Youth Month 2023: Dr Naadhira Seedat

Youth Month 2023: Dr Naadhira Seedat

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 Naadhira Seedat is currently a lecturer in Chemical Engineering at the University of Johannesburg. She received NRF nGAP funding in 2019 and NRF Thuthuka Funding from 2023 to 2025.

How did your journey start?

I grew up in Marlboro in a religious Muslim family, on the outskirts of Alexandra Township. My family is originally from Alexandra and education was not easily accessible during apartheid. Despite several difficulties, my aunts and father fought against the Bantu education system to attend university and obtain degrees. My mother was married at a young age, yet completed an accounting degree despite being a working mother of three. 

These examples in my life motivated me to fight against all odds to embark on a journey of seeking knowledge, regardless of my background, gender or society. My family taught me that education and knowledge are freedom, freedom from the past for a brighter future. Working hard and achieving one’s goals against all adversities is possible – and that became my vision for my life, that I would become an independent woman by seeking knowledge.

The day the matric results were announced in 2007, I opened the newspaper to find my picture on the front page as one of the top achievers in Gauteng, receiving the Gauteng Department of Education Johannesburg East District for outstanding achievement in the Senior Certificate Examination. I obtained seven distinctions, with most subjects in the STEM field. I loved Mathematics and Chemistry and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in STEM. My friends and family were sure I would become a medical doctor but I knew that was not the career path for me. The field of Engineering, and in particular Chemical Engineering, intrigued me. The manner in which engineers problem-solve and focus on solving global issues to benefit humankind appealed to me. It showed me that not only doctors serve humanity, but also engineers as well. I would not only be the first female, but the first person in my family to study any discipline of Engineering.

I attended the University of Witwatersrand to complete an undergraduate BSc degree in Chemical Engineering. Despite the challenges, I worked extremely hard and completed my degree with distinction and won several awards throughout the four years, including the Dean’s List every year. I looked up to the three female professors in the department as inspiration and I knew from my undergraduate studies that I wanted to embark on the journey of obtaining a PhD in Chemical Engineering and become an academic. Unfortunately, I was not able to get a paying position at the university to pursue MSc studies full-time. Hence, I had to work in industry and complete my MSc which I did in 2014 whilst pregnant with my first child. I continued trying to get into the field of academia, which was not successful. Hence, I worked in industry until I was appointed as a lecturer at UNISA when I started PhD research on distillation design. I completed my PhD in distillation design after having my second child and working full-time at UJ as a lecturer in 2022.

In the community where I grew up, no one was an engineer or knew what engineering was. Hence, I never envisioned being an engineer but I did envision solving global problems, especially the issues pertaining to the community in Alexandra. Today, I impart knowledge to the youth of South Africa so they can uplift their communities. Additionally, the research fields I work in solve global issues that impact South Africa. 

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

Through the NRF nGAP funding obtained in 2019, I was able to purchase software and equipment pertinent to complete my PhD studies. This spearheaded my career. It was mentioned in a workshop that I attended that “the PhD is the matric of academia”. Without a PhD, one cannot advance their career in academia. Since the completion of my PhD, several doors have opened to advance my research and teaching career.

Once my PhD was complete, I obtained NRF Thuthuka funding which has given me the means to supervise Master’s students and further my research expertise and publications in the field of biomass conversion and waste valorisation.

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

There were several obstacles that I had to overcome to get to where I am, financial constraints being at the forefront. Juggling full-time employment, motherhood, family responsibilities and studies posed a huge challenge. A carefully structured balancing act was required to fulfil all my duties.

I set high standards for the level of work I contributed to my studies, work which led to anxiety and self-doubt. The key to overcoming anxiety and self-doubt is to set small achievable goals for each day in a journal. Achieving small goals adds up, bringing one closer to the main aim of completing one’s studies. The motto that had the greatest impact was “to eat the frog” as your first task of the day. Every morning, I would “eat the frog” by tackling the most challenging task set for the day first. Overcoming the most daunting and critical task first is crucial, thereafter the easier tasks can be done.

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

My research interests are focused on key areas of the broader chemical engineering discipline, namely biomass conversion (waste valorisation) and wastewater treatment. The conversion of biomass/waste into energy as well as value-added products is currently of great importance. This is the result of a rapidly increasing demand for energy as well as economical and environmentally friendly methods of waste disposal. The focus is on the design of new biomass conversion processes using Aspen Plus software and, hence, the experimental feasibility of such processes.

A project funded by the NRF is the Hydrothermal Carbonisation of Food Waste. Approximately a third of the world’s food produced is either lost or wasted. In South Africa, it is estimated that about 10.3 million tons of food are lost or wasted, which represents 34% of the local production. Fruit waste and cereals account for the bulk of food waste. Food waste results in negative economic, social (food insecurity) and environmental impacts. Environmental impacts include an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, mainly due to the landfilling of organic waste. It is estimated that 4.3% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions are due to the disposal of organic waste.

There is also a loss of input resources such as water, energy etc. To ensure future sustainability (in terms of people, profit and planet), opportunities for developing novel value-added products for organic food waste, by applying the biorefinery concept, need to be explored. Hydrothermal carbonization (HTC) is a thermochemical conversion technology for converting carbonaceous material (such as biomass), in the presence of water, into a mainly solid char product (known as hydrochar). Food waste is high in carbon and has a high moisture content, thus making food waste an appropriate feedstock for HTC. The application of the hydrochar from food waste is used as an adsorbent for biogas and water treatment. Hence, the hydrochar is a value-added product obtained from waste valorisation.

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

The impact of the work is far-reaching for knowledge, the environment and to inspire the nation. The first environmental advancement is to provide an appropriate method of reducing the excessive food waste stored at landfills which has a negative impact on the environment and the lives of communities living near the landfills (National strategy: global change and human and social dynamics, SDG 15: life on land, SDG 11: sustainable cities and communities). By reducing excessive waste, we reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as the foul smell emitted from landfills (SDG 13: climate change, SDG: 15).

The second social advancement is the utilization of the hydrochar produced as an absorbent to purify water (SDG 6: clean water and sanitation). By removing sulphur and decreasing the carbon dioxide concentration in biogas, the need for alternative fuels at the standard of fossil fuels is met (SDG 7: affordable and clean energy). Providing an alternative method of removing heavy metals from water provides communities in South Africa with the means of obtaining clean drinking water (SDG 6). In addition, the successful implementation of the hydrochar as a means to purify water will provide an alternative to producing clean drinking water for communities all over South Africa. The economic benefit gained from the hydrochar can be channelled back into food production to maintain food security for the vulnerable communities in South Africa (National priorities: poverty alleviations, SDG 1: poverty, SDG 2: zero hunger, SDG 3: good health and well-being). One main advantage is to provide a safer environment for communities that live around landfills by reducing the foul smell emitted from the landfills due to excessive waste storage.

Food waste results in negative economic, social (food insecurity) and environmental impacts. Utilizing the food waste produced in South Africa to recover some of the energy input by producing value-added products helps to mitigate the negative impacts. It is expected that the proposed research will give insight into the viability of the biorefinery concept in South Africa (National strategy – Bioeconomy) and opportunities for the development of such a concept in conjunction with industry (SDG 8: decent work and economic growth, SDG 12: responsible consumption and production). There is also a possibility of commercialising the technology to deal with excessive food waste at the source or at landfill sites. (SDG 9: industry, innovation and infrastructure). Hence, the research will also increase the country’s skills, knowledge and capabilities in the bioengineering field (National priorities: Job creation, SDG 4).

What are some of your proudest achievements?

My proudest achievements were obtaining my BSc in Chemical Engineering degree with distinction as well as my PhD degree in Chemical Engineering. I was the first person in my family to obtain an engineering degree as well as a PhD in any field. Other proud achievements are:

  • Project leader for WRC collaborative project: Prediction and modelling of emerging contaminants removal within the urban water cycle using Artificial Neural Networks (ANN) and Adaptive Neuro-Fuzzy Inference System (ANFIS) models.
  • Delegate to the UJ Women’s Development Leadership Programme
  • Sasol Chemical Design III Prize.
  • OB Volckman Silver Medal and prize in Chemical Engineering – highest aggregate mark in 2nd year.
  • 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011: Dean’s list.
  • 2012 awardee of the ‘Post Graduate Merit Award’ by WITS
  • Certificate of merit: Mathematics 1, Introduction to process and material engineering; Chemistry 2; Mathematics 2; Process Design Principles; Environmental Process Engineering, and Management for Process Engineers.
  • Gauteng Department of Education Johannesburg East District for outstanding achievement in the Senior Certificate Examination 2007 (medal and trophy).

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I am one of very few Muslim women in academia and specifically in the discipline of Engineering. One of my aspirations is to mentor and encourage female students to advance their careers in Engineering. There are many challenges that female students have to face, as I did, and I’d like to make their journeys a little bit easier.

My career goals are to advance research in the field of biomass conversion through publications; supervise and mentor students, and become an efficient lecturer. Through these goals, I would to advance my academic position to Associate Professor and Professor in the next ten years. I would like to become NRF-rated and an accredited professional engineer

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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