Youth Month 2021: Jonathan Pukuta Kiaka

Youth Month 2021: Jonathan Pukuta Kiaka

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.

Mr Jonathan Pukuta Kiaka is a Master’s student in Chemistry at the Vaal University of Technology, currently funded by the NRF for his studies.

This is his story…

I was born and raised in the DRC. After completing high school in 2011, my parents found it wise to send me to South Africa for greener pastures due to the political unrest back home. I am the last-born of seven children. As a young boy away from his parents, I chose to stay true to myself and kept my dignity without compromising any part of me. I lost my father just four months after I left my home country and I have just recently lost my mom. All these challenges were really hard on me but I kept putting God first, in front of every situation, and He mended all the broken pieces of my family and me.

Growing up, I always dreamt of being a medical doctor for one main reason, which was to save people’s lives. I came to South Africa with this passion in mind, which led me to apply for Medicine at Wits University in 2013. However, I did not get the chance to get a space at Wits due to some complications related to my nationality and where I completed my high school. Nevertheless, this challenge did not stop me from achieving my dream of helping people. This situation somehow opened my eyes to see the importance of science and that science is sometimes taken for granted. Few people know that before you can even treat people with medicine, various research into the components of the medicine is required first, and then it needs to be tested in different models for which clinical trials are then performed.

With this passion in my mind, I then decided to enrol for Chemistry at the Vaal University of Technology. This was the best decision of my life as, through this field, I will still find myself able to save people’s lives – thanks to research. Research is extremely important as I have a strong belief that it forms a foundation for helping people since there are multiple diseases that demand appropriate study and treatment. What I love the most about research is that you can never be limited. For instance, I can choose to focus on bacterial infections during my Master’s studies and perhaps decide to focus on cancer for my PhD and so forth. And, of course, through COVID-19, a lot of people have now understood the importance of science/research. Science forms an important part of the World and I am so lucky to be part of it.

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

I have had to overcome a lot of challenges to get to where I am today, including struggling to adapt to the new life, being far from my family, learning in a different language, and also the struggles to get a space at South African universities. Perhaps my biggest obstacle to overcome was the death of my mother that happened just recently. My mom was my motivation in everything I do and she was one of those people who always pushed me to do better in school and was one of the main reasons I decided to do my Master’s studies. She had struggled with high blood pressure for much of her life and died due to complications caused by the disease. Nevertheless, being able to overcome all these obstacles helped me to be mature and grow as a person and a researcher.

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

My research focuses on producing nanofibers from plant extracts incorporated into composite polymers via electrospinning technique and testing their activity against selected bacteria found in chronic wounds.

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

The persistence of antibiotic resistance in bacterial pathogens remains a primary concern for immunocompromised and critically ill hospital patients. Hospital-associated infections can be deadly and reduce the success of medical advancements, such as cancer therapies and medical implants. Hence, it is imperative to develop materials that can deliver new antibiotics with accuracy, as well as to uptake pathogenic microbes. My research will demonstrate that electrospun nanofiber mats offer a promising platform for both of these objectives because of their biological and mechanical properties. Hopefully, this will be an ideal platform for biomedical applications.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

An abstract and a poster presentation at the 62nd annual conference of the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) as an undergraduate student in 2017. The title of the presentation was Kinetics and Thermodynamics of Essential Oil Extraction from Castor Seeds and Macadamia Nuts.

My own independent initiatives to write a manuscript based on the COVID-19 related study, entitled The Impact of Natural Compounds in the Fight Against COVID-19: A review.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic (and national lockdown) change the way you work/study? How did you adapt to the “new normal”?

Yes, COVID-19 changed my way of studying since most of the activities are being held online such as the presentations in my research group, meetings with the supervisors, conferences, etc.

However, I developed some strategies that are helping me to adapt to this “new normal”. These strategies are as follow:

  • To adjust my expectations
  • To not view everything that I had as essential
  • To focus on what I can do, not what I cannot do
  • To go on a politeness binge, and
  • To think of this as a chapter in the book I am writing.

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

The best advice that I have ever received came from my mother. She once told me: “My son, you should always find a motivation in everything you do in life. Motivation activates success”.

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

Some of the best ways to get youngsters interested in STEM is by having initiatives that will engage students and teachers directly with hands-on events; inspiring learners to develop an interest in STEM, and supporting educators to better focus on STEM in the classroom.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I hope to become a better researcher so that my research can be beneficial to those in need of it. One of these days I want to see myself at the forefront of some active scientific invention to help solve some of society’s problems.

Related Posts