200 Young South Africans: Science & Education

In this section: Adrian Tiplady, Thabo Msibi, Jason van Niekerk and more ...

Adrian Tiplady


Adrian Tiplady is the self-professed black sheep of his family. ‘No one in my family plays any instruments or has anything to do with science,” he says.

So where Tiplady got his talent for jazz and physics is anyone’s guess.

An avid saxophonist, he’s played jazz and classical music at international festivals and is one of the project leaders in South Africa’s bid to host the largest radio telescope in the world, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

He advises the science minister and represents the country on international astronomy and telecoms boards.

When Tiplady was at university he aspired to become a conductor. ‘It was never my plan to be a practising scientist,” he says. But fate had other plans.

Having selected music and computer studies and looking for a third major subject, Tiplady closed his eyes, flipped through the student manual and landed on philosophy. ’ But it clashed with one of my other subjects. So I did it again and landed on physics,” he says.

Seven years later, he completed a PhD in his accidental subject, specialising in radio astronomy and digital instrumentation.

Once he had his PhD he had his heart set on going to Paris to be a jazz musician. But an invitation to become involved in the SKA changed that, fulfilling his ambition to become involved in high-impact events. Five years later, he’s one of the point men in South Africa’s SKA bid.

Tiplady believes the SKA provides the perfect opportunity for African scientists to invest in the knowledge economy, build technical expertise and collaborate with the world’s leading science institutions.

‘We’ve already [become] a leading light in the astronomical community in terms of design and engineering,” he says.

The accidental scientist still holds on to the dream that maybe in five years he’ll be playing jazz in a Paris café. Then again, he admits, ‘maybe I’ll be involved in a scientific project”.—Faranaaz Parker

Lunch spot: Cranks, Rosebank, Johannesburg

Thabo Msibi


Thabo Msibi is passionate about education. It began when, as a child, he would gather all the village children to play school and it continued when he went to university and received his master’s degree in education—cum laude.

He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and went to Columbia University to complete his master’s. Now he’s doing a PhD in the United Kingdom, thanks to the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which he received last year.

Msibi founded the Community Development Association, a student-driven community outreach programme.

A DVD on the experiences of gay and lesbian youth aimed at tackling these issues in the classroom is planned for release in June or July.

In addition, Msibi is the youngest executive member of the Southern African Comparative and History of Education Society, and is occasionally called on as an educational analyst for SABC radio.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Anywhere that’s sunny, outdoors

Jason van Niekerk

Lecturer: Wits University

Jason van Niekerk looks at life from a unique perspective—one that wouldn’t cross most people’s minds.

He feels that the depth and complexity of human relationships are underappreciated, particularly in Western thought, so he turned to the African theory of ubuntu to explore these issues further—and this has formed the basis of his doctoral research at Wits.

Born and raised in Johannesburg, Van Niekerk relocated to Grahamstown to do his BA and master’s in ethics and philosophy.

Having been very ill during his high school years he only became part of a community when he went to university. It is this, he says, that gave him a particular appreciation for human relationships, which most people take for granted.

Van Niekerk moved back to Jo’burg in 2007 to do his PhD at Wits, and is currently in his final year. In addition to lecturing at the university he is involved with the fledgling Wits Centre for Ethics, which aims to bring issues of ethics and philosophy into public life.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: FOOOD, Cresta Shopping Centre, Johannesburg

Athambile Masola

Volunteer: Nombulelo Reading Programme

Rhodes University master’s student Athambile Masola was eager, in her first year, to work with a student volunteer programme that was really only intended for more advanced students.

“We would go out into the surrounding community and help where we could — we would try to meet any needs that they had,” she says.

Masola became involved with a small reading club three years ago and became a volunteer at the Nombulelo Reading Programme.

She was appointed as community engagement councillor of the Student Representative Council for 2008/9 and now coordinates training for the representative council of learners in Grahamstown schools.

“I suppose because Rhodes is such a small campus in the middle of the community, you can’t help but notice the issues around you,” says Masola, who was recently selected as a Mandela Rhodes scholar.

With a foundation in compassion and first-hand experience Masola is focusing her thesis on foundation-phase literacy in a mother-tongue Xhosa school.

“I am looking into the practice of teaching; what informs what is taught, and how it is executed,” she says.

And through the Mandela Rhodes scholarship Masola has forged a relationship with Oxford University Press, because, she says, the resources for teaching reading and writing in mother-tongue African languages are problematic.

“The quality and access to them and how teachers use them is the issue,” says Masola who is considering further developing such resources.

“If kids don’t have a solid foundation in an African language, how are they ever going to switch over to a complex language like English?”—Lisa Steyn

Lunch spot: Red Café, High Street, Grahamstown

Ethel Phiri

Researcher, Stellenbosch University

Even though Ethel Phiri spends her days looking at plants and insects she’s all about the bigger picture.

Currently doing her PhD at Stellenbosch university, she hopes that one day, when she’s tired of research, she’ll be in government, making key decisions.

‘But that’s only in 20 years’ time!” After completing a BSc and honours in biochemistry at Rand Afrikaans University, Phiri spent a year working at Sci-Bona science centre in Newtown, Johannesburg.

She then applied for a job as a field assistant on a Marion Island expedition but went as a researcher instead after the university phoned to ask if she was interested in doing her masters.

Phiri spent 13 months on the island, and says she quickly got used to the isolation and the absence of modern conveniences. ‘It was quite a culture shock when I got back!”

Her MSc thesis won the Stellenbosch University S2A3 (Southern African Association for the Advancement of Science) medal for the best original scientific research last year.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Primi Piatti, Somerset Mall, Somerset West

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo

Senior Research Scientist: CSIR

Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, who grew up in the rural heart of Venda, says he learnt courage from his mother, a teacher, on their long daily walk to school and back.

In high school he entered science expos from grade 8 and, despite his father’s wish for him to become a doctor, found his true passion in science. He now has a BSc and a PhD in electrical engineering from Wits.

Nelwamondo was a post-doctoral fellow in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University and the youngest South African recipient of the Harvard-South Africa fellowship.

Believing in giving back to the community he is a member of a group that goes to Soweto on Saturday mornings to teach maths and give career advice to learners.

He also sponsors financial awards to learners in his village who excel in maths and science ‘I don’t believe in living for myself. I believe in living life to make sure I contribute to making someone else’s life better,” he says.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Barrington’s, Killarney, Johannesburg

Mafihlwase Mangwegape

Principal: Tikwana Comprehensive School

The oldest of five children, Mafihlwase Mangwegape always knew she wanted to be a teacher.

As a teenager growing up in the Eastern Free State she taught at Sunday school, was a member of the youth choir, and started a dance club, with which she was involved until she started teaching full-time.

Mangwegape spent four years as a head of department at a primary school, where she says she learnt how to lead people and help them develop as educators.

She has been principal of Tikwana Comprehensive School for the past three years—a move that she says was challenging because she had to adjust from a primary to a high school.

As a comprehensive, the school covers a wide range of very different subjects; Mangwegape herself teaches maths to two grade 9 classes. She believes it is important for principals to teach, even if only one or two classes, so they stay in touch with what’s happening in the classroom.

During the school day, when she’s not teaching, she visits the other classrooms to make sure everything is going well, and saves the administration work for after school.

She organises regular teacher-training workshops to bring teachers up to date with the latest developments in the Department of Education.

Mafihlwase, who won the 2009 excellence in secondary school leadership award at the national teaching awards, hopes one day to be in a position to share her skills and expertise with other principals.

She says the best part of her job is making a difference, even if it’s just one person—because that person may go out and have a positive impact on many others.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Spur, Welkom

Janice Limson

Head of Biotechnology: Rhodes University

In 2009 Janice Limson was promoted to associate professor, a move that, she says, means both a lot more work and a lot more responsibility.

On the plus side, she was granted a six-month sabbatical in January this year, which has given her a lot more time to focus on her research.

In addition to her academic role Limson is editor-in-chief of Science in Africa, the continent’s first online science magazine, which she started nine years ago, and winner of the Highway Africa New Media in Journalism and a National Science and Technology Forum award.

Limson’s research team of 12 master’s and PhD students is working on cancer diagnostics and drug delivery, with the ultimate aim of developing marketable tools for cancer diagnostics. ‘We’re all about turning research into reality,” she says.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Yellow House, Grahamstown

Rangan Gupta

Associate Professor: University of Pretoria

Rangan Gupta was born in India and has travelled extensively. He completed his PhD at the University of Connecticut in the United States before settling in South Africa.

In August 2005 Gupta joined the University of Pretoria where he lectures in monetary policy and theory. He says he is inspired by the fact that he can transfer his knowledge to students every day.

Gupta has been published in some of the world’s leading journals and has won the Exceptional Young Researchers award.

He is a member of the Economic Association of South Africa, the African Econometric Society and the African Institute for Economic Modelling and Economic Research Southern Africa.

In the past year he has been ranked among the top 100 young economists in the world—and the only one from Africa.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Anywhere, as long as he is with his wife and daughter

Moses Masitha

SRC President, University of the Free State

Being the first black president of the Student Representative Council at a traditionally whites-only, Afrikaans-dominated university can’t be easy, but Moses Masitha appears to be taking it in his stride.

A resident of Bloemfontein since he started high school, Masitha began his law studies at the University of the Free State in 2005.

He later switched to philosophy—‘a very gung-ho decision”—and is currently doing his honours, although he confesses that since his election as president his academic work has slid somewhat.

Masitha, who was vice-president of the SRC in 2007, says he was elected president as a result of two years of hard work in student activism and a desire to help unite a very divided campus.

The months since the election have been both ‘really great” and ‘very bad” , as Masitha has tried to bridge the enormous racial gulf between students. But there have been some successes: recently the SRC held a ‘Clean Slate UFS Kovsies Students End Discrimination” march on campus.

Masitha sees the SRC as a peacemaker; an agent for uniting the students.

He attributes his passion to become an agent of positive social change to his church, the Christian Revival Church in Bloemfontein, which has a racially diverse congregation and a spirit of genuine colour-blindness.

One day Masitha hopes to establish an education and training non-governmental organisation, as he feels strongly that Africa needs to develop good moral leadership.

He is proud to come from Bloemfontein. ‘It’s an incredible place,” he says. ‘People often say, ‘Can anything good come out of Bloemfontein?’ And then they’re surprised when it does. We’re kind of the underdog; I like that.”—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Euro Cafe, Mimosa Mall, Bloemfontein

Tumi Semete

A Researcher: Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)

Ever since she learned about the human body in high school biology class Tumi Semete has been fascinated by it.

She considered studying medicine, but when she heard about the BSc degree in human genetics, she knew it was for her.

Semete left her Soweto home for the lecture halls of the University of Pretoria, where she spent close to a decade in academic pursuits, completing a master’s and a doctorate in biochemistry.

She came to her current employment through a workshop hosted by her church. Her work at the CSIR is in nanotechnology—the science of small things—and how it can be used in the field of medical research.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Kream, Brooklyn, Pretoria

Uthra Rajamani

Researcher: Stellenbosch University

Uthra Rajamani believes that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

And this 27-year-old has certainly done well in completing both her master’s and PhD in the three years she’s spent at Stellenbosch University since coming over from India in 2007.

Well there’s that and her prestigious second prize in the category of basic sciences at the 10th AstraZeneca Health Sciences Research Day.

Rajamani, who grew up in Chennai, India, became interested in diabetes because the disease is widespread in both South Africa and her home country.

She and her husband moved to Cape Town, and he to do his PhD in genetics at the University of Cape Town she to further her studies in the physiological sciences department at Stellenbosch.

Rajamani has won numerous awards for her work in the past two years and is currently a post-doctoral researcher in Professor Faaidel Essop’s Cardiometabolic Research group.

‘Anything I do, I do it to my full capacity,” she says.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Gino’s, Stellenbosch

Preven Chetty

Facilitator, Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa

In a family of engineers Preven Chetty sticks out like a sore thumb.

He spent his childhood hiking along the banks of rivers, investigating them and cleaning them up—and this has been his passion ever since.

Born and bred in KwaZulu-Natal, he sees rivers as the current running through life; everything is connected and what happens upstream affects what happens downstream.

After high school Chetty went to Chennai, India, where he studied classical music, becoming proficient on the veenai, a 5 000-year-old Indian stringed instrument.

He returned to South Africa in 2002 and studied environmental science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, later becoming a geography teacher.

Four years ago Chetty joined the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa, where he runs a course in environmental education.

His use of a documentary using cellphones and social networking sites to inspire and motivate communities living on the banks of the Umgeni River to take better care of the water system earned him a place as a finalist in the inaugural Rolex Awards for Enterprise: Young Laureates Programme.

Although he did not win, Chetty still plans to run the project: he’s sourcing funding and hopes to get it off the ground by July.

He is currently studying for his master’s degree in environmental education at Rhodes University, looking at the use of social networking sites to create environmental activism.

As a representative of the Howick Unit of the United Nations Regional Centre for Expertise, a network of educational institutions focusing on the delivery of education for sustainable development, he was, at the time of writing, planning a trip to Brazil.

Chetty, who lives in a cottage on a farm in Howick, where he keeps a rooster and some chickens for eggs, and gets his milk from the farm, is the lead singer of a band called the Tantric Monks, which plays environmentally-conscious rock songs.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Picnic at Karkloof Falls, Howick

Zulaigha Ismail

Aerospace Engineer, Rhodes University

Who do you think you are, a rocket scientist? Well, the answer to that question, for Zulaigha Ismail, is, quite simply, yes.

But she says the best part of her job is that she gets to work in the aviation industry.

Ever since she was 12 years old, Ismail has wanted to work for Nasa, the American National Aeronautical and Space Administration.

A Capetonian through and through, Ismail studied for a BSc in electro-mechanical engineering at the University of Cape Town, where she was a class medallist and made it on to the dean’s merit list.

In her third year she attended astronomy summer school at the South African Astronomical Observatory.

After graduating Ismail worked for Eskom at the Koeberg nuclear power station and, during a sabbatical year, attended an international development course in France.

At the beginning of 2008 she made the great trek up to Gauteng to join Denel Aviation, working on the Rooivalk attack helicopter; later that same year she was awarded an Australian Development Scholarship from AusAID to do her master’s degree in aerospace engineering at the university of Sydney—which she achieved with honours.

But Ismail is still gazing at the stars—hoping to work for Nasa someday.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Any halaal Spur

Enrico Olivier

Astronomer, South African Astronomical Observatory

In his new position, dealing with the public and the media, Enrico Olivier is asked some weird questions, usually to do with UFOs and other strange objects people have seen in the sky.

But he also deals with more standard enquiries about phases of the moon and the times of sunrise and sunset.

Olivier’s interest in science was sparked at a young age by his parents, who encouraged him to make use of the local library.

Born and bred in the Western Cape, he spent four years in Australia studying for his PhD in astronomy and astrophysics before returning to the Cape and joining the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Olivier, who stepped into the media liaison post last year, says he only really started settling into his job at the beginning of 2010.

Besides handling calls from the public, he gives talks at schools and interviews on television and radio. This year he plans to spend more time on his research into the structure and evolution of stars.—Tarryn Harbour

Lunch spot: Any Asian restaurant

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