Youth Month 2023: Bopaki Phogole

Youth Month 2023: Bopaki Phogole

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.

Mr Bopaki Phogole is a PhD candidate in Environmental Management at the University of Johannesburg. He received NRF funding for his Master’s as well as PhD studies.

How did your journey start?

I was born in Limpopo but moved to Mpumalanga shortly before my teenage years. I attended a total of five schools before my matriculation which, in hindsight, contributed a lot to my soft skills. I am the eldest of five children and my siblings are the centre of my existence. I advocate for mental wellness among youth (especially young males), and I am always open to conversation on this subject.

My career in science is spectacularly accidental – and I love it. When I started my secondary education, I was clueless about which career path I intended to follow. I was enrolled in Maths and Science subjects because “there was space”. It was only during Grade 12 that I realised my passion for environmental and agricultural sciences. Particularly, I remember a class discussion on the progression and potential impacts of climate change which really piqued my interest. After that, deciding which qualification to pursue post-matric was effortless.

I completed my undergrad as well as Honours in Geography (2018) and Master’s in Environmental Management (2020) at UJ. I am now doing my final year of PhD at UJ, intent on advancing principles of sustainability in accordance with provisions of the sustainable development goals.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

Postgraduate studies can be very unaffordable in South Africa, given the socio-economic realities of the majority of its population. It is through invaluable support from the NRF that research students, like me, can conduct quality empirical research with pragmatic relevance. Furthermore, the national strategic priorities promoted by the NRF, in addition to the sustainable development goals, have greatly shaped the scope of the research that I do. I am more confident of the usefulness of my research due to its alignment with these national and global goals.

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

As the first person in my family to pursue a university qualification, my family could not afford me much of the necessary support that I needed. It was not a matter of willingness, but rather of ability. So, I had to rely extensively on support from friends and extended family to navigate the strange journey of tertiary education. I was lucky enough to also have extremely supportive lecturers and academic supervisors who were always willing to help – it definitely does take a village.

Secondly, in my academic journey thus far, the biggest obstacles I encountered were rarely related to teaching and learning. Issues such as financial difficulties, loss of loved ones, and social anxiety presented a greater obstacle in my academic career than not studying for an exam or missing a class. So, it is useful to always have someone (or two) with whom you can safely share intimate details of your challenges. In turn, it is always cordial to regularly check up on your friends and classmates, especially those who seem to be struggling a bit.

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

My research interests include political ecologies of energy poverty, human population dynamics in the context of ecological sustainability (recent publication here), and ecosystem-based adaptations.

Previously, I worked on approaches to reduce domestic energy poverty and its associated air pollution in the context of very low-income areas in South Africa. The aim of the project was to identify cost-effective ways of transitioning low-income residents away from using coal and firewood in favour of cleaner and renewable energy sources (research output here).

Currently, I am studying the role of greenspaces such as forests, parks, and botanical gardens in reducing the disease burden that is imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic (research output here). I hypothesise that the availability of green builds resilience against both the spread and severity of COVID-19, and advocate for the integration of green infrastructure especially in low-income urban settlements.

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

The increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and social calamities are a stern indicator of the need to rethink our relationship with nature. Although these challenges have multiple origins, i.e. economic and political, the adoption of nature-based solutions is one of the ways in which humans and nature can co-exist. My research aims to define ways in which we can reconfigure our socio-economic and ecological structures to be more sustainable.

Also, I assist students, both undergraduate and postgraduate, with quantitative research methodologies and scientific writing at no charge. As mentioned earlier, I am also promoting mental health and wellness among young people, and I am always open to conversations about such issues.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

I had a few notable moments in my academic career. I gave a talk at a national conference in 2020 which scooped the award for Best Student Paper. Again, when I got my first peer-reviewed article published last year (2022) that was quite a moment for me.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I aim to continue research that addresses contemporary sustainability challenges and guides decision-making at all levels as I transition from being a student to an academic.

This work is licenced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 ZA) license. Please view the terms for republishing here.

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