Youth Month 2023: Dr Nokubonga Prudence Makhanya

Youth Month 2023: Dr Nokubonga Prudence Makhanya

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 Nokubonga Prudence Makhanya is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Chemical Engineering at the University of Johannesburg. She received NRF funding from final-year BTech through to PhD and was also a DSI-NRF intern.

How did your journey start?

I was born in the village of Bhobhoyi, located in the small town of Creighton just outside Ixopo. I spent my first-grade year there before my family relocated to Pietermaritzburg in the Imbali township. I pursued the majority of my education there, continuing until I completed Grade 12. Later on, I moved to Durban to further my education at the Durban University of Technology (DUT).

Coming from a deeply religious family, my parents played a pivotal role as pillars of support. Despite not having much, my family has always been incredibly supportive, and I am grateful to my wonderful mother for her unwavering belief in me and her refusal to give up, even during challenging times.

During my childhood, like many other kids, I had grand dreams of becoming a medical doctor, pilot, lawyer, and more. At that time, I wasn’t aware of the vast array of career options available. However, my love for science started to develop in Grade 9 during natural science classes where I was introduced to the basics of chemistry. It was in these classes that my teacher would draw comparisons between general chemical reactions and the process of cooking in the kitchen. This analogy fascinated me because it showed how combining specific ingredients could result in a desired outcome or meal, even without the advanced technology we have today. This curiosity sparked my interest, leading me to choose science subjects when I reached Grade 10. From that point, I embarked on a journey through high school, focusing on science subjects until I completed my matriculation.

Afterwards, I enrolled at DUT to pursue a National Diploma in Analytical Chemistry. This was followed by a BTech in Chemistry and a Master’s in Chemistry (2015). Subsequently, I moved to Pretoria for an internship opportunity (2017). After the internship contract ended, I was fortunate enough to be granted a scholarship to pursue a PhD in Chemical Engineering, which led me to register at the University of Johannesburg (2018).

Although my childhood dreams may have been different, I firmly believe that I am precisely where I am meant to be at this moment in my life. The path I have followed has allowed me to explore and grow in the field that captivated my curiosity and passion.

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

My affiliation with NRF has had a significant impact on both my studies and career development. Firstly, as someone from a financially challenged background, the NRF afforded me financial support by covering tuition fees, living expenses, and research costs. This support relieved financial burdens and allowed me to focus more on my academics without the stress of excessive financial obligations.

NRF funding came with enhanced opportunities such as research grants, internships (2017-2018), and networking events. These opportunities offered valuable hands-on experience, exposure to industry professionals, and a chance to collaborate with experts in the field, which contributed to personal and professional growth. Being awarded NRF scholarships reflects recognition of my academic achievements and potential. This recognition enhanced my reputation and opened doors to future opportunities, such as further education or career advancement.

From an academic and professional development point of view, NRF offered academic support, mentorship, and access to resources and facilities. This support contributed to my academic and professional development, improving my knowledge, skills, and research capabilities. Finally, NRF frequently provided opportunities to network and connect with other scholars, faculty members, and professionals in the field. These networking opportunities led to collaborations and mentorship relationships, expanding my professional network.

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

Throughout my life, I have encountered numerous challenges that have shaped my journey. Growing up, my family faced financial limitations, which meant I had to adapt and live within our means, unlike some of my peers who had more material comforts. Being the only girl among five brothers presented its own set of challenges as I had to develop a more assertive and self-protective attitude to navigate the outside world. The concept of being treated differently based on gender was not prominent in my household, so I didn’t have the luxury of being treated as a “mommy’s daughter” or conforming to traditional gender roles.

Obstacles persisted during my pursuit of higher education. Being new to the academic environment, I had to learn to be independent and disciplined without the constant supervision of my family. Additionally, I faced the challenge of balancing my studies with the responsibility of being pregnant at the same time. These experiences highlight the common challenges that many students encounter on their educational journeys. It’s important to acknowledge that these challenges are not unique to me, but are shared by countless students. The ability to overcome such obstacles came with lessons of perseverance, resilience, adaptability, self-belief, confidence, learning, growth and a strong sense of determination. By navigating through these challenges, I have gained valuable life skills and learned to overcome adversity, which has contributed to my personal growth and development.

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

My area of expertise is in the field of materials sciences, with a specific focus on renewable energy. During my doctoral research, I dedicated my efforts to the area of energy storage. A significant aspect of my research involved utilising PET waste from plastic bottles to develop materials suitable for various applications, including adsorption thermal energy storage, carbon dioxide capture and storage, as well as methane storage.

In my current postdoctoral research, I am further delving into highly porous materials combined with Machine Learning (ML), which is a domain within Artificial Intelligence (AI). This research explores the application of ML techniques in the context of biogas, aiming to optimise and enhance the efficiency of biogas-related processes. By combining my expertise in materials sciences, renewable energy, and the integration of ML techniques, I strive to contribute to the development of sustainable solutions for energy storage and biogas applications.

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

  1. Enhanced efficiency and optimisation: The integration of machine learning techniques in renewable energy research enables the development of sophisticated models and algorithms. These models can optimise energy systems, improve energy production and distribution, and enhance overall efficiency. By leveraging the power of machine learning, researchers can extract valuable insights from data, optimise renewable energy processes, and enable intelligent decision-making for more effective energy management.
  2. Intelligent energy management: Machine learning algorithms can analyse large datasets from renewable energy sources, weather patterns, energy consumption, and other relevant factors. This enables the prediction and forecasting of energy production and demand, facilitating better planning and allocation of resources. Intelligent energy management systems can optimise energy distribution, reduce waste, and enhance the reliability and stability of renewable energy grids, leading to improved energy access and affordability.
  3. Tailored solutions for local contexts: Machine learning algorithms can analyse data specific to a region or community and identify the most suitable renewable energy solutions for their unique needs. This allows for the development of customised energy systems that are efficient, cost-effective, and well-aligned with the local context. Tailored solutions can address specific energy challenges and contribute to sustainable development at a grassroots level, positively impacting the lives of individuals and communities.
  4. Technological innovation: The integration of machine learning with renewable energy research encourages technological innovation. It enables the development of advanced materials, sensors, and control systems that optimise renewable energy generation, storage, and utilisation. These innovations can lead to breakthroughs in renewable energy technologies, making them more affordable, accessible, and reliable, ultimately transforming the energy landscape and providing sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels.
  5. Leadership in sustainability and innovation: A nation investing in research engineering studies on renewable energy coupled with machine learning demonstrates its commitment to sustainability, innovation, and technological leadership. By fostering a conducive research environment, providing funding, and supporting interdisciplinary collaboration, a nation can attract top talent, inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, and position itself as a global leader in renewable energy research and development.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

I have so many proudest moments but the most recent one is obtaining my PhD: Chemical Engineering which was awarded on 17 May 2023.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

Definitely, I would like to be an NRF-rated researcher, connect with industry professionals, and give back to my community in every possible way, especially with education. Having an NGO that will teach young people about the beauty of education.

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