Women's Month 2023: Yolanda Mbalentle Mngcongo

Women’s Month 2023: Yolanda Mbalentle Mngcongo

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.

Ms Yolanda Mbalentle Mngcongo is a Master’s candidate in Environmental Health (Nanomedicine) under the DSI-Mandela Nanomedicine Platform and the Department of Environmental Health at Nelson Mandela University (NMU). She is currently funded by the NRF for her Master’s.

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

I was fortunate enough to be awarded an NRF Master’s scholarship. This has been one of my greatest achievements, considering the fact that the scholarship has enabled me to pursue my Master’s degree and granted me an opportunity to engage in research that will contribute towards ensuring the reduction of communicable diseases. This will ultimately contribute towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 3 which advocates for ensuring healthy lives at all ages.

What has been your study/career journey?

When I was doing Grade 12 in 2017, I read a poem in the IsiXhosa class called ‘Inyibiba’, otherwise known as a lily in English. As I analysed this poem, it described how the lily grows beautifully and blossoms despite the rocky grounds it grows in. I personalised it as I felt it was telling a story of my circumstances. Coming from KwaZakhele, a black township in Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape with a low socio-economic status, I decided to further my studies so that I could be a good role model and motivate others to raise the standard of their homes and communities.

As a first-generation university student who was raised by a single mother, I went from being a tutor, sales assistant and a computer lab assistant to help maintain our home. Throughout my four years of study, I was able to obtain my Bachelor’s in Environmental Health with an overall aggregate of 77% and 23 distinctions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, my mother was among the millions of people who were left unemployed. Subsequently, I managed to get a one-year community service internship to be the sole breadwinner of the family.

Despite the circumstances I experienced, I have been consistent with my performance as is reflected in my academic results, and I continue to strive for more. In primary and high school, I was an overall school and grade top achiever and was recognised in the 2017 Top 20 Herald-Continental Matric of the Year in the Eastern Cape and Southern Cape. I continued working hard at university and I was recognised by the Golden Key International Honour Society as one of the top university performers throughout my university years. In 2020, I was honoured with the Great Star Award in recognition of my academic performance as well as skills, talents, and qualities that I exhibited and I was provided with workshops to network with potential employers.

This year, I am pursuing my Master’s degree in Environmental Health (majoring in Nanotechnology) to develop innovative ways to improve healthcare settings and ensure the public health and safety prevention of environmental conditions that may constitute health hazards, as well as sustainability and environmental preservation, focusing more on the prevention of nosocomial infections.

I presented my research at the 2023 Falling Walls Lab Event in Johannesburg and was awarded third place in the category of innovative ideas that can contribute to changing the world and making it a better place. Subsequently, I was interviewed by Mpuma Kapa TV, the Eastern Cape’s Commercial Community Television Channel, here and NMU also published an article here.

I am proud to say that this work is being supported by the NRF.

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

I am currently working on the application of nanotechnology for one of the major public health concerns of nosocomial (healthcare-associated) infections in healthcare settings, and on developing a robot that will vacuum the airborne pathogens from the air and clean them off the surfaces.

Nosocomial infections are those infections that were not present during the time of a person’s admission and may occur in healthcare settings, such as in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and ambulance settings, and may also appear after the patient is discharged.

In this research, I am focusing on an environmentally friendly and sustainable approach known as green synthesis which is the use of natural products with antibacterial properties to formulate nanoparticles (very tiny particles that you cannot see with your naked eye) which will have the ability to target the bacteria in healthcare settings which may be harmful to human health.

Why is your research/work important?

The existence of organisms that are pathogenic to health is inevitable as they keep emerging in the environment. This contributes to the increased burden of disease and the deterioration of the state of human health and the environment because of bacteria-induced diseases.

There are opportunistic pathogens that are commonly associated with most nosocomial infections in healthcare settings, and they affect vulnerable hosts such as the elderly and immunocompromised individuals. Approximately one-seventh of South African patients are infected with those nosocomial infections. It is crucial to establish efficient and sustainable control and preventive strategies for these pathogens. By doing so, the transmission of pathogenic bacteria in the environment can be reduced, leading to a decline in the overall disease burden and the promotion of good health and well-being for individuals of all age groups. Ultimately, the approach applied in this research can contribute to the improvement of air quality in healthcare settings and public health.

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?

It is clear as I have joined the sphere of research. Although I come from a previously disadvantaged background, in my research I am searching for a solution to combat healthcare-acquired infections in healthcare settings. This can help the public to feel safe in healthcare settings and to improve the communities that I am coming from. That is how I am making a mark and taking up the space.

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

Every journey has its peaks and valleys, but the golden rule is in staying resilient in times of doubt and challenges. As I continue to further my studies, I came to a realisation that I have to stay curious and keep learning because STEM fields are dynamic, they are always evolving and there is no one that will carry you by hand and spoon-feed you. Instead, you have to advocate for yourself, and always stay proactive in seeking out new challenges that will help you grow personally and professionally.

Also, nothing holds a strong lady back, not even the stereotypes about which gender STEM careers are for. As girls, we ought to participate in changing and improving the world so that we make it a beautiful place to live in for us and for future generations to come.

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