Youth Month 2021: Rivoningo Khosa

Youth Month 2021: Rivoningo Khosa

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.

Photo credit: Lerato Maduna, University of Cape Town

Ms Rivoningo Khosa is a Junior Research Scientist at NRF-iThemba LABS and a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town.

This is her story…

I grew up in Limpopo between Nyavani (my home village) and Giyani where I was in boarding school from primary school until my final high school year.

I always knew that I was not going to be great at being office-bound because I get bored easily. So, I contemplated being some sort of an Earth Scientist. For a long while in high school, I considered being a Geneticist – until I got worried about future employment, so I “chickened out” on that idea.

I never knew Geology would be my path, especially since I had always been under the impression that in order to study towards a Geology qualification, I would need to have done Geography in high school, which I did not do. However, on my first day of registration at the University of the Witwatersrand, I found it wasn’t necessarily a requirement.

My curiosity and not wanting to be office-bound led me to where I am today, and I have never looked back. So, I could say that I “fell” into my career in Geological Sciences. After eventually getting through my undergraduate studies, I continued to work through my postgraduate studies.

How and when did your journey with the NRF begin?

My journey with the NRF started in 2017 when I applied for and received funding towards my Honours degree.

Has the NRF provided you with any opportunities to grow in your studies/career?

The NRF has pretty much carried my studies since my Honours year. Outsides of my studies, I am currently employed by the NRF, and through their ETD programme, also funded towards my current PhD studies.

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

In 2012, I got academically excluded from the University of the Witwatersrand for not meeting the minimum academic requirements to continue with my studies. That was also the same year I lost a very important member of our family, my maternal grandmother, who played a very critical role in my upbringing. I had failed and that was a very challenging time for me. I moved to the University of Johannesburg and started my first year all over again, with some credits of course, and worked my way up since.

I learned that I do not enjoy failing. It is a horrible and crippling feeling. Failure is a place I still go to when I have a good case of imposter syndrome every now and again. However, I also learned that it is okay to fail, but more importantly, that I always have to try again.

What is your area of expertise?

My research focuses on exploring and understanding the evolution of the Southern African landscape over time, with a particular focus on bedrock fluvial channels and how they have contributed to this. I use cosmogenic nuclides and Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) to determine erosion rates and exposure ages of surfaces developed by the erosive mechanism that is brought about by rivers as they flow over the bedrock sections of rivers of interest. This has allowed for work to be conducted at NRF-iThemba LABS, which houses the only AMS in Africa, and the development of cosmogenic laboratory spaces for isotopes 10Be, 26Al, 14C and other cosmogenic isotopes in the future.

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

The evolution of the Southern African landscape has been subject to investigation for almost a century, with previous landscape evolution work based on observation, stratigraphic and surface correlation, and other dating methods. My work aims to contribute to this existing body of knowledge by quantifying the rates of landscape development by bedrock erosion along fluvial channels, comparing and contrasting the conclusions made by previous geomorphologists, geochronologists and geographers.

My work makes use of cosmogenic nuclides which are analysed by AMS at the NRF-iThemba LABS Gauteng facility. This will contribute towards the building of African capacity in the sample preparation and analysis in the geochronology field of research and allow us to be a facility that will grow into an internationally recognised one that Africans and other international collaborators can use. We also hope to inspire future geochemists and geochronologists to make use of the space and find their own research focuses from the availability of the laboratory spaces and AMS facility.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

One of my proudest moments includes getting this far in my academic and professional career, especially with academic failure in my earlier university years. I am proud of myself for not having given up. I went on to complete my Master’s degree cum laude.

My very first co-authored article, titled, Development of cosmogenic nuclide capabilities in South Africa and applications in Southern African geomorphology, was published in a special journal issue of the South African Geographical Journal in 2020. I was very proud to be a part of that publication.

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

The earlier days of the national lockdown period had me working very odd hours. It was quite challenging trying to balance being at home with everyone and being productive. It did, however, make me appreciate the few productive hours I was able to get whenever I could find some.

The lockdown also meant that parts of my work had to be put on hold. As a Geologist, it is important to have actual samples to work on. So, a critical part of my work that was affected by the lockdown was not being able to get samples. However, with the easing of the restrictions, I hope to have this attended to really soon.

I am not sure yet if I had adapted to the “new normal” because I am not sure where we really are with that. I mean, have we gotten to the point where we know for sure that this is how things are going to be like going forward, or do we still have a little more evolving to get through? Technologically, I think I have adapted to the “can you see my slides?”, “can you hear me?” and “you’re muted” part of the pandemic.

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

I don’t know if this warrants as advice or encouragement, but God has always reminded me about the plans He has for my life. That has carried me and continues to carry me through some questionable times in my life.

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

Exposure! So many young people, especially those from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, are not aware of the kinds of opportunities there are out there that are designed with them in mind. There is such a disconnect between high school and university, and undergraduate and postgraduate studies. I really wish more could be done to bridge those gaps. The transitions can be very challenging, not just academically, but mentally as well.

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