Q: Tell us briefly about your background?
A: I was born and raised in Phokwane, Limpopo Province. I am the second child in a family of six. Although I come from a disadvantaged background, my family always strived for and valued education which is why I ended up where I am today.
Q: What did you study and where?
A: I completed a BSc degree and Honours in Aquaculture from the University of Limpopo; MSc in Applied Marine Science; and PhD in Ocean and Atmosphere Science from the University of Cape Town.
Q: Is this the career you envisioned for yourself growing up?
A: Growing up I always wanted to be a scientist. Life Sciences was my favorite subject at primary and high school and I excelled at it so much that in Grade 5 my teacher gave me an opportunity to explain some of the concepts to my classmates. I was then captured by the fascinating world of computer models when I experimented with the Probit Analysis and Spearman-Karber methods to calculate lethal concentrations in toxicity bioassays for my Honours project. My affinity for science and computer models had since steered me to a biogeochemical modeling focused research.
Q: What is your research focus on?
A: My current research focuses on ocean biogeochemical modeling around the coast of South Africa. I use high resolution models to understand biogeochemical cycles and generation of greenhouse gases in the ocean. My responsibilities, besides research, include representing the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) at local and international conferences; communicating findings from my research through lectures; and also participating in education outreach activities. I have been with SAEON as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow since November 2017.
Q: What is the impact of your research?
A: There is a need to improve physical and biogeochemical representation in ocean models in order to have a better understanding of the processes and help us make future predictions. My research is focused on improving biogeochemical representation in ocean models; understanding biogeochemical cycles; and generation of greenhouse gases around the coast of South Africa. Findings from my research not only benefit research in a South African context but also can be applied in other oceanic regions where similar conditions exist.
Q: Who has been your greatest inspiration?
A: I draw inspiration from researchers and academics with similar backgrounds to mine, who had to overcome many obstacles to get where they are today. Lately there is a cohort of these researchers and academics and their stories bring hope and encouragement to individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to reach their fullest potential. I always had a good support system from family and friends throughout my career that I am grateful for. I also learnt to align myself with colleagues who share similar values to build a support system and encourage each other along the way.
Q: What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?
A: One of the biggest obstacles I have faced during my studies was lack of proper mentorship. I had to learn things on my own and identify opportunities that will help me grow and benefit my career. This in the end was a good thing because I learnt valuable lessons that I can transfer to my mentees in the future.
Q: What is your advice for young people who want to pursue a career in STEM?
A: Don’t be afraid of failure and branching into fields you have never been exposed to. As long as you have the courage, patience and desire to learn, you will always achieve your goals. Give yourself time to learn, grow and always keep in mind that every expert was once a beginner.
Q: What do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?
A: My vision for the next ten years is to be in a position that will allow me to prosper, be able to do research that’s beneficial to society and also offer opportunities to mentor young researchers.
Youth Month, SAEON, ocean biogeochemical, Dr Thulwaneng Mashifane