October 2015
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Science that no classroom can teach
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Meet Dr Zikhona Tetana
Improving technology education
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It's a fact!

Meet nano-researcher and prolific science writer – Dr Zikhona Tetana

  A chemist by profession, Zikhona's research interests involve finding cost-effective nanotechnologies to convert wastewater into a useful resource
  Zikhona plans to develop new nanomaterials and transform these into commercial products
  Members of the nanotechnology research group in the Wits School of Chemistry use a transmission electron microscope to study the microstructure of carbon nanomaterials synthesised in their laboratories. Front to back: Ahmed Shaikjee, Dr Heifeng Xiong, Dr Zikhona Tetana and Edward Nxumalo
Zikhona Tetana is a rare breed – young, black, female and a scientist. She attributes her majestic academic feats against the obvious odds that face her demographic to curiosity and a deep-seated desire to make a difference in people's lives.

It is, therefore, no coincidence that her principal research interest involves finding cost-effective nanotechnologies to convert wastewater into a useful resource. Breakthroughs in this regard are likely to prove to be game changer for South Africa, which is a water-scarce country.

GetSETgo caught up with this passionate young scientist to find out more about her current challenges and the things in life that excite her most:

Tell us about your job at Wits University?

I am a chemist by profession. I initially joined the University of the Witwatersrand as a post-doctoral fellow in March 2013. In January 2015 I became a Wits employee, currently working as a senior instrument scientist in the Microscopy and Microanalysis Unit. My duties involve the operation of electron microscopes (TEM and SEM), training of electron microscopy users and doing scientific research.

My research interests involve finding cost-effective nanotechnologies to convert wastewater into a useful resource, including the synthesis and characterisation of effective novel nanostructured materials for water treatment. My interest in water research grew after gaining a broad view of water-related problems from a water and wastewater treatment industry, which culminated in taking up my PhD research in water treatment.

The title of my thesis is 'Boron and nitrogen doped carbons for photochemical degradation reactions'. I have published 10 papers as principal or contributing author in several international peer-reviewed scientific journals. My publications have received 35 citations to date. I also supervise postgraduate students on a wide range of collaborative research projects in the area of nano-structured material and water research.

What influenced your career choice?

Growing up I always wanted to become a medical doctor, but the thought of having to deal with cadavers made me feel squeamish (I still don't think that I can get used to them), so I went to Wits University to do a Bachelor of Science degree majoring in chemistry and mathematics.

During my undergraduate studies, I worked on a research project with a professor in the school of chemistry. In that year I learned to work independently; I tried to figure some things out before I asked about them. I enjoyed new discoveries and gaining a better understanding of elements affecting quality of life. I felt so comfortable with what I was doing that I wanted to pursue a career in chemistry, in which I would be able to produce solutions to life's problems, including health and the environment.

What did you do before joining Wits?

I obtained a PhD in Chemistry and Nanotechnology from Wits University in 2013. During my MSc studies, I received a Johannesburg Water (JW) scholarship. Due to contractual obligations, I then had to work as a full-time employee at JW (while writing up my MSc dissertation) as a laboratory scientist, specialising in water and wastewater sample analyses, before commencing my PhD in Chemistry at Wits University in July 2009. From that time onwards I have also been working as a part-time Chemistry tutor at Unisa.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a small town in the Eastern Cape – Butterworth. Growing up, I lived in two areas. I was born in a township called Msobomvu where I completed grades 1 to 4. At the age of 10, I moved to a rural area called eMambendeni, where my parents bought land. Moving to a new home was exciting ... the only challenge I had was walking about 10 km to and from school, where I completed grades 5 to 9 – but I was fit! I then went back to Msobomvu Township to complete grades 10 to12.

What are your future plans?

With my wealth of research skills, knowledge and creativity, my future plans involve the improvement of an existing nanotechnology. Nanotechnology creates products that are lighter, stronger and "greener". I plan to develop new nanomaterials and transform them into commercial products.

What is your favourite dish?

Difficult question to answer. I've eaten many delicious meals. Prawn curry with rice is one of my favourite dishes.

Your favourite holiday destination?

My favourite holiday destination is Langebaan in Cape Town. I love it because of its beautiful mountains, sea breeze, seafood restaurants and high-class accommodation. Accommodation there is a beautiful home away from home.

What excites you most about life?

Nothing excites me more than teaching and sharing knowledge. The feeling I get from making a student happy and transforming students into academic achievers is one of the best feelings in the world.

Tell us about your family:

My family comprises six members. Apart from my father and my mother I have one sister and two brothers. My father obtained a certificate in Adult Basic Education and Training in 2005 and completed a course in HIV and AIDS Counselling from Unisa. He works for the community on a voluntary basis by helping people with HIV and AIDS. One of my brothers assists my father in his community-related projects. My mama is a retired nurse. She's a good cook, whenever I visit home I always ask her to cook one of her amazing dishes. My younger brother is completing the final year of a degree in Emergency Medical Care. My sister studied communication science and is self-employed.

Hobbies? Pets?

Besides teaching, I love exercising – aerobics and running. I don't have a pet.

Follow Zikhona Tetana on Twitter @ZTetana