Clean water for quality life

Alison Lewis has just won the department of science and technology’s 2012 Distinguished Woman Scientist Award. Lewis, born in London, hails from a high-achieving and highly educated family: her father was a chartered accountant, her mother was an airline pilot and her grandmother was a specialist anesthetist. Her younger brother is also a pilot.

Lewis is a qualified engineer who studied chemical engineering to doctoral level at the University of Cape Town.
She discovered that chemical engineering was a very practical application of mathematics and chemistry and became interested in research. This led to her starting a new initiative in crystallisation and precipitation research, which grew to become one of the accredited research units at the university. Both her master’s and doctoral degrees were in the fields of applied mathematical models for water treatment. Her research interests have gradually returned to water treatment and, more recently, water refining. Lewis’s research focuses on using crystallisation as a tool to purify metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium and also to treat contaminated water such as acid mine drainage. She believes that it is essential to design water treatment processes that are sustainable — they must not only produce pure water but must also recover the contaminants as useful products. This is now her main research focus.

Some of her recent awards and achievements include:

  • 2012 finalist in the National Science and Technology Forum awards;
  • Chemical technology award for best paper;
  • Fellow of the South African Academy of Engineering in 2011;
  • British IChemE sustainable technology award;
  • Member of the Academy of Science of South Africa in 2010;
  • National Research Fund presi–dent’s award for champion of transformation in research in 2010;
  • National Research Foundation B2 rating (awarded only to researchers who enjoy considerable international recognition by their peers) in 2009; and
  • Finalist in the department of trade and industry’s technology awards in 2009 for the project “treatment and purification of brines and acid mine drainage”.

<strong>Which schools and university did you attend?</strong>
I attended Pinetown Convent in Pinetown, KwaZulu-Natal, St Mary’s School in Johannesburg and the University of Cape Town.
<strong>What degree did you study for?</strong>
I studied for a BSc chemical engineering degree, then an MSc (Chem Eng) and finally a PhD.
<strong>How did you learn about your current occupation?</strong>
I was told that chemical engineering was the career of the future. This  was just about the time that the new Sasol plants at Secunda came on line and there was lots of excitement about the opportunities and possibilities in chemical engineering
<strong>Please explain what your job entails?</strong>
My job entails teaching, research and management. I teach under-graduate students design, third-year students crystallisation and fourth-year students preparation for design. Postgraduate students who are registered for master’s and PhD degrees are also under my supervision. The research is focused on crystallisation and precipitation, with two main focus areas: the first is on precious-metal precipitation and the second is on using crystallisation for water treatment. Science is great because it is fun and creative. It involves puzzles and solving problems. Engineering is even better because you get to apply practical solutions.
<strong>I admire…</strong>
Courage and creativity.
<strong>What sparked your interest in science and, in particular, in your area of focus?</strong>
I enjoyed maths and science at school and wanted to study further. I also thought that there was more career scope with a maths and science background than my other option, English. My mother strongly encouraged me to pursue a professional degree. My current area of focus was inspired by attending a course given by Professor Gerda van Rosmalen of the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands. She became a mentor, adviser and a friend and very important person in my life.
<strong>How can pupils become involved in your area of specialisation?</strong>
They would first have to complete an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering, applied mathematics or physics. Then they could do a master’s or a PhD in industrial crystallisation.
<strong>What do you do when you are not  working?</strong>
Run, swim, read, mess around with my children or go on dates with my husband.
<strong>Where can pupils get more information about water treatment?</strong>
They can look on our website, and they can also google “industrial crystallisation”.

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo reports for the Teacher newspaper, a Mail & Guardian monthly publication. Apart from covering education stories, he also writes across other beats. He enjoys reading and is an avid soccer and athletics fanatic. Thabo harbours a dream of writing a book. Read more from Thabo Mohlala

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