NRF 25 years: Associate Professor Marshall Sheldon

NRF 25 years: Associate Professor Marshall Sheldon

This year, the NRF is celebrating a major milestone in our history as we commemorate 25 years of Research, Innovation, Impact and Partnerships. It gives us great joy to share the accomplishments and impact of the many students and researchers we have supported during various stages of their careers. We thank all participants for submitting their stories and hope that you enjoy reading about their journey with the NRF.

Associate Professor Marshall Sheldon is the Executive Dean of Engineering, the Built Environment, and Technology at Nelson Mandela University. She has received a number of grants from the NRF over the years and currently holds an NRF C-rating (established researcher in her field).

How did your journey start?

I have a National Diploma and Bachelor of Technology Degree in Chemical Engineering from the then Cape Technikon. I studied Chemical Engineering, mainly due to my interest in Physical Chemistry and Mathematics at school. I was accepted at UCT, however, I chose Cape Technikon due to financial constraints and lack of funding opportunities. Even though I passed my matric with an “A” aggregate, I initially struggled to find funding for my studies.

After obtaining my degree in 1996, I worked in industry during which I commenced a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration, part-time. I was offered a position as a Lecturer in Chemical Engineering at Cape Technikon in January 1999. I have 25 years of experience in Higher Education during which I earned my Master’s (2001) and Doctoral (2008) degrees in Chemical Engineering. Throughout my career, I have occupied a diverse range of academic and leadership roles, including, Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor, Head of Programme of Chemical Engineering, Assistant Dean of Engineering: Teaching and Learning, Dean of Engineering, and Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Technology Innovation, and Partnership. Currently, I proudly hold the position of Executive Dean: Engineering, the Built Environment and Technology at the Nelson Mandela University. My career spans 12 years in management, including 10 in Senior Management and two and a half in Executive Management.

I am a registered Professional Engineering Technologist with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) and member of the Water Institute of South Africa (WISA); the South African Institute of Chemical Engineers (SAIChE); the South African Society for Engineering Educators (SASEE); and the Global Engineering Deans’ Council (GEDC), which have further expanded my network and fostered collaborations on an international scale. I am also a past member of the UK Institute of Chemical Engineers (IChemE).

I have served on several boards such as the South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre (SARETEC) Governance Board; Western Cape Department of Transport and Public Works’ Masakh ‘Isizwe Advisory Committee; Western Cape Education Department Council; and the South African Society for Engineering Education (SASEE) Board.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

I would not have been able to complete my Doctorate and achieve what I have in my research and engagement activities without the support of the NRF.

My funding sources were mainly from different NRF funding instruments starting with an NRF (IRDP) grant of R39 000 in 2000, with subsequent funding from the IRDP up to 2006; NRF (Focus Areas) in 2002 and 2003; NRF Thuthuka from 2007 to 2012; NRF IFR from 2010 to 2015; NRF Competitive Programme for Rated Researchers (CPRR) 2016 to 2018; and NRF Knowledge, Interchange and Collaboration (KIC) over several years which covered some of my international study visits.

After obtaining my Doctorate in Chemical Engineering, the NRF funding allowed me to continue my research in the areas of aerobic and anaerobic systems, specifically membrane bioreactor systems, focussing on wastewater treatment for various industrial applications; and then moving to forward osmosis systems. These were fairly new research areas in the institution at the time and the NRF funds significantly assisted with the acquisition of much-needed equipment; covered the operational expenses; provided assistance for the appointment of a laboratory manager and research assistants; and, most importantly, bursaries for most of final-year and BTech projects and postgraduate Master’s and Doctoral students.

Furthermore, the NRF funding allowed me and my students to present our research by covering expenses for national and international conferences, thereby assisting in creating a network of collaborators.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

For my Doctoral degree in Chemical Engineering, I specialised in the application of membrane gradostat reactors (MGRs) and subsequently in membrane bioreactors (MBRs) for the application of wastewater treatment.

Since 2009, my research activities included the use of MBRs for wastewater treatment for the treatment of different industrial wastewaters. As part of a technology assessment project, a pilot-scale dual-stage MBR was designed, constructed, and tested for the treatment of textile wastewater and was operated on-site for nine months in 2010 at a textile company. This work was published in two articles and a WRC technical report.

A lab-scale MBR was also designed, commissioned, and tested for the treatment of paper and pulp (2010); potato-maize (2011); polymer (2012); soft drink (2013); poultry (2014-2017); and municipal (2017-2018) wastewater.

Since 2016, my research focus shifted to forward osmosis (FO) technology for applications within the textile and agriculture industries in South Africa. This was a three-year NRF project that delivered as part of the outcomes three research articles with a range of collaborations internationally.

Why is your work/studies important?

The MBRs were applied in real-world industrial wastewater sectors which included various industrial partners from the paper and pulp, textile, potato-maize and soft drinks industries to local municipalities in the Western Cape.

The research produced treated water results which met discharge standards with reduced impact on the environment. Depending on the industry and combination of treatment tested, the treated water could be recycled and repurposed into operations on site, reducing the consumption of fresh water.

What are some of your proudest academic achievements?

I received my first NRF Y2 rating in 2009 and with the funding from the NRF to further my research I obtained an NRF C2 rating in 2016. With the NRF funding, I was able to successfully guide the academic journeys of 14 Master’s students and four Doctoral students, most of whom were Black South Africans from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Furthermore, my scholarly contributions from this funding include 30 authored and co-authored accredited and peer-reviewed articles in national and international peer-reviewed journals; nine conference papers; one book chapter; and one technical report. The research has been presented at more than 60 national and international conferences.

My proudest moments have always been the success of my Doctoral postgraduate students, all of whom are successful academics making their own unique contributions to the South African higher education space.

The rights to this article (content and images) are reserved by the National Research Foundation of South Africa. This work is licenced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 DEED) license: this implies that the article may be republished (shared) on other websites, but the article may not be altered or built upon in any way. Credit must be given to the National Research Foundation and a link provided back to the original article.

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