About Simphiwe Zwane
Tell us about yourself – A brief biography on your place of birth, educational history (high school and higher institution), work etc…
I am an ambitious African woman who is passionate about research in the field of sustainable utilization of nanotechnology, particularly, in the designing of novel methods for treating water. During the course of my undergraduate degree programme, I undertook a research project that broadened the scope of my scientific knowledge and opened new opportunities in life. Additionally, my master’s research projects further developed and advanced my technical skills. This motivated me to enrol for a PhD degree in 2019 and I am currently registered with the University of South Africa under the Institute for Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability. Self-motivation drives me to use knowledge and research skills in order to contribute towards solving the challenges of water pollution in South Africa and Africa at large. Hardworking, focused and disciplined are attributes that describe my personality, while working under pressure forms part of my work ethic which I developed through the course of my postgraduate studies. Hence, I managed to finish my master’s degree within 10 months and published three research articles in peer reviewed journals.
Why did you choose this career path and what influenced you to pursue it?
My high school mathematics teacher identified me as a student with exceptional scientific and mathematical abilities during my early high school years, despite the fact that I was naturally interested in art subjects. This was encouraging and it boosted my confidence to seriously pursue STEM subjects. Mathematics stood out to be my favourite subject with most of my scores being outstanding. I was excited by the idea of being a scientist, and a good one, hence I ended up seeking clarity from my teacher. His only advice was to pursue Life and Physical science instead of the arts subjects (History and English literature). Consequently, it meant repeating Grade 11 in order to pursue these subjects. Repeating Grade 11 imposed a heavy financial burden on my family. Luckily, my parents understood and appreciated my life goals, so they became fully supportive towards my pursuit of STEM subjects. Venturing into science was a wonderful journey of discovering the composition of matter and how it interacts with nature. I developed a strong passion for science which resulted in me enrolling for a Bachelor of Science degree at university.
What average marks in matric (maths and science) are required to study this degree in university?
The average marks needed to study Bachelor of Science is 60% for each of the subjects including Mathematics, Physical science and Life Science.
Did you always intend to be a scientist, if not, what was your dream career?
Ever since my high school Maths teacher discovered my talent in science, I have always been interested in understanding how things work in science. My undergraduate research project opened my eyes to the excitement and broader benefit of chemistry. Conducting weekly experiments in the laboratory during my undergraduate studies invoked the desire to work further, and it created the curiosity to understand the chemistry behind every substance. The numerous discoveries in the laboratory motivated me into finding more solutions to real life problems using chemistry. I had an opportunity to do some innovative research during my master’s project. Hence, I was motivated to go for the PhD programme. I don’t regret a single day in choosing to be a scientist.
At present, what are you working on?
Currently I am a full time Ph.D. student at the University of South Africa, under the Institute for Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability. My research work is focused on the removal of organic pollutants (pharmaceuticals and dyes) in water using nanotechnology. The research objectives for my project are designed to achieve the UNESCO Sustainable Development Goal 6, which seeks to ensure safe drinking water and sanitation for all. This would be achieved through developing a sustained water treatment system that can be used in remote areas experiencing water pollution, lack of water and inadequate sanitation
What is your opinion on female representation in the nanotechnology industry?
Even though more gains have been made in terms of gender equity for women in science, gender inequality still persists as a major problem and a systemic approach is required to tackle this challenge. The world of science needs fresh perspectives, talent and creativity. That won’t be achieved by one gender alone, therefore, the nanotechnology industry needs to gradually integrate women on an equal basis with their male counterparts.
What is the biggest challenge you have encountered so far in your journey as a scientist and how did you overcome it?
Public speaking is my major weakness. However, as a researcher, communicating your work to various audiences is mandatory. Having realised my shortcoming, after my master’s degree, I deliberately took a gap year to be a chemistry educator in order to improve on this aspect. This opportunity opened my eyes and I realised that I enjoy disseminating knowledge to other people. My confidence was boosted, and I appreciate that I now actually feel comfortable and energised in an academic environment and in taking a lead.
Which undergraduate degree should someone enrol in, in order to become a specialist in your field?
If someone wants to be a nano-scientist, that person can enrol for a bachelor’s degree in science, majoring in chemistry, physical, biological sciences and/or engineering.
Share a turning point or defining moment in your work as a scientist?
Being a chemistry educator allowed me to see my full potential as a scientist. Interacting with young minds from different backgrounds brought new innovative ideas and, suddenly, I began to understand connections I never thought of before.
What is your advice to young, aspiring female scientists and students?
I would like to tell all the ambitious female scientists not to lose hope and courage. You might fail many times, but always remember that progress is made by trial and failure. Continue to strive; it will pay off one day. I like the words from Albert Einstein, when he said that it is not the intellect which makes a great scientist, but it is the character. On another note, if you want to enjoy the journey of being a scientist, you have to believe in yourself, face your fears and take action.
What is your next move career wise and what are you most looking forward to?
It is my desire to finish this PhD programme within the given period and pursue a career in academia and research. I don’t want my research work to end up in theory only seen in research articles, but I also want to make a valuable contribution in the community.