Education

A passion for research

Thabo Mohlala

This young achiever uses his love of science to benefit South Africa.

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo has helped to develop a home-grown biometrics system, which can classify and match partial fingerprints. (Lisa Skinner)

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo is an electrical engineer by training. He holds a bachelor of science degree and a doctoral degree in electrical engineering in the field of computational intelligence from the University of the Witwatersrand. He has also been a postdoctoral fellow at the graduate school of arts and sciences at Harvard University.

Nelwamondo is currently a principal researcher and the competency area manager in information security research in the modelling and digital science unit of the Council for Scientific Industrial Research (CSIR). He is a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and a visiting professor of electrical engineering at the University of Johannesburg.

At the young age of 29, Nelwamondo has research and practical experience in software engineering and in computational intelligence in various applications.

He is the youngest South African to be awarded the Harvard-South Africa Fellowship and has received many national and international research accolades from organisations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers. He has received the National Science and Technology Forum award for outstanding research. Nelwamondo has interests in exciting emerging areas of software and technology applications including a biometrics-based system, data mining, modelling of complex systems, machine learning and mechanism design. He has presented his work in various countries, including South Africa, the Czech Republic, Canada, Hungary, the United Kingdom, Taiwan, China and the United States. Nelwamondo has also successfully co-supervised master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering. He was featured in the M&G’s 200 Young South Africans.

Which school and university did you attend?

I attended Mbilwi Secondary School in Limpopo and Wits University.

How did you get to know about your current occupation?

When I was young I wanted to be a teacher because they were the highest status professionals in our village. However, when I started high school I changed my mind and wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. When I was in matric, I switched my interest to electrical engineering. The main reason was that there were more funding opportunities for studying electrical engineering than aeronautical engineering, and my passion for electrical engineering has grown by the day. When I was studying I noticed that there were many unanswered questions, and my passion for research grew so much that I pursued this career path all the way to a doctoral degree and beyond. Today, my focus is on computational intelligence and pattern recognition.

What does this entail?

We conduct research and development in the area of information security, focusing mainly on biometrics (specifically fingerprint, iris, face and signature verification), smart cards, network security and pattern recognition (for instance, fraud detection). One noteworthy achievement is the development of a fully home-grown biometrics system that can classify and match fingerprints that are only partially complete. We developed algorithms that improve the speed, accuracy and security of recognition. The research was developed into technology that is demonstrated to, and packaged for the world of commerce through our industrial partners. My work also entails developing post graduate researchers and students in various research topics in the field of electrical engineering and areas of pattern recognition and modelling. This includes the area that is mainly referred to as artificial intelligence. I have successfully supervised three doctoral students and six master’s students.

Science is great because … It results in remarkable discoveries that lead to novel technologies, that can improve the quality of life.

What sparked your interest in science in general and in particular your current area of focus?

Even at high school I wanted to participate in solving unanswered problems and questions. In the CSIR, my passion was geared towards the mastery of science through purpose-driven and directed research that is aimed at improving the lives of South Africans. I am focused on assisting South Africa to gain strategic independence in areas of national security. I help to develop home-grown information security technology that we fully understand, and that is developed in the sole interest of the country. This helps to solve South Africa’s specific challenges in a unique way and has great potential in strengthening our industries: not only will they sell new technology, but also technology that meets the country’s specific needs.

Would you say there was a person who persuaded you to pursue a career in this field?

One person I can single out is Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, who became my mentor and, ultimately, my doctoral degree supervisor.

How can young people get involved in your area of specialisation?

There are many ways to nurture skills that are relevant to this field. Youngsters can study computer science, applied mathematics or engineering (for example computer engineering, electrical engineering, information engineering or bio-medical engineering). They can also ­follow scientific fields such as physics and applied mathematics.

They need to develop a passion for computing using mathematics and computer programming.

What do you do when you are not working?

I spend time travelling with family.

What is your message to science teachers and pupils?

Teachers need to stimulate pupils to think and ask the right questions to generate their interest in careers in science, engineering and technology in ways that are geared towards meeting the challenges facing the world. Pupils need to work hard, knowing that productivity is like compound interest. Of two individuals with the same ability, the one who works 15% harder will soon more than twice outperform the other one.

Originally published in: The Teacher

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