Youth Month 2023: Dr Lethula Mofokeng

Youth Month 2023: Dr Lethula Mofokeng

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.

Dr Lethula Mofokeng is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Chemistry at the University of Pretoria. He received NRF funding for his Honours studies and was supported by the NRF Professional Development Programme (PDP) at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for his PhD studies. He received NRF-SASOL postdoctoral funding for 2023/24.

How did your journey start?

I grew up in the small township of Ngwathe in the Free State with my four siblings, my mother, and my father who was working in Gauteng. We grew up in a low-income household which we could not use as an excuse for not excelling at school. Our parents were very strict and were very influential on who our friends were. Somehow, they guided me to the right company during my early childhood until I left our community to further my tertiary studies. After I left, I started to join church choirs in 2008 until today in different provinces and towns based on my academic institution. I started to undertake volunteering at church during weekends and sometimes I will coach our departmental sports club during our friendly games.

I never thought I would end up where I am today because I thought after my undergraduate degree, I would go into industry and work. Unfortunately, I could not secure a job but, luckily, I was accepted for an Honours degree at the University of Limpopo in 2014. My supervisor at that time inspired my love for Chemistry. He would take field trips to mining areas to collect and analyse soil and crops in those areas. His environmental projects were of interest to me. Since then, I started exploring research fields in Chemistry. So far, I have expertise in food chemistry, water analysis, sensors, material science and hydrogen production.

I completed a Master’s of Science in Nanoscience at the University of Johannesburg in conjunction with the University of the Western Cape (2016). I then pursued a PhD in Chemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand through the NRF-PDP from CSIR. Currently, I am enjoying a postdoctoral position at the University of Pretoria.

Today, I can attest that all those fields I’ve mentioned above gave me a strong foundation to lead and assist our postgraduate students with their research work and teach our undergraduate students.

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

I am grateful for the NRF’s financial support. My funding did not have to come out of my parents’ budget, which relieved our family’s financial constraints. Besides that, I met great supervisors, mentors, technicians, and engineers and visited state-of-the-art facilities during my studies. I gained more knowledge from working with different institutions and collaborators. Without the NRF, I don’t think I could have accessed all those characterisation facilities and laboratories or carried the costs associated with research.

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

Academic obstacles are not an easy hurdle, but with continuous support from family, friends, supervisors and the institutions (departments and student counselling), I managed to overcome mental health problems, procrastination, financial stress and research activities. I remember one time my PhD supervisor had to pay for my accommodation in Johannesburg so that we could move forward with our research. Furthermore, I had friends who became my research partners so that I could complete my research. Basically, different people played crucial roles in the many challenges that I had. I have learned that you cannot work alone in research, you need collaborators and mentors and you also need to keep your family and loved ones close to you, especially during tough times.

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

My current research focuses on hydrogen production using water and artificial sunlight. Due to the current energy crisis in the world, we decided to embark on the journey to discover efficient materials that could split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. Moreover, we also develop active materials that can eradicate toxic pollutants from water using modified membranes and powdered catalysts. Finally, we also develop pressure sensors that could monitor human motions for health purposes and gas sensors for the detection of volatile compounds and air quality monitoring.

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

Currently, we are anticipating creating clean energy and water pollution awareness at rural area schools, industries and the surrounding communities so that they can gain knowledge, training and hands-on experience on alternative ways to treat polluted water, especially using our membrane filters at home.

We aim to educate and change societal behaviour towards clean energy and water pollution in general. We will also demonstrate the utilisation and installation of our membrane filters. Our membrane filters are cheap, easy to use and can reduce the burden of the water crisis and improve water recyclability of high quality at home.

Currently, along with my research team, we embarked on a journey to utilise waste materials, such as papers, cardboard, etc, and re-utilise them as active materials for water treatment. Mostly, we modify and decorate them to meet certain properties of the material we want for photocatalysis or membrane filters.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

One of my proudest moments is when I obtained my PhD degree from the University of the Witwatersrand in 2022. Also, winning the Best Poster Award at the South African Chemical Institute (SACI) that was held at the University of Venda in 2019.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

In the near future, I would like to work together with scientific water bodies so that I can assist them in designing effective water treatment systems, reactors and improving groundwater quality for disadvantaged communities. My previous research activities have been mainly based on designing reactors and the quality of groundwater.

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