Women's Month 2023: Dr Ayanda Shabalala

Women’s Month 2023: Dr Ayanda Shabalala

August is Women’s Month, and this year the National Research Foundation (NRF) is celebrating the remarkable contributions that have been made by women researchers for the betterment of humanity. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Dr Ayanda Shabalala is a Senior Lecturer in Water Management at the University of Mpumalanga (UMP). She is an NRF Thuthuka grantholder and also received support under the NRF Black Academics Advancement Programme.

What impact did the NRF have on your studies/career?

In 2019, I was a recipient of the NRF Black Academic Advancement Programme sabbatical grant. The grant enabled me to take a year off from my work as a lecturer and focus on completing my doctoral research titled Development of Pervious Concrete Reactive Barrier for Remediation of Acid Mine Drainage. The fund was used for research running expenses, lecturer replacement and travelling costs as I regularly commuted between UMP and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) where I was registered for my Doctoral studies. The sabbatical provided me with uninterrupted time for research and an opportunity to enhance my knowledge and expertise in my field of research. Hence, I was able to graduate with a PhD in Civil Engineering in 2021.

In 2022, I was awarded the NRF Thuthuka grant to investigate the potential of a pervious concrete reactive barrier in treating polluted or acidic mine water and removing undesirable contaminants. The pervious concrete liner is proposed as an alternative treatment method for addressing the acid mine drainage problem in South Africa. The treatment system has been installed at UMP. The next step is to monitor its performance in removing targeted contaminants in the AMD as well as determining the life span of the treatment plant. The NRF Thuthuka funding has opened up opportunities for Honours and MSc students to be involved in the project, thus developing their capacity and competency in the field of water quality monitoring and wastewater treatment. One journal article has been published, proving insights into mechanisms governing the passive removal of inorganic contaminants from acid mine drainage using a permeable reactive barrier.

What has been your study/career journey?

I come from a small town with very limited opportunities for growth. As such, I didn’t have role models to look up to, especially in the field of science. I was fortunate enough to receive financial support through bursaries and scholarships for my education, from high school until my Doctorate. 

I obtained my PhD in Civil Engineering from UJ; MSc in Water Resources Management from the University of Pretoria; Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Physical Chemistry from the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University; and a Bachelor of Science in Applied Chemistry degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

I started my career in 2009 as a geohydrologist at the Council for Geoscience where my responsibilities included conducting laboratory and field parameter measurements, surface and groundwater monitoring, impact and risk assessment of contamination sites. In 2015, I joined the UMP as a lecturer in Water Management. I have since progressed to Senior Lecturer and programme leader for the Bachelor of Science in Environmental Sciences programme. It has been said that the next world war is likely to be fought over water, hence the importance of managing our water resources so that the current and future generations can benefit from them. I’ve decided to specialise in wastewater treatment with a specific focus on acid mine drainage and the potential utilisation of treated wastewater for beneficial uses such as irrigation.

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

Contaminated water flowing from abandoned mines is one of the most significant contributors to water pollution. The scale of the AMD problem in South Africa is enormous, arising from various mining initiatives, specifically the Witwatersrand goldfields; KwaZulu- Natal and Mpumalanga coal fields; and the O’Kiep Copper District in the Free State. This water is highly acidic and comprises high concentrations of metals, sulphates, salts, and radioactive material amongst other contaminants.

During the past eight years, I have conducted laboratory and field scale studies on the use of a pervious concrete reactive barrier system in the remediation of acid mine drainage. These studies have shown that the pervious concrete system is potentially novel, an effective wastewater treatment method and offers a promising alternative treatment method for polluted or acidic mine water. The outputs of this research work have been presented at conferences and resulted in the publication of seven articles in accredited journals.

Why is your research/work important?

Pervious concrete reactive barrier technology is characterised by low cost, low maintenance, no-energy use, user-friendliness and eco-friendliness. The technology can contribute to the restoration of a healthy and balanced ecological environment in mined areas by remediating contaminated soil and water resources.

The versatility of pervious concrete is anticipated to provide the technology for the reclamation of disused land due to mining which could potentially create a resurgence of farming and agriculture in such abandoned lands, potentially providing economic revitalisation.

This research has led to the development of the scientific capacity of staff and postgraduate students in the field of water treatment, water quality monitoring and wastewater management at UMP. Knowledge and understanding gained on methods, theory and application of concrete permeable barriers for long-term management of polluted mine water have been made available through publications in accredited and peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings. Eight publications in accredited journals have come out of the current research.

I have also partnered with a community-based organisation affected by the AMD. Members of the organisation participated in the installation and monitoring of the pilot plant and were, therefore, capacitated in water treatment and water quality monitoring. The next step of my research is to further improve the treatment system (attenuation of the high sulphate and alkalinity in the treated water); make the technology accessible to the mining sector, government and private companies for large-scale implementation; and design low-cost household concrete filters that can be used in both rural and urban areas for domestic wastewater and greywater treatment.

There is still a long way to go to truly achieve equity and a sense of belonging for women, be it within the research community or society in general. How do you envision yourself contributing to this space?

Women in academia still face a number of challenges and have little presentation in the management structures of institutions of higher learning. I have made some strides in empowering females in academia through mentorship, supervision, and funding of tuition fees through my research grants. I’m currently supervising five female students who are doing their Master’s research projects. My role includes sharing my skills and knowledge, overseeing their work, and providing guidance, advice, feedback, and support. I involve them in all aspects of my work from running student practicals, assisting other postgraduate students with their research work, conducting fieldwork, writing research papers, and guiding them in their own professional and personal goals.

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

Many strides have been made to attract girls into STEM-related careers. This is evident by an increasing number of female students studying towards science and engineering qualifications in institutions of higher learning. However, females remain under-represented in the leadership structures of industries and institutions of higher learning. Beyond getting the qualification, there is a need for leadership development among young professionals in order to boost their confidence in taking up leadership roles. Mentorship and support groups where women can converse on significant and current issues within their sector, share work experiences and advice, become aware of opportunities for their development at higher levels, and sharpen visibility to rise to top leadership will go a long way in empowering women in STEM-related careers. Early in their careers, women should invest in skills such as interpersonal skills, organisation, and leadership skills as this will increase opportunities for career advancement.

A number of studies have reported that female students are often more inclined to study in disciplines in which they perceive that they can help people, work with people and enact communal goals. Women are more likely to pursue careers in engineering and science when the work makes a social impact.  In order to appeal to female engineers, institutions of higher learning should develop study programmes that focus on STEM but with a social context. Examples of such study programmes can include the development of technologies that improve the lives of people living in poverty, designing and building dams, water distribution systems, and water purification plants from low-cost and recyclable materials.

This work is licenced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 ZA) license. Please view the terms for republishing here.

Related Posts