Women's Month 2023: Dr Manoko Maubane-Nkadimeng

Women’s Month 2023: Dr Manoko Maubane-Nkadimeng

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 Manoko Maubane-Nkadimeng is a Senior Instrument Scientist and Researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS). She trains postgraduate students and staff in electron microscopy techniques and manages the Carbon and Catalysis Research Group in the School of Chemistry. Dr Maubane-Nkadimeng received funding from the NRF for her postgraduate studies; an NRF Thuthuka grant, and is currently supported by an NRF Unrated Researcher Grant.

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

It would not be possible for me to talk about my career without mentioning the NRF. My first relationship with the NRF was through a grantholder-linked bursary which I received through my MSc supervisor, Prof Neil Coville, at WITS. I come from a very poor background and there was no way my parents could afford my MSc fees. It was such a relief to learn that not only would the NRF cover my tuition, but I will also receive a stipend every quarter for living expenses. Although the stipend is generally not meant for this, I was also able to help my parents and contribute financially with the stipend.  This allowed me to focus on my studies without worrying about the financial burden and, as a result, I graduated with distinction in 2010.

From the moment I registered for my MSc, I knew my next stop was at a Doctoral level. I was then awarded a bursary under the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials to pursue my PhD studies (2010 – 2012). In 2013, I graduated with my PhD and took a Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Microscopy and Microanalysis Unit (MMU) at WITS (2013 – 2014).

My next encounter with the NRF was through the NRF Thuthuka Grant (2016 – 2021) and Competitive Support for Unrated Researchers (2022 – 2024). As an emerging researcher, the Thuthuka grant paved the way to where I am today. It was through the Thuthuka grant that I was able to set up my own research group, purchase equipment and chemicals, and appoint postgraduate students. I enrolled my first MSc student, who is not a PhD graduate, through Thuthuka (a grantholder-linked bursary) in 2016. For the past seven years, the NRF has been the main financial contributor towards the success of my research. From 2016 to date, I registered more than 15 students who, in one way or another, benefitted from my NRF grant. Through the NRF, I graduated seven PhD and 14 MSc students (seven graduated with distinctions). I also supervised seven BSc Hons projects to completion.

In addition, through the NRF, I hosted a successful science engagement event (under the WITS School of Chemistry) in collaboration with NRF-SAATA and The Department of Basic Education (Ekurhuleni North District). The event was held at the Kempton Park Civic Centre and was attended by Grade 10 and 11 learners from 14 secondary schools in the Ekurhuleni North District. We invited three women in STEM. Dr Letlhogonolo Mabena (Senior Lecturer, Tshwane University of Technology) was our keynote speaker and touched on her challenges and experiences in STEM; Dr Grace Ngubeni (Lecturer, WITS) spoke about a day in a life of a science researcher; and Dr Siziwe Gqoba (Senior Tutor, WITS) spoke about first-year experiences in a science laboratory. We also had various exhibitors who carried out live experiments for the learners. This is one event that I really pride myself on as it required the approvals and permissions from numerous stakeholders, such as the parents, school principals, the Department of Basic Education, and the university.

Finally, in addition to research grants, I also received other NRF-linked funding such as the Knowledge Interchange and Collaboration and the Equipment-Related Travel funding. These travel grants presented me and my students with an opportunity to attend and showcase our research work at international conferences and send students for equipment training.

What has been your study/career journey?

A bit of a long story, but I get really motivated whenever I relive it. My journey started when I was doing Grade 10 because this is where I had an opportunity to select my major subjects. Without hesitation, I chose Mathematics and Physical Sciences. Whenever I was asked what I would like to be when I grow up, I would say a nurse and I knew I needed Mathematics and Physical Science to be a nurse. However, due to a lack of information, I did not know I had to apply well before time for university admission, so when I completed my matric, I could not find space for nursing. I really wanted to further my studies and, as such, I ended up at Vista University, Daveyton Campus. Upon arrival, I asked them to give me any available science-related degree, and I was told they do not have any science degrees, so they referred me to Vista University, Mamelodi Campus. I made it to Mamelodi Campus (now the University of Pretoria) and that is where my higher education journey began.

My family was very happy that I made it to university as I was the first of seven children to go to university. My parents and all my siblings were looking forward to my graduation as to them it was as simple as graduating, getting a job and assisting financially. Unfortunately, that was not the case. After graduating with my BSc in 2004, I went into the job market, sending CVs to as many companies and institutions as possible, but I could not find a job. I observed with concern my situation at home, and when I could not find a job with my qualifications, I started to look for anything that could bring bread to the table. I ended up taking a job offer at a meat wholesaler. With my BSc degree, I was doing general work at a meat wholesaler (washing overalls for workers and making coffee for bosses). I was really committed to my work and a few weeks later I was promoted to a cook in the company’s canteen. When they closed the canteen, I was taken to a deboning section where we were making sausage and I was packaging braai packs and sausage for a popular meat outlet. This went on for two years.

While I was fully committed to my job at the meat wholesaler, I knew it was not where I wanted to be. In 2007, I decided to resign and further my studies. I registered for a BSc Hons at Sefako Makgato Health Sciences University. My course coordinator (Dr Debeila) asked me what my plans were after completing the Hons degree. I told him I would like to pursue a Master’s degree, and he told me to contact Prof Neil. I did just that, and in 2008, I registered for my MSc in Chemistry at WITS under the supervision of Prof Neil Coville.

After completing my MSc, I registered for a PhD and graduated in 2013. My PhD project focused on carbon fibres and involved the extensive use of electron microscopy, in particular, Transmission Electron Microscopy. Due to the nature of my project, I was a regular in the Microscopy and Microanalysis Unit (MMU) and I was promoted to an after-hour user (access to electron microscopy 24/7) by the unit director. This is where my love for electron microscopes developed, and due to my interest and involvement in electron microscopy, I was offered a Postdoctoral Fellowship by the MMU (2013 – 2014) and in 2015 I was offered full-time employment as a Senior Instrument Scientist/Researcher.

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

As a Senior Instrument Scientist and Researcher, my responsibilities involve teaching and training users, mainly postgraduate students/postdocs and staff members, on adequate sample preparation techniques and the use of electron microscopes. I manage the Carbon and Catalysis Research Group and my research is in the area of carbon nanotechnology, with emphasis on the production of structured nanocarbons for energy applications.

In a nutshell, my current projects involve the conversion of waste materials such as waste oil and biomass to valuable carbon materials which are used for various energy applications. For example, we make onion-like carbon nanoparticles from waste cooking oil and we use these materials as catalyst supports in fuel cells and as electrode material in solar cells. We have also produced activated carbon from marula nutshells and used the material in supercapacitors. I supervise postgraduate students and I am currently supervising six PhD and three MSc students.

Why is your research/work important?

My research addresses the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals through its waste-to-value projects. I use my research as a tool to drive human capacity development and skills transfer. Below is a demonstration of the importance of my research and its impact:

  1. Waste-to-value

We often refer to our waste-to-value projects as “two birds, one stone”. With increased industrialisation and population growth, environmental pollution has become a major contributor to global warming and climate change. Waste oil (cooking and engine oil) and biomass from agriculture are among the most common contaminants in the environment. While there are some measures in place to try and minimise the waste, for example conversion of waste oil to biofuel, the rate of waste generation is more than its recyclability and, as such, this waste still finds its way to the land, air and water, which is a direct threat to ecosystems and species. This is where my project comes in: we redirect this waste and convert it into other useful materials of value. For example, pyrolysis of waste cooking oil produces high-quality and high-purity onion-like carbons with enhanced functional groups, thus turning waste to value.

  • Human Capacity Development

This is the most fulfilling part of my job – training my students and equipping them with relevant skills to become better individuals. I achieve this through research and training. To me, this is not only about supervising their projects to completion, but it is also about providing the support they need, building their confidence and unlocking their potential.

The impact of my research is also reflected in my disseminated work. I have over 40 peer-reviewed publications and more than 20 international/national conference presentations with five invited talks. Through my research work, I became a member of internationally recognised societies and other professional bodies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; Catalysis Society of South Africa; American Chemical Society; South African Chemical Institute; African Research Universities Alliance; and the Centre of Excellence in Materials, Energy & Nanotechnology.

Through my administrative work, I serve as the Advisory Board Member at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Education; I am a Deputy Chairperson for the Employment Equity Committee for the Wits Research office; and I am the newly elected Deputy Chairperson of the Central Division of the South African Chemical Institute. I am also a reviewer for many international publishers and in 2021, the Institute of Physics (Nano Express) presented me with the Reviewer of The Year Award. I am also an examiner for various institutions, and I am a Fulbright Alumna.

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?

Firstly, while I agree with the sentiments, I also believe that women are starting to show up in these spaces. In my opinion, a sense of belonging does not start when one goes out to look for opportunities or employment etc. It starts with that little girl at home with a simple thing – like being allowed to take the remote control and select a television channel that we all watch and entertain. I have a daughter (Remmo), and her assurance and sense of belonging begin with me as a parent before it expands to her circle at school or on the playground.

I envision myself as a vessel to which a young girl from a dusty township street can take and find hope. I am contributing towards this through role modelling and mentorship. I am also involved in other activities such as science engagement events. I strongly believe that women are capable and competent and that women should keep away from spaces where they are clearly used to balance the equity numbers. They should know their worth and accept offers because they are qualified and highly competent in that particular area. Indeed, the road ahead is still long, and I look forward to a future free from “the first woman to do X and Y”, for that would be an indication that women showed up.

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

STEM is broad, and it is important to equip yourself with information before embarking on your journey. This does not start when you enter the doors of the higher learning institution, but by the time you get to high school, you should know whether you want to further a career in STEM or not, and there are many factors to consider. Time is moving fast, we live in the ChatGPT era, technology is evolving and it is a career in STEM that will better prepare you for the future. Find out what your passion and strengths are, and what experiences and skill sets you would like to acquire.

In addition, a career in STEM should not be about getting a degree and finding a job. It is about solving real-life issues that affect our communities. Get informed by asking questions and getting involved in organised events such as National Science Week, science engagement events and other STEM-related activities. These present opportunities for you to interact with people who are already in the field. Get to know their day-to-day activities, and that will help you decide whether you wish to follow a career in STEM or not.

While there are plenty of opportunities for those who are interested in STEM, it is not all roses. It is only through hard work and determination that you will break the chains and succeed in your career. Otherwise, it is all possible and I am a living example of that. Find motivation to keep going – I found motivation from my background. I wanted to change my home situation and that kept me going. I was determined and nothing could stop me. I remember one evening during Matric I was supposed to do my Maths homework, only to learn that we had run out of candles and there was no light (there was no electricity then). That night, I had two options – I could either make a plan and complete my homework, or go to sleep and give the light as an excuse. But because I was focused, I walked towards the kitchen window, opened the curtains and it was a full moon. I then used the moonlight to write my Maths homework and scored 100%.

Knowledge is power. I really wish I knew it was not a given that I would get employment at the end of my four-year BSc degree. I never saw it coming, I was not prepared, and it was so demoralising. I wish I knew my weaknesses and I also wish I knew about the funding opportunities that were available when I started my undergraduate degree. I strongly believe things would have been even better, only if I knew.

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