From not knowing what analytical chemistry was to being a top-rated scientist

Posted on February 10, 2023

The United Nations’ 8th International Day of Women and Girls in Science is being commemorated on 11 February. It is a day Professor Ntebogeng Mokgalaka-Fleischmann values and respects. She knows only too well how important it is to create awareness of science careers and celebrate women’s contribution to the discipline.

Prof Mokgalaka-Fleischmann will never forget when she stood up on stage in 2005 to graduate with a DTech in chemistry. She was the only woman graduating with a doctorate in that ceremony at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT), an achievement made even more meaningful because she had initially failed matric maths, which had dashed her original career plans.

Today she is a full professor – and has been rated C2, an established researcher, at the National Research Foundation. She has added an MBA in Education Management to her string of degrees, and, since July 2022, is Director of the Mamelodi Campus at the University of Pretoria (UP).

Her mantra has always been hard work and focus, even if that focus has to take an unexpected direction. Her heart had been set on becoming a chemical engineer since the day a former pupil came to Mamelodi High School to talk about his job of refining coal to fuels and synthetic chemicals.

“This was a whole world of discovery, designing and creating materials for societal benefit and economic growth,” she said. To add to her certainty that she had chosen the right career, she had been selected to be part of a science-orientated community outreach winter school at Wits University that included staying in a residence like a real student.

But without maths, engineering wasn’t an immediate option.

The then-Pretoria Technikon was a possibility because the institution had a mid-year intake and allowed walk-in applications. After extensive extra lessons at a specialised maths centre, she passed the maths supplementary exam and registered for a National Diploma in Analytical Chemistry.

“I did not have any idea what it was. I learned that on the first day when they asked us ‘what is analytical chemistry?’. But I grew to love it so I never went back to the idea of studying chemical engineering and I don’t have regrets. I’m happy,” said Professor Mokgalaka-Fleishmann.

Today it is hard to stop her jabbering on about phytoremediation, the use of plants to remove pollutants in the environment, which became her specialisation during her postdoctoral studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“You know those cakes, those yellow-looking mountains when you drive to Springs, or towards Soweto and Krugersdorp. Mine dumps? The actual name is a tailings storage facility. The older ones were not constructed with the best technology and lead to the leaching of toxic metals into soil, ultimately contaminating groundwater, a vital source of water for some communities. They are also without cover, so wind blows away dust laden with toxic metals to nearby communities. This can cause silicosis and other respiratory health problems,” she said, “and necessitates environmentally-friendly solutions such as plants to remove toxic metals and stop them from leaching to the groundwater and to control the dust.

“Have you seen the Hennops River? You should look up its status,” she said, introducing her latest research passion: microplastics, “something that we need to zoom in, because we don't even understand how they interact with other contaminants, how they interact with organisms in the water and their ecotoxicological effects…”

Her enthusiasm adds to her ability to bring things to life and frame them accessibly. No wonder one of her former master’s students, Shaun Manzini, posted on LinkedIn: “It was a lit journey with you in our university” when the University of Venda announced her departure as Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Agriculture to join UP.

Her primary focus is now the Mamelodi campus, which offers the foundational year of extended curriculum programmes for about 800 first years, and has been declared the social innovation hub for the university. Yet she is still an active researcher and supervisor through her affiliation with UP’s Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, and her position as Professor Extraordinaire at TUT.

She is currently collaborating on a project with the Agricultural Research Council, the University of South Africa, North-West University and TUT. Funded by the Water Research Commission, they have established an online, interactive, free-access platform with information about Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs) in South African surface waters.

“I've always been inquisitive about things,” she said, and science was a natural outlet for that. However, ability does not always equate to success. Two things aided her trajectory. She learnt from the exemplary leadership of her parents, who were always studying. Her mother is a retired nurse and her father worked in banking and in human resources and, although both are officially retired, they are still dabbling here and there, so “not fully, fully retired”, she said.

The other influence was a mentor who helped mould her career. She refers to Professor Rob McCrindle at the Department of Chemistry at TUT as “my academic father”. After she had converted her diploma to a BTech degree, he secured a scholarship for her to pursue a masters. He literally handed her the forms to apply, provided her with the topic, and told her to go ahead and do the research and write the proposal.

Now she wants to open up “the world of science where everything is possible” to other girls. In true Prof Mokgalaka-Fleischmann style, she has lots of ideas of how to do this.

“It starts with debunking stereotypes about who can be scientists and what scientists look like. Secondly, to remove the fear of maths and science, especially in previously disadvantaged communities,” she said.

“We must really challenge girls to go into careers in mathematics, technology and engineering. That’s where we need them. Traditionally a lot of women are encouraged to pursue careers in other sciences such as chemistry, biological sciences, microbiology, biochemistry, food science. Perhaps they are seen as less challenging.

“This fourth industrial revolution is about innovation. It's about designing new things, or doing things differently and improving service delivery. That requires you to know how to code, to know mathematics, to have critical thinking skills, so we need women and girls in these challenging sciences.

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