Youth Month 2022: Mpho Qhubu

Youth Month 2022: Mpho Qhubu

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.

Mpho Qhubu is a PhD student in Chemical Technology in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Pretoria. She received NRF funding for her Master’s studies.

This is her story…

I am originally from Kroonstad in the Free State. I am the last-born in a family of girls and one boy. I am highly family-orientated. I am blessed with three mothers (my mom and her two sisters). The story actually begins with them.

The three sisters (Matsheliso, the first-born; Maneo, the second-born; and Disebo, the last-born and who is my mother) and their brother (Lefu) were raised by a domestic worker who couldn’t afford to take them to school. Unfortunately, they lost their parents before even reaching their college years and they had to take care of each other.

Matsheliso enrolled for her B.Ed. Foundation Phase right after Matric. She used some of her stipends to support Disebo who was enrolled at a nursing college to complete her studies. When they both got jobs, they joined hands to send Lefu to school. When my mom finished her matric, they again joined hands to send her to do her B.Ed. Foundation Phase. Matsheliso now has her Master’s in Education; Maneo an Honours in Nursing; and my mom a Postgraduate degree in Education.

That’s how our generation also started. Two girls from my mom (Lerato and I) and one girl and a boy from Maneo (Thulo and Paballo). I know it’s farfetched how my cousins and I are related, but it’s as though we are from one mother and father. We were raised as one and that’s how we’ve continued to grow together. We have put it on our shoulders to raise the flag high and pick up where our mothers left off, and we keep on supporting each other.

I am doing my PhD in Chemical Technology; Paballo is doing her PhD in Education; Lerato is doing her BTech in Building Management, and Thulo is doing his Honours in Forensic Accounting. It goes without saying how the three sisters powered through their background and supported each other –that has set a foundation for us as well. I am nothing without my brother and sisters.

Tell us about your academic journey

I have to say, the path found me. I have always been into science. I remember at Saint Peter Clever School (Primary), there were Sasol Science Fair Expos and I never missed one. They were my favourite. Every year, I scored a position in the Top Three. For me, it was never about winning but about the fun of exploring the experiments and finding a suitable project.

In high school, I started exploring my singing career and got a scholarship through the South African Youth Choir which sponsored my high school years. I had to move to the Western Cape where I attended Stellenberg High School. I was certain that, after my matric, I would go into singing full-time. But with the family that I have, it didn’t happen. Through my friends in choral music, I then joined the VUT choir and that’s how my science path located me again.

I first did my National Diploma in Analytical Chemistry, followed by a BTech and MTech in Chemistry, all at VUT. I was funded by the NRF throughout my Master’s journey and the financial support really made my life easier. My fees were always paid and I never had to worry about finances. I am grateful for that.

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

Yes, I did. It wouldn’t be “life” without obstacles. My dad is epileptic so he doesn’t work, however, he has always provided for my family. When I was in Grade 11, my mom suffered a stroke which affected the right side of her body. That caused her to retire at an early age as the sole provider for the family. My sister dropped out of university and got a job. The stroke took an emotional strain on my whole family but my dad took over and looked after my mom. While I was doing Grade 12, she was hit by another stroke that affected her vision. My sister had also started her own family and had her issues to deal with. However, she is blessed with a supportive husband who I also consider a brother and they made sure I was well-taken care of while my dad and the rest of the family took care of my mom. That was one of the reasons I had to move back to the Free State and couldn’t pursue my music career.

For my first year at university, my mom (with the support of my family) paid for my fees. For my second year, NSFAS covered everything and from there I could also get on my feet and take care of myself. My family’s love and support helped me through. I knew I could always run back to them when I needed something. I have learned that you may plan but God decides. You cannot let obstacles define you and your future. Obstacles are part of the journey. They are meant to be there, to strengthen you, to bring up a lesson and give you direction for the future. You cannot give up in life just because of one hiccup – what about the millions in front of you?

What is your research focus/area of expertise?

I specialise in water care. My current work is based on the detection and quantification of co-existing pollutants from households and industrial operations and cooperates in one area for the analysis of human and ecological risk assessments. My main focus for my Master’s was on the removal and bioremediation of heavy metals from aqueous solution. For my PhD, I would like to explore more of the environmental aspects, focusing on the contaminants as co-existing components in one area.

A single neighbourhood produces different types of waste that end up in water streams. Being able to quantify each component from a cocktail series gives a clear definition of what is being released into the environment. The quantified matrices and concentrations of the pollutants will then be compared to the standards given by the WHO and statistical calculations of human and ecological health risk assessments will be analysed.

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?

Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation. Goal 14: Life below water.

My work seeks to solve our water crises in South Africa as we know that an increase in the population results in an increase in water demand. As industrial operations increase in demand, there’s also an increase in waste generated. The most common pollutants reported by the industry are contaminants of emerging concern which come from different operations such as pharmaceuticals, agriculture, paint, petroleum, industrial compounds/by-products, cosmetics and personal care, and veterinary products. There is no water quality framework in place for these contaminants and improvement in operations and new methods bring about a different contaminant variable. Most studies are reported to detect these contaminants only as individual contaminants (not as a couple) due to a lack of detection methods. Other studies reported focus only on the remediation and removal of these contaminants using different removal methods. Thus, my study seeks to explore the detection of these contaminants in a cocktail and to study their human and ecological risk assessments in the hopes of rewriting the water framework and legislation based on the quantification of the contaminants.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

I was recently able to start a small business called Qhubu Supplies. This was motivated by a lack of employment in our country. I manufacture my own cleaning detergents, thereby putting my chemistry expertise into practice and earning an extra income to sustain myself.

My second proudest achievement is my 2021/2022 publications – my Master’s dissertation and the correlated work I did with students whom I have mentored and supervised for their BTech. It has given me great honour to be able to pass on my knowledge and to have publications as proof of the work. This has also given the students motivation to go back and further their studies. And that gives me great joy – bringing hope and restoring motivation to keep the momentum of academia in motion.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

As much as I want my business to grow and prosper, I have wanted to have my own laboratory one day, specifically in water sciences and water care (be it a private laboratory or in academia/research). But before anything else, the knowledge needs to be passed on. I was trained and mentored by the best – people who committed their lives to build an image for me in academia. I owe it to them to pass it on to the younger generation so I am still working on building a career path in the academic world and creating a name for myself as a researcher.

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