Youth Month 2023: Dr Thandiwe Sithole

Youth Month 2023: Dr Thandiwe Sithole

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 Thandiwe Sithole is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Johannesburg. She received funding from the NRF for her Master’s and PhD studies and was also a grant recipient under the NRF’s Black Academic Advancement Programme (BAAP) from 2021 to 2022. This year (2023), she is a recipient of an NRF Thuthuka Grant.

How did your journey start?

I was born in Rabokala, a village just outside Soshanguve in Pretoria. I did my first year of foundation schooling at Nkosabo Primary School in Allemansdrift C, Mpumalanga. At the beginning of 1998, I moved to Soshanguve South Ext 2 and completed Grade 2 to 6 at Itumeleng Madiba Primary School. In 2003, I enrolled at Rhulani Secondary School where I did Grade 7 to 9. I then moved to Micha Kgasi Secondary School and completed my matric at the same school in 2008.

I was well aware that my grandmother would not be able to pay for my tertiary studies. It is for this reason that I applied for funding assistance with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and at the beginning of 2009, I enrolled for a National Diploma in Chemical Engineering at Tshwane University of Technology. I graduated in 2012 after I struggled to get in-service training. From there, I never looked back!

In 2013, I enrolled for a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Johannesburg which was funded by the Mining Qualification Authority (MQA). Through funding from the National Research Foundation (NRF), I went on to complete my Master’s and Doctoral in Chemical Engineering at the same university. Currently, I am registered for an MBA with the University of Suffolk (UK).

I am a product of the opportunities presented to me. I never envisioned myself as an academic but I have been passionate about maths and science since high school – I would go to the extent of assisting and giving extra lessons to other learners. I chose to pursue a career in chemical engineering because of my interest in mathematics and physical science. I particularly liked chemistry, hence chemical engineering became so attractive to me.

I was inspired by a gentleman by the name of Skhalo from Kgabalatsane. He used to give us extra lessons in mathematics and physical science in high school. He is a chemical engineer and used to work for SASOL. I looked up to him. He instilled a keen curiosity about scientific phenomena.  The work Skhalo did for us is laudable. He would take leave during the school holidays to give us extra lessons.

I enjoy research and transferring skills and knowledge to future chemical engineers.

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

The postgraduate funding I received from the NRF provided significant financial support for my studies, allowing me to focus on my research without worrying about financial constraints. This led to a more productive and fruitful research experience, which contributed to my academic and professional development, and I managed to finish my PhD in three years.

Furthermore, I received post-PhD grants (2023 Thuthuka and 2021-2022 Black Academic Advancement Programme) which assisted me with ongoing research projects and career development. These grants also provided opportunities for me to establish collaborations with highly cited researchers, both locally and internationally. The collaborations led to the exchange of ideas, resources, and expertise, which enhanced the quality and impact of my research outputs.

Publishing in high-impact factor journals enhanced my academic credentials and increased my visibility in the research community. This opened up new opportunities, such as invitations to speak at conferences; being an associate editor for an international journal and reviewer of books and high-impact factor journals; collaborations with other researchers, and potential job offers.

Being affiliated with NRF has assisted with securing bilateral funding which provided additional resources for my ongoing research projects; taking on more Master’s and PhD students; and helping to establish long-term collaborations with international research partners. This led to the development of new research projects, the exchange of research skills and expertise, and the dissemination of research findings to a broader audience. I am currently supervising six Master’s and 10 PhD students.

Overall, receiving grants from the NRF provided me with significant support for my studies and career development and has opened up new opportunities for collaboration, publication, and professional advancement.

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

I had a challenging upbringing and passage to attain my first qualification. I was raised by my grandmother as my mother passed on when I was only twelve. I faced my greatest challenges during my time at Tshwane University of Technology because the NFSAS grant only covered tuition. My grandmother was not working and we depended on foster child grants, which were not enough to cover food and travel expenses. Significantly, the foster child grant was cancelled during my first year at university. My grandmother had to sell cigarettes and beer to ensure we had money for transport to attend classes. Having two meals a day was a luxury.

One of the values that was instilled in me was to value education. I understood that through education, I could better my life and attain financial independence.

During my first year at university, I failed two subjects: Drawing and Physical Chemistry. I was shattered, it was as though my dream had ended. During December of that year, I looked for a job with little success. The following year in January, I went back to the university to register for the two subjects I failed and other second-year subjects. Through the support of Prof Cele and my grandmother, I pulled through.

Yes, the experience I went through was unpleasant, to say the least, but today I look back with a great sense of gratification. I have learned that failing is not as bad as it may sound – it is part and parcel of the journey.

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

My research project focuses on waste valorisation, which involves converting waste materials into value-added products instead of disposing of them in landfills. The project explores various aspects of waste valorisation, including the production of building and construction materials from waste, the synthesis of waste-based membranes for wastewater treatment, and the use of neural networks. One of the key focus areas for the project is the production of building and construction materials from waste. I have developed innovative methods for using waste materials such as fly ash, basic oxygen furnace slag, granulated blast furnace slag, bottom ash, waste foundry sand, rice husk ash, and waste plastics to produce high-quality construction materials such as bricks, tiles, and concrete. This approach reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and offers a sustainable alternative to traditional building materials that are often resource-intensive and environmentally damaging.

Another area of focus for the project is the synthesis of waste-based membranes for wastewater treatment. I have developed novel methods for converting waste materials, such as agro-industrial and municipal solid waste, into membranes that can be used for water treatment. These membranes offer a low-cost and sustainable alternative to traditional membranes that are often made from non-renewable resources.

Finally, the project explores using neural networks. I have developed machine learning models that can predict the impact of waste-based filters for wastewater treatment and interventions. This approach can help policymakers make informed decisions.

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

My work/research in waste valorisation, circular economy, wastewater treatment, resource recovery, artificial neural networks, and the development of building and construction materials from waste can have a significant impact on various aspects of human life.

  • Environmental impact: My research in waste management and resource recovery helps to reduce the environmental impact of waste and pollution. By developing innovative methods of treating and reusing wastewater, my research reduces the amount of untreated wastewater that is discharged into the environment. Similarly, using waste materials to develop building and construction materials helps to significantly reduce the amount of waste that is sent to landfills and promotes the circular economy.
  • Economic Impact: My research on waste valorisation and circular economy helps to create new business models and job opportunities. By using waste materials as a resource, businesses can reduce their production costs and increase their revenue streams. This also helps promote sustainable economic growth.
  • Social Impact: The main goal of my research is to develop zero-waste discharge models and value-added products from solid waste materials to be used in different building and construction applications. The use of waste materials to develop building and construction materials has a positive impact on the housing sector and takes to offset the societal need for a sustainable construction sector. It helps by reducing the cost of construction, making housing more affordable for low-income families. Additionally, the development of innovative solutions for waste management can improve the quality of life for people living in urban areas.
  • Technological Impact: The use of artificial neural networks in my work and other advanced technologies helps to accelerate the development of more sustainable waste management systems. These technologies can help predict and optimize the performance of these systems, leading to more efficient and cost-effective solutions. Furthermore, the combination of industrial wastewater treatment and artificial intelligence has the potential to revolutionise the way we manage and treat industrial wastewater, leading to cleaner and safer environments and more sustainable industrial practices. This has significant national and global relevance, as it can contribute to the achievement of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to clean water and sanitation, responsible consumption and production, and climate action

In summary, my work has the potential to transform the way we manage and use waste. It contributes to achieving several SDGs, including clean water and sanitation, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry innovation and infrastructure, and responsible consumption and production. These solutions have a significant impact on the environment, economy, society, and technology, leading to a more sustainable future for all.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

  • Publishing research papers in highly reputable peer-reviewed journals or presenting research at prestigious conferences.
  • Securing competitive research grants or fellowships from government agencies, private foundations, or industry partners.
  • Collaborating with other researchers or institutions on interdisciplinary projects that have the potential to make a significant impact in their field.
  • Being invited to give keynote speeches or lectures at conferences or events or community engagements.
  • Participating in outreach activities that promote science education, community engagement, or public policy discussions.
  • Mentoring undergraduate or graduate students who go on to achieve their own successes in academia or industry.
  • Serving on various Journal editorial boards
  • Serving as a non-executive director and chairing technical committees
  • Being of service to the Department of Higher Education and Training as a member of the sub-panel for evaluating research publications in Engineering and Technology.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I would like to be an NRF-rated researcher and focus on the commercialisation of research outputs and market research.

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