Youth Month 2023: Ngwako Joseas Waleng

Youth Month 2023: Ngwako Joseas Waleng

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.

Mr Ngwako Joseas Waleng is a PhD candidate in Analytical Chemistry at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He received NRF funding for his Honours (2017) and is currently funded for his PhD studies.

How did your journey start?

I was born in Springfield (Tikilaene), a big village in Limpopo. I was raised by my grandmother, Mabena Waleng, because my parents, Jack Mpheroane (he has passed away) and Caroline Waleng, were hustling in Gauteng. They were staying together but not married. I went to preschool at another village called Deviliersdale which is also in Limpopo. I was moved back to where I was born for Grade R and the rest of my schooling until Grade 12.

When I was growing up, I used to be that naughty kid who would try to play with everything that had to do with science. During secondary school, I was always spoken highly of because of my competitive nature in every module. However, maths and science were my strongest subjects and when I passed matric, I told myself that I am going to do whatever is related to the physical sciences.

When I obtained my results, I went straight to the University of Limpopo (UL) and, fortunately, I was accepted for a BSc degree. I excelled in every subject, especially Botany, but I remained firm and majored in Chemistry and Biochemistry. After passing my degree, I got a chance to do Honours in either Chemistry or Biochemistry, but I chose Chemistry. I obtained my Honours, and then I noticed that staying at one university was not going to do me any justice.

I moved to UJ where I partook in a nanoscience programme that involved two universities, UJ and the University of the Western Cape. Under the supervision of a highly decorated supervisor, Prof Philiswa Nomngongo, I decided to stay for a PhD to expand my knowledge further. Now I can confidently say that I am an emerging, prominent researcher who will bring change to society.

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

The NRF has impacted positively on my studies, especially with funding. This research entity has remarkable packages that expose students to the external society in terms of excellence. I am now globally recognised thanks to the NRF for funding my work and pushing me to keep progressing.

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

When I was at UL, I would struggle to get study materials due to financial constraints and that greatly affected my studies. However, knowing my family background and that they depended on me, I was forced to find alternative measures to get by academically. I would wait for someone to finish studying so that I could borrow a textbook because our library had limited resources.

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

My research focuses on environmental monitoring and the elimination of harmful pollutants from wastewater. Water pollution has been a global concern over the past few decades due to the presence of harmful substances harbouring inside environmental waters. Furthermore, there are numerous companies that manufacture products that end up being introduced into the environment and Africa lacks the resources to monitor and remove these pollutants. Therefore, my job is to make use of greener methods to monitor and remove these substances.

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

I believe my work will awaken Government sectors to invest more in this kind of research to sustain the well-being of society. Government sectors will now implement safer methods of discarding harmful products and further develop effective programmes for environmental monitoring. With that said, more job opportunities will surface which will mitigate the crisis of high unemployment rate. Most wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) are ineffective in removing all these pollutants and therefore, the ubiquity of these pollutants in water has been associated with unusual deaths and permanent illnesses. Hence, this work ensures that the residual pollutants that might have escaped WWTPs are monitored and removed.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

I managed to publish a few articles in peer-reviewed journals which improved my research profile. My proudest achievement was to publish a very comprehensive review paper on the occurrence of pollutants in Africa and Asia which harbour undeveloped and developing countries. That review will help many researchers to be aware of the quantity of these pollutants in the environment that could potentially affect us and, therefore, government entities will be aware and they will mitigate these problems.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I would really like to be an NRF-rated researcher, and believe me when I say, I am under the greatest construction.

I want to see young people take initiative in every science programme that will positively impact the lives of our compatriots and the world. I have been dreaming of forming my own science hub where prominent researchers visit and share their knowledge with young blood, but anyway, that is my dream and it will come true.

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