“I love learning about the world around me and how science can shape and change it,” says first-year student Rahil Samlal, who is studying towards a BSc Microbiology degree in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Pretoria (UP). Rahil is also the winner of the prestigious UP Derek Gray Award for 2018.
The award, which was presented to Rahil at the 2017 Eskom Expo for Young Scientists, includes a full bursary to study science at UP and an all-expenses-paid trip to Sweden to represent Africa at the International Youth Science Seminar (SIYSS) in Stockholm, which he attended at the end of last year and where he got to meet all the 2018 Nobel laureates during Nobel Prize Week.
For Rahil, this was not only the highlight of the event but of his life. “At the reception we could interact with the laureates and other important members of the scientific and political worlds,” he says. “I was fortunate to meet all the laureates of 2018. Speaking to these incredible people and attending these events have opened my mind about what is possible in the scientific and economic world, and how important it is to constantly recognise human innovation and development.”
He was also required to make a presentation at the event. “On the main seminar day, each participant had to give a TED Talk-like speech to thousands of Swedish high school students and other members of the public, showcasing the research and findings of their respective projects.”
Rahil has nothing but praise for the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. “It is absolutely fantastic, and even though [my studies] can be challenging at times, I love learning about the world around me. I have met so many incredible individuals who have great drive and passion for science and who come from all kinds of backgrounds. The faculty is also filled with amazing lecturers who are extremely experienced in their respective fields and provide and all-around understanding of science, not only of what can be learnt from a textbook.”
Even as a young child, Rahil was fascinated with the world around him and how things worked. “I loved reading and playing outside, and allowing my curiosity to guide me. At high school, I was fortunate to have a forward-thinking science environment where I was able to do experiments, have debates and learn practical applications of science. My mother and I had so many fascinating conversations about medicine and health, and helping people to use modern technologies – she played a vital role in me considering to pursue a degree in science.”
His advice for other learners who would like to enter a scientific field? “When I first thought of science and the careers associated with it, I made the mistake of thinking that only one type of person can be a scientist and that I could not excel in all the required fields to become one. But you can be whatever or whoever you want to be. Scientists are probably one of the most diverse types of people, and becoming one requires hard work and dedication. Success is deeply intertwined with dedication as well as passion. You need to work hard from day one and make a good work ethic part of your character. You also need to realise that you are the only person who can decide where your life can take you.”