Youth Month 2022: Dr Tebogo Mashifana

Youth Month 2022: Dr Tebogo Mashifana

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the youth of the NRF who are working towards achieving the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young NRF-affiliated researchers who are helping to ensure a sustainable planet for all.

Dr Tebogo Mashifana is the Head of the Department for Chemical Engineering Technology as well as a Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). She has received funding from the NRF for her postgraduate studies as well as her postdoctoral research.

This is her story…

I grew up in a small village called Sehlakwane. I am the second-born of Mr Johannes and Mrs Christinah Phetla. My parents sacrificed everything for us to obtain a better education. Although we did not have access to great opportunities, we were made to believe early on in life that we can achieve anything we put our minds to.

I began my career as a Chemical Engineer in 2005 at UJ without any funding but when I realised I could use academic excellence to open doors for myself, I never looked back and strived to perform academically. Following my first degree, I was able to work as a Graduate Metallurgist. Because I am passionate about discovering solutions to environmental pollution challenges, I decided to pursue postgraduate studies (Master’s and Doctorate). My love for research and being exposed to environmental pollution problems, especially in the mining sector, made me focus on the beneficiation of solid wastes to develop value-added products that can be used for different applications such as in building and construction. I always loved providing solutions to challenges, and I believe in every role I am serving now I am living dreams.

I received support from the NRF since 2013 for my postgraduate studies. The NRF further funded my postdoctoral research through the Black Academics Advancement Programme (BAAP) and Thuthuka. Through the funding, I completed my Doctoral degree in 2017. Between 2018 and 2019, I had the opportunity to visit different universities internationally to establish research collaborations. I attended international conferences and was hosted as a Researcher.

Within two years in the BAAP program, I had the opportunity to visit Singapore twice, Australia, the USA, Denmark, Thailand, and China. NRF funding has carried me and enabled me to carry out research and publish high-quality work in prestigious journals with high-impact factors. Through my research I was able to establish collaborations with some of the established global scholars who are among the Highly Cited Scholars in the world. The funding has assisted me to investigate and develop innovative solutions to convert solid wastes generated by numerous industries into value-added products that can be used in construction and for wastewater treatment.

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

Yes, as a young woman who was on a mission to serve with excellence, I have had to deal with many issues many other women are dealing with daily, such as patriarchy, discrimination, and inequality, which are challenges that we may not resolve in our lifetime. However, focusing my energy and efforts on developing myself and serving others, and lifting others as I rise, has had a significant impact on my career and my growth.

Whatever opportunity that may come your way, grab it with both hands. Condition your mind that as opportunities come your way, you will participate, and you will make yourself available to serve because some of these opportunities only come once in a lifetime. Never forget that you are enough, you are able, you deserve it, just go for it. While you are at it, do not forget to give a helping hand to those coming after you and along your path.

What is your research focus/area of expertise?

The focus of my research is on developing solutions to use solid wastes and by-products generated by the different industries to produce value-added products that can be used for other applications (such as building and construction) and using waste to treat wastewater and recover valuable resources from waste. Waste studied in the past includes mine tailings, foundry sand, fly ash, sludge, phosphogypsum, slag, grit, plastic, and rubber crumbs.

The United Nations identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure “…a better and more sustainable future for all…” by 2030. Which of these goals are you addressing through your research, or in your personal life?

Through my research, I am working towards achieving the following Sustainable Development Goals:

  • SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, by developing membranes and composites from waste and by-products to treat wastewater;
  • SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, through the development of a Circular Economy approach to managing and handling waste and by-products;
  • SDG 13: Climate Action, by developing innovative solutions to reduce CO2 emissions from the source.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

  • To be featured by the Mail & Guardian as one of the 200 Young South Africans in 2019.
  • To be awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Distinguished Award for Most Promising Young Teacher, and the Dean’s Award for Top Achieving Staff in 2020.
  • To be appointed as the Head of Department for Chemical Engineering Technology in 2021.
  • To be awarded the NRF Award for Research Excellence for Early/Emerging researcher in 2021.
  • To be appointed as an Early Career Board Member of Chemical Engineering Journal (Impact factor: 13.273) in 2022.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I would like to be NRF-rated, and I am developing myself towards that.

I am currently collaborating with national and international scholars from Denmark, Australia, the USA, India, China, Botswana, and Finland and I would like to see these collaborations yield impactful results and address some of our societal and environmental pollution challenges.

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