Youth Month 2023: Nompumelelo Malatji

Youth Month 2023: Nompumelelo Malatji

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.

Ms Nompumelelo Malatji is a PhD candidate in Chemistry at the University of Johannesburg. She received NRF funding for her Honours and Master’s studies and is currently funded for her PhD through the DSI-NRF South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI).

How did your journey start?

I was born in KwaZulu-Natal and grew up in the North-West, Rustenburg, in a small village called Welgeval. I am one of eight children. Growing up, my mother used to be a hawker at the taxi rank to help with household needs, and I remember that some days my brother and I helped her after school. My family is big, especially now that there are grandchildren and we all live under one roof. But I love my big family because we’re friends ourselves. We share, joke around, and care for each other. Thinking about it, I realise that university life, i.e. living alone, has always been difficult because I am used to having other people around me.

I would like to believe that I have always been fascinated by the everyday chemistry in the household, such as dissolving salt or sugar in water and where clean water came from because there was always dirty river water in my village. Also, in matric, I used to teach my peers and I loved it, so I thought I’d be a lecturer. After receiving my matric results, they were so good, nearly six distinctions. I was confused about what career to choose because I qualified for many degrees. My journey then started when I went to the University of Limpopo (UL). I enrolled for BSc Life Sciences and majored in Chemistry and Biochemistry. I resonated with chemistry more, so I continued to do Honours and Master’s degrees in Chemistry at UL. I am now enrolled for PhD at the University of Johannesburg. The path has had its ups and downs. But we move, stay strong mentally, and remember to enjoy the journey

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

Through NRF’s assistance, I obtained my Honours and Master’s degrees. I was financially assisted to fly out to Italy in July 2022 for a week of Summer school.

The NRF also funds our lab instruments under Prof PN Nomngongo (SARChI Chairholder: Nanotechnology for Water). Thus, our lab can afford to buy chemicals for our research, and I currently use an NRF-funded HPLC-DAD instrument for my analysis. So, to say the impact was positive would be an understatement. NRF has had a great effect on my journey.

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

It was difficult financially surviving an undergraduate degree, and I had to study very hard to qualify for a merit award to at least pay for my fees. I almost quit furthering my studies due to financial strains. Also, my research has always involved synthesis and characterisations, so there was a lack of instrumentation at my previous university. I feel the stress relating to that is also eliminated with the current lab I work in. I have learned that change is not easy but is sometimes necessary. I also realised that financial security is very important and greatly influences one’s health, especially mental health.

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

My research is on reusing waste products to make adsorbent materials for preconcentrating toxic chemicals such as poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in water.

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

PFAS are increasingly detected in water systems. South Africa, unfortunately, does not regulate them due to a lack of proof of their existence in our water systems. So my research will increase data on their presence and concentrations. More knowledge will be shed on possible sources and their pathways, enabling the government to make informed decisions on these toxic chemicals.

My work encourages the use of biological waste products for making adsorbent materials, such as fruit peels, seeds, tree bark, corn cob, etc. for the promotion of sustainable, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective processes.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

Publishing three manuscripts as the first author during my MSc; being in the top 10 scholarship recipients for a Summer school in Italy in 2022; winning the 2022 UJ 3MT viewers’ choice award; being featured in the ISET 2023 Gauteng edition, and my two beautiful kids are some of my proudest achievements. 

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I would love to be an NRF-rated researcher, be happy at my job, and be an inspirational colleague. I also see myself owning a business

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