Youth Month 2023: Dr Nwabisa Takata

Youth Month 2023: Dr Nwabisa Takata

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 Nwabisa Takata is a scientist at the National Metrology Institute of South Africa (NMISA) in the Chemical, Material, and Medical Metrology Division. Dr Takata was a recipient of NRF-Sasol Inzalo Foundation funding in 2014; a South Africa Joint Institute for Nuclear Research Grant for Student Practice in 2015; and the NRF’s Freestanding, Innovation and Scarce Skills Development Master’s and Doctoral Scholarships in 2017.

How did your journey start?

I was born and raised in Lower Kroza Location, Qumbu, in the Eastern Cape. I started school in 1998 at Nomzamo Preschool, completed Junior Secondary at Lower Roza JSS and further studied at Little Flower High School (2007-2009).

I am the last born out of six children. We were raised by a single parent, our mother, Nomsa Mavis Duduzile Takata, who worked as a Language and Natural Science educator. Because there were many of us, my mother struggled financially to make ends meet. Despite the financial challenges, I grew up in a home filled with love – I felt safe, protected, and cared for. I was taught at a young age that there is nothing impossible with education, and I can be anything I want to be.

I always wanted to be a scientist, specifically a geologist. In Grade 9 (2006), I knew I was going to study Earth Science. When my older siblings were applying to study at university, I used to hog their prospectus to see what I could study. I remember I saw one from Rhodes University which explained vividly what I would be expected to do as a geologist. The field trips matched the love I had for natural environments; I had no doubts about it. In 2010, I registered with the University of Fort Hare for a Bachelor of Science double major (Chemistry and Geology). I then did an Honours Degree in Geology.

Upon finishing my Honours in 2013 it was difficult to secure a job in the mining industry. In 2014, I had to decide between staying at home or studying for a Master’s in Geology. I couldn’t get a scholarship to finance my studies for an MSc in Geology. That’s when the NRF-Sasol Inzalo Foundation scholarship came through which was for an Honours in Chemistry. This meant taking a step back, but because I did a double major during my undergraduate degree, it was easy for me to divert to chemistry. Since that opportunity, I never looked back. I then registered for a Master’s in Chemistry (University of Fort Hare) and eventually a PhD in Chemistry with the University of Johannesburg.

Things have worked out well for me in the Chemistry field. I managed to secure a job after the completion of my PhD. Overall, a bit of what I envisioned when growing up but not exactly how things unfolded.

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

The NRF has played a remarkable role in my career. It was easy to divert to Chemistry due to the availability of funding at the time. The funding opportunities gave me a fighting chance from Honours through to PhD. The Russia-based student practice I attended in 2015 was empowering. I was exposed to world-class research facilities and I received training in techniques I was using for my Master’s research at the time. The kind of activities I participated in at the student practice improved my soft skills and helped me expand my professional network.

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

Yes, since my mother was an educator and growing up there were certain societal expectations of the lifestyle we should be living at home. Our reality was nothing of that nature. I was always among the learners who would be sent home for unpaid school fees year-on-year. When I was younger, I never understood it but in my early teenage years I became more aware, accepting, and understanding of everything that was going on at home.

Other significant challenges were during the five years of my PhD journey, such as research not working out as planned; a computer crashing at the end of 2nd year PhD and losing all my data; losing two loved ones; and an academic exclusion. During that period I suffered a lot of anxiety due to uncertainty and grief. The big lesson I learned is the significance of self-awareness – being self-aware helps one identify when they are not okay and need external intervention, whether from a friend, family member, or mental health practitioner.

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

My job involves the use of analytical chemistry instruments to test and measure concentrations of elements in a variety of sample types, such as water, food products (grains, fish, meat, milk), cosmetics, beverages (wine), soil, rocks, plants, sediments, and pharmaceutical products.

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

The testing is designed to protect public health and the safety of consumers. Accurate and reliable measurement results provide regulators with the tools to make decisions about the compliance of food products with regulations for the nutritional content of food labelling, e.g. using the current regulations for minerals such as Fe and Zn according to the Department of Health Food Fortification Act No 54 of 1972). On the other hand, it is also important to test for heavy metals in food to ensure that the food products are safe to consume. Food testing laboratories play a vital role in improving food safety for South African consumers.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

The most remarkable achievement to this date is the completion of my PhD. Given the circumstances, I am proud of how much resilience and fortitude I displayed through it. The examiners of my thesis were impressed with the quality of the work I produced.

I am also proud that I have co-founded a non-profit company, Young Innovators Hub (YIH), whose goal and mission is to give learners from underprivileged backgrounds a chance of succeeding in their pursuit of Higher Education and business endeavours while equipping them with lifelong skills.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

My career growth within the Metrology field has not plateaued yet. I intend on exploring it further for the next couple of years, but eventually I would love to go into the mining sector. My initial career goal was to become a geologist. However, I would want to go into chemical testing for mining purposes. On aspects of community engagement, I would like the Young Innovators Hub NPO to expand to all provinces in South Africa and hopefully with collaborations from entities such as the South African Agency of Science and Technology (NRF-SAASTA) and the Department of Basic Education.

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