Sharing is caring – my journey into postgraduate studies…

One of the most important quotes that I have encountered in my life, words of Marie Brennan, reads, ‘our wisdom grows not by staking out claims and defending them against all comers, but by sharing information freely, so that we may work together for the betterment of all’. I love this quote because it resonates with me and ties in with how my postgraduate journey began.

My name is Nthabeleng Hlapisi. I started my undergraduate degree in Lesotho at the National University of Lesotho. Throughout my four-year degree, I did not understand what Masters or even Honours meant. Lesotho education at the time did not provide enough guidance regarding postgraduate degrees and did not host any career exhibitions of any sort. I remember one day I learnt that our chemistry laboratory assistant had a Masters degree. That was mind-blowing, and yet I couldn’t fully comprehend what it meant. Mind you, I had professors who were lecturers but because most of them were foreign, I thought maybe the titles were what their home education system afforded them – ignorance I know.

After finishing my undergraduate degree, I saw some of my friends getting scholarships to study overseas and even to go to universities in South Africa. This intrigued me, and inspired me to find out what these postgraduate studies are?! Fortunately, I had a friend who had done the same modules as me who was then pursuing his Honours degree at the University of the Free State. One day he called me, I remember it was a Wednesday afternoon, and he told me to apply to pursue my Honours there. Well, I did not know where to start, but I thank him to this day because he shared information, and his determination to just assist me into getting into Honours showed true stewardship.

I entered the University of the Free State not knowing what to expect studying for an Honours in Chemistry, but it was the best and most educational year of my life. To this day, 2017 is the year for books. I took another brave step and moved further away to KwaZulu-Natal for my Masters at the University of Zululand because I enjoyed my postgraduate so much. This is where I was introduced to medicinal chemistry. People always say find your purpose in life and do what gives you peace, I think I have in medicinal chemistry.

Studying medicinal chemistry not only fulfils me but it gives me a sense of purpose. I have always wanted to be part of the solution makers in the health system and I also happen to love chemistry and just the complexity of organic synthesis and how funny reactions can be. My Masters journey was most fulfilling and tough and has opened up so many opportunities for me. I rediscovered my love for most of my hobbies through chemistry; travel through the several conferences I attended and writing through the papers and book chapters I wrote, to mention a few. My first international travel was through chemistry, to deliver an oral presentation in the United States.

I have registered for a PhD at the University of KwaZulu-Natal to further investigate and study how nanotechnology can be used in cancer therapy and bacterial infections. I strongly believe that we as scientists could do better to improve our health systems, through advocacy, education and working hard in the labs for policymakers to see. I am inspired by the likes of Professor Nyokong who always lets her work speak for itself. Maybe I am biased because she is a chemist, but she has led science to become important especially to young African girls.

Outside of academia I love travelling, exploring new restaurants and food. This just lets me experience people’s cultures through food and travel. I also love fashion. Yes, I know, a chemist who loves fashion? It is my second love for the following chemistry. I am also a bibliophile, which is one of my escape routes, reading and writing.  

Out of all the lessons that I have learnt so far through my postgraduate degrees, the most important is that sharing is caring. Sharing information with other people can help them unleash their dreams. Sharing opportunities and communicating science is another way of building a better community. I couldn’t be where I am if the people close to me hadn’t have opened their hearts and assisted me through any process, from getting into my Honours to the lab colleagues in my Masters.

My dream is for a united community that understands that sharing does not dim your light but enhances it. Without an exaggerated ego, the dissemination of knowledge is liberating. I would love to see a community of people, including myself, who freely help other people with what they can and watch how much more will be given to them to also do so in a healthy mental state.

A week off…

So, I have to do analysis for pesticides and heavy metal analysis in water for my Master’s project. Unfortunately, we don’t have the equipment for that in our lab: I had to find a lab that does. Luckily enough, I discovered the University of Johannesburg’s Department

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The Analytical & Environmental Chemistry laboratory, UJ.

of Applied Chemistry, which heads up the Analytical & Environmental Chemistry Research laboratory. This research visit was truly a week off from my very typical and everyday academic life.

On my first day I joined the members of the research group in their preparatory presentations for an upcoming seminar. I always thought my research was isolated from the realm of the truth and practicality. Listening and watching different students at Masters and PhD level presenting their research on wastewater was really an awakening for me. If I wasn’t certain before, now I am sure that ecotox could become my life! A couple of studies caught my attention but I don’t want to give too much away…

 

One student was synthesizing a nano-composite to adsorb lead in the acid mine drainage. Another studied the desalination of seawater using a specific nano-composite, while somebody else tried to work out how to remove personal care products from water. As the students were presenting this work, in my mind I kept asking myself why I didn’t know about this stuff sooner. On the other hand, I was grateful I experienced this at this level of my study when I am still trying to find what I want to do for my next postgraduate program.

The second day was lab work. From learning to dilute concentrations and processes of preparing analysis reagents, it was a roller-coaster. I felt like a sponge – a rather happy sponge! The processes weren’t necessarily easy but it all just clicked. In a chemistry lab of all places! Without any further elaboration, let me just say I felt at home.

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Me, doing pesticide extraction using the solid-phase extraction method

One thing that stood out for me, apart from working with the amazing Prof Nomngongo and her students, was that the experience was the culmination of what I’ve been saying from the start. Through collaboration, interdisciplinarity and open-mindedness in research… this is how we build our research capacity in Africa. This is how we make science fun.