider pursuing it as a career and so, as an unsure matriculant, she decided to study a general BSc in Health Sciences. There, I found her love for anatomy, and pursued this on a postgraduate level and continues to do so. She had never thought to become a scientist or researcher, but once she discovered the wonders of anatomy, she needed to know more.
Stephanie believes that science communication is crucial because education is power. She believes that communicating her research to those who could be affected by the outcome is her duty as a researcher and aspiring educator. She feels very strongly about promoting evidence-based health care and quality anatomical education in the health professions. She is dedicated to her research and strives for better anatomical education within the health profession, of which neither could be done effectively without being able to communicate science.
“If you can’t feed a hundred people, just feed one.” – Mother Teresa
CENTRAL UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY
Goitsemang is a Master’s student in plant breeding at Central University of Technology and the Agricultural Research Council Grain Crop Institute. He is inspired by Amit Gupta’s quote of “Nothing in Nature lives for itself”.
Fascinated by science discoveries and innovation since an early age, he started his science career in the field of biomedical technology in the laboratory and moved into the agricultural sector to learn new skills. Research gave him the platform to express and put in practice all the complementary skills he learned from these two disciplines. It has allowed him to contribute to his vision of bettering lives through food security, production efficiency and healthcare.
More specifically, his current research focuses on the legume, cowpea. Weevil infestations can cause 90 to 100% production and economic losses of stored cowpea. The loss affects both developing and developed countries, hindering food supply throughout the year. He is using resistant cowpea as donors to transfer the resistance genes to susceptible varieties.
He believes science communication breaks a societal perception that scientists act as demigods, through their capability to understand and use natural phenomena that affect all life forms. He urges and motivates scientists to interact with society to acknowledge and take into consideration any ethical concerns in their work. These interactions will create informed and engaged communities in future generations.
COUNCIL FOR SCIENTIFIC AND INDUSTRIAL RESEARCH, AND TSHWANE UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY
Keneilwe is a research intern at the National Centre for Nanostructured Materials at the CSIR and is using nanotechnology to help clean up water pollution. She uses polymer nano-composites to fuse to waste materials and remove specific heavy metals, which are pollutants from mining and industrial activities.
She says that from as early as she could remember, she was curious about how things in the world around her work and what goes into everything we see and use on a daily basis. She realised that if she could understand how and why things are the way they are, then she could have the power to change the world around her and make it better. She says that becoming a chemist is her way of contributing to change.
She believes science Communication is important because it makes science, engineering and technology accessible to the public and it helps cultivate the next generation of researchers and innovators. She says if she hadn’t seen someone who looked like her and came from the same circumstances as she had doing this work, she would have never thought it possible.
“Creativity is contagious, pass it on” – Albert Einstein
UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH AFRICA
Charmaine Tshangana is a 2nd year PhD candidate in chemistry at UNISA’s Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability Research Unit, where her research focuses on water treatment for better quality water.
Her interest chemistry was born in her early years, growing up in the mining town of Virginia in the Free State, where the street names were the elements on the periodic table. She became fascinated not only by the periodic table but also by the world around her and as a child loved asking questions and solving problems. She says she always had a ‘crazy’ idea that one day she could solve some of the world’s problems through science.
Following her childhood dreams, she completed an undergraduate degree in chemistry and then continued with her honours and master’s degrees at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape. During this time, her love and passion for research solidified and she knew then she wanted to spend the rest of her life solving complex issues with research. In her PhD research at UNISA, she is inspired by Socrates’s quote “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”.
Her current research focuses on developing a solar driven purification system, comprised of a nano-filtration membrane unit that is able to remove all contaminants found in water. The system is capable of treating water originating from natural sources such as wells, rivers and dams without the use of electricity. Ultimately, this could provide good quality drinking water to all at an affordable cost. As the system does not use electricity from the grid, which is largely produced from the burning of coal in South Africa, it will also not contribute to CO2 emissions that are impacting climate change.
She believes communicating science is an important bridge between scientists and non-scientists. She says the days are gone when science was perceived to be difficult and can only be communicated and understood exclusively by scientists. Today, communicating science allows us to build a society that helps non-scientists understand the nuances and complexities of science within society and how our innovations contribute and shape everyday life.