Youth Month 2021: Dr Pertunia Mashile

Youth Month 2021: Dr Pertunia Mashile

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are Advancing Knowledge, Transforming Lives and Inspiring a Nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young dreamers and achievers who are affiliated with the NRF through their work or studies.

Dr Pertunia Mashile is currently an Intern at the Water Research Commission Graduate Employability Programme (WRC-GEP) based at UNISA’s Institute for Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability (iNANO-WS).

This is her story…

My journey with the NRF began in 2012 when I was fortunate enough to be part of the DSI-NRF Internship Programme while I was doing my Honours degree at North-West University. During this period, the NRF took us through workshops to prepare us for the life of science beyond university. One that I am forever grateful for is the MS Excel 2010 Basic to Advance certificate that we obtained through these workshops. Further training on presentations, report writing and scientific research writing workshops prepared me for the rest of my postgraduate journey. The best part is that all this was done at no cost to all the interns; the NRF took care of every aspect of training, accommodation and material needed for workshops.

After completing my Master’s, I then applied and was awarded the NRF Scarce Skills and Innovation Doctoral Scholarship. The most incredible and ultimate flex on my journey with the NRF was the NRF Research Excellence Award for Next Generation Researchers 2019 in recognition of my research work. This closed off my PhD journey on a high note.

What has been your study/career journey?

I was born and raised in Mpumalanga at a place called Msogwaba, Pienaar near Mbombela (commonly known as Nelspruit). First-born of three children and parents Mr and Mrs Mashile. My family was not rich, but my parents made sure we never lacked basic needs and school necessities. I began my school journey at Sindzawonye Primary School and thereafter went to Nelspruit Private College (NPC) for two years and completed the rest of my high school years (Grade 10-12) at Acek Academy. My high school years at Acek Academy were the pinnacle of my teenage years: I was the top achiever for two years, deputy head girl, and participated in drama, poetry and debate. Basically, if there was a school activity, Pertunia was there! Those were the years I explored my talents and enjoyed being passionate about something.

My siblings and I were never the kids you would find playing with their peers in the streets or going out. My strict parents made sure we were always at home busy with our books or doing our homework.  They always insisted that we read either a book, newspaper article or school textbooks. However, being a top achiever at school invited a lot of bullying from my classmates and sometimes other kids at school, such that when I got to matric I didn’t want to be the smart kid in the class and I deliberately stopped reading as much, raising my hands in class, or participating in any extramural activities. This affected my school performance so much that one of the school directors called me to the office to ask why my marks were dropping. I wanted to fit in with the rest, I did not want to be called names and be bullied anymore. I literally stopped juggling the balls and let them all fall in order to fit in. Bad idea, I know, and I paid a hefty price for that when my matric results came.

When I was in high school, my dream was to be a doctor or an engineer (Chemical) since I loved Biology and Chemistry. Well, after matriculating, that dream was shattered by my matric marks. I went back to school to upgrade my Maths and Science. Thereafter, I enrolled at the University of Venda (UNIVEN) for Biochemistry and Chemistry. I only did a year at the UNIVEN and left. The following year, I was home studying via UNISA and that did not work either. After UNISA, I enrolled at North-West University for an extended programme in Biology and Chemistry. This time I was ready for varsity! I fought and studied hard and managed to secure myself a bursary from CHIETA. This bursary took me from third to Honours year.

Well, I did not complete my Honours in a year because I failed some modules and had to repeat them. After Honours, I decided I was done with university and set out job-hunting, but God had other plans. While browsing for jobs, I came across an advert for a scholarship in Master’s for Nanoscience through the National Nanoscience Postgraduate Teaching and Training Platform (NNPTTP). At the time, I did not know what Nanoscience was, so I researched it and was totally impressed. I did not waste time. I applied for the scholarship and was fortunate to be accepted. This is how I ended up at the University of Johannesburg where I did both Master’s. After Master’s, I knew I wanted to do my Doctorate. I was still inspired by my dad who never gave up on me all those years ago when I was failing and didn’t complete studies at university. The nanomaterial I worked with on my Master’s project also pushed me to want to know more and work more on anything nanotechnology – and what better way than to do a whole three years of PhD to spend time with those babies.

Never during my undergraduate, Honours or all those years I stayed home did I imagine myself a PhD graduate. Yes, I wanted to be a doctor, but God delivered it in the form of PhD and I loved Chemistry, thinking it’s what I needed to be a chemical engineer. Well, God still gave me this but packaged it differently.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

Yes, quite a few. The first challenge was the transition from public to private school, coming from a Siswati medium school to an English medium. I struggled with communication and as a result, I had to remain after school so I could learn how to read and write in English. From this, I developed a love for novels and books in general and could communicate better. When I moved to another school in Grade 10, I was at a better place in terms of communication and my grades improved a lot – I became a top achiever. However, as I mentioned earlier, this invited a lot of bullying from my peers and affected my confidence and self-esteem, so much so that it affected my matric results and I had to go back and upgrade my Maths and Science. From top achiever to failure is what I constantly called myself and my self-esteem took a knock.

After upgrading, I attempted varsity. Well, not medical school or engineering, but at least I could still do the Chemistry I loved. I had no idea of what I would do with it afterwards, but I still went on to enrol for a BSc Chemistry and Biochemistry at UNIVEN after so many rejections from other institutions.  Well, my first attempt knocked me out as I failed every module. Such that the Head of Department at that time advised my dad and me that I was not suitable for university, my dad should just enrol me to colleges or computer schools. This was understandable, judging from my then transcript. I left UNIVEN a failure. Well, years later I am a university graduate with a PhD, all thanks to my father for believing in me and overlooking that advice.

I learnt through this that if it doesn’t work the first time, give it another try and another try. Sometimes the dreams we have might not come in the way we expect. I am not a medical doctor as I had dreamt I would be but I am called Dr Mashile today and couldn’t be more proud. I survived depression and university too, yay!

What is your area of expertise?

My PhD focused on the use of nanomaterial to study and analyse the presence of pharmaceuticals and some of the compounds used in personal care products in environmental waters. These particular substances are classified as emerging pollutants and are said to be endocrine disruptors for both human and aquatic animals. In some cases, studies have indicated that they can contain carcinogenic properties, which might lead to breast cancer in women.  In aquatic animals, they are reported to cause feminisation of male fishes and hinder embryonic development in some frog species. Lastly, the use of nanotechnology in the mitigation of environmental pollutants.

I am an environmental analytical chemist and focus on wastewater treatment, purification and remediation

How can your research/work advance knowledge, transform lives and inspire a nation?

Most of the products consumed and designed for use by humans are introduced into the environment via wastewater. My work provides information on how the use of a nanotechnology-based approach, rather than conventional wastewater treatment techniques, can be effective in analysing emerging pollutants from wastewater. This also highlights the useful application of nanomaterials as possible mitigation tools for environmental pollutants. Emerging pollutants have adverse effects on aquatic animals and biota, thus my work draws attention as to how we can prevent/reduce the entry of these pollutants into environmental water by employing the use of nanomaterial in the wastewater treatment processes. One of the government’s roles/mandates is to provide clean and safe drinking water and this can be possible by moving away from the ineffective conventional wastewater treatment methods to the use of more robust, cost-effective and environmentally friendly techniques such as those suggested by research findings.

Knowing the effects of what we consume has on us and the environment will drive the conversation towards the manufacturing and use of more organic products to reduce harm. It will set up a standard for water quality and the role industries must play in saving the environment and going green.  As a result, the less toxic substances humans excrete, the fewer toxins in the wastewater, resulting in a clean environment for both humans and animals. This will also drive more research into the use of nanotechnology in less harmful ways. The work plays a role in highlighting that pollution in water bodies is not just the physical pollutants such as plastic and papers but goes as deep as chemical pollution. Human activities affect the environment in more ways than the eye can see, and by looking at where the toxic substances we consume end up, we can alter our ways of manufacturing these products and eliminate the use of some.

My research work seeks to solve the problem at wastewater treatment plants where most of these pollutants end up and are then introduced to the environment. However, this is also a warning to the industries to trace their footprints in their environment; come up with standards and regulations in product manufacturing, and reduce their chemical footprint in the water.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

My proudest achievement is obtaining my PhD. This serves as a gift to my father who believed in me and never gave up on supporting my academic journey.

The award by the NRF as a young emerging researcher; never in my life would I have imagined that I could write and publish papers and present at international and local conferences and this would be worthy of an award.

What is the best advice you have ever received (and from whom)?

“You are enough,” by my father. I credit all my successes to my dad, he sees in me things I never saw/believed I had.

What, in your opinion, are some of the best ways to get youngsters interested in science-related careers?

I believe that when you see it, you remember it, and want it. There is a need for young people to see young STEM professional – the visibility of these professionals will generate interest towards fields in STEMI.

Schools and teachers should also promote having career days where young professionals from any STEM field visit the school (no matter how rural) to talk about their work and possibly mentor some of these kids. Bring the science day/fair/expo to the schools instead of taking the kids to the fair (it’s not DISNEY, it’s STEM) as this will cover more learners than the few who get selected to go to these events.

Promote innovation as an everyday thing, not something reserved for competition purposes. Many innovative kids don’t make it to these competitions, and they shouldn’t be made to believe that innovation is for competition purposes. Parents and teachers should promote the attendance of expos and job shadowing so that learners can be exposed to STEM beyond the classroom environment.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I would love to be a professional coach, speaker and facilitator. Currently, I am working on setting up my foundation, to build towards my goal of reaching young people and fulfilling my life’s purpose outside of being an academic.

I plan to use the knowledge I have gained outside of academia and direct it towards more entrepreneurial endeavours. My aim is to work with the Departments of Basic Education and Science and Innovation in formulation programmes that might be effective for learning and teaching STEM, and to promote engagements through the involvement of STEM professionals and industries, particularly, in Mpumalanga as there is a great need for such.

I would like to establish a scholarship/bursary fund for the learners who do not necessarily pass with flying colours but if given a chance can become the next innovator or STEM professionals, like myself. Diamonds in the rough. I did not pass with flying colours in matric but because someone did not give up on me, I am a PhD graduate today.

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Please view the terms for republishing here.
Related Posts