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.

Stumbling blocks of an “A” student

I have never been the type to be stressed over good grades, after all I’ve always been my teachers’ favourite throughout my academic life. This was not because I was smart, but simply because I was above average in terms of working hard. Because of this, I can’t remember a single grade where I was not the teacher’s pet; and whenever awards were handed out, or when a school event needed an “A” student’s face … it was usually ME!

One of my greatest moments in life was in fourth grade, when I was called to present an essay I had written in front of hundreds of people. I believe that it was at this point that I fell in love with writing and public speaking, although I do neither one of those things today.

My undergraduate studies were no different from school — I picked right up from where I left off and even did way better, if I may say so myself! Out of the 26 subjects I was registered for, I passed 24 (!) with distinction. My fellow mates nicknamed me 100, and yes, I was that 100% student. Publicly, I was not fond of the name, but secretly, I loved the respect that it came with.

Fast forward to Master’s, did I not see FLAMES!!! I don’t know whether it was a change in environment — I moved from the rural Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in the Eastern Cape to the oh so metropolitan University of Johannesburg (UJ) — or if it was having my heart broken a month before that big move. The stress and pressure were just overwhelming. UJ is a very diverse university, proclaimed the epicenter of PAN-Africanism and with that comes students from various backgrounds, nationalities and status, and (the horror!)… I was met with other “teachers’ favourites”. These students had been awarded opportunities to come study in South Africa, as they were all top students in their respective countries, just as I was at WSU. This immense competition led to me doubting my capabilities and losing motivation and confidence. As a result, my productivity dropped. My supervisor was also not so easy to impress and as much as he believed in me, his support did not help much.

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Photo credit: http://uproxx.com/life/crawling-hot-new-fitness-trend/

I had to find the means to deal with all the stress I was feeling, and unfortunately, I found myself running to the good ol’ bottle. Alcohol felt like my only way out; after all, everyone I was doing research with was indulging as well. These people also had their own problems, and even though we didn’t share our issues, it felt good drinking together. Before I knew it, a weekend of drinking turned into a few glasses during the week and eventually I was downing a full bottle in a day alone. Everyone knew that I loved my wine, but they didn’t realise just how much I was drinking. As justification for my drinking habit, I looked to the very public knowledge that most academics were alcoholics. I felt justified to indulge. However, I was falling behind in my work. I honestly don’t think that it was entirely because of the booze, but also a belief that I had lost my sense of thinking, which is key in my area of research – brilliant ideas need people who can think.  

Although I couldn’t think straight, I don’t think I was depressed. This is because I did not have all the other symptoms associated with depression such as constant sadness, guilt, suicidal thoughts etc. Of course, there have been moments I felt like I was losing my mind, moments I felt numb and so agitated. I wanted this journey to be over so badly. But every time I thought of where I came from I pushed myself even harder. The transition from a small town to a big city is never easy and this is something most people don’t get. Despite my alcohol and women problems, I drew strength from the fact that I had a mother and siblings in the Eastern Cape who constantly looked up to me, that alone became my push factor.  I managed to pass my Master’s degree cum laude!

I have now embarked on my PhD journey and as much as I have not found a proper solution to my problems, I am managing, and I strongly believe that my journey will continue as I continue to flourish as an academic. Let’s see where Chemistry and a creative outlet like blogging takes me this year…