A champion for South Africa's greater good
She was always the kind of girl who you would find making wire cars with the boys in the street or helping her father with his welding work.
“Growing up, I was not a ‘girly’ kind of a girl, and I would say all that I went through in my life shaped me to be the person I am today,” says Dr Taile Leswifi (35), a mother of one and a senior lecturer in the department of chemical engineering at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT).
Life was not easy in Namakgale township, situated 12km from Phalaborwa in Limpopo. Her family did not have much; her parents had just enough to carry her and her three siblings to the next day. From a young age, she learnt how to do household chores and help to take care of her younger brothers.
The mining town of Phalaborwa sparked what would later form the basic makings of Leswifi’s PhD in environmental engineering and her career as a whole.
“I was so fascinated at how something that is mined from the ground can be processed into high value products; for example, copper. Also, I had a teacher at high school who made science so much fun,” she recalls.
In her high school years, Leswifi took up maths and science at Frans du Doit High School in Phalaborwa and she decided to take her fascination in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects further. She obtained her undergraduate, BTech and master’s degrees at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and with a little push from her master’s supervisor Professor Maurice Onyango, decided to apply for a scholarship to study at Michigan Technological University (MTU).
“Before applying for the scholarship I wasn’t thinking of pursuing my studies beyond master’s level to doctoral level, but my supervisor saw the potential in me and insisted that I apply for the scholarship. I was motivated by his inspiring words and his belief in me,” she says.
She was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and in 2009 left for MTU, where she attained her PhD. She stayed in the US for five years, always with the intention of coming back to South Africa and making a difference in the things holding us back, particularly in the technology space.
“I would say that the only thing that is holding us back, as South Africans, is our mind-set. We tend to rely so much on other countries and their technology. It is about time we South Africans make a difference in our country, learn about the technology of other countries, and tailor it to our own needs,” she says passionately.
While at MUT, Leswifi was involved in an outreach programme called Mind Trekkers road shows. It’s mission is to bring the “wow” of Stem to youngsters in the US and inspire primary school kids to pursue their studies in Stem fields. MTU students involved in Mind Trekkers travel to various states and conduct science experiments to show that science is fun and part of our everyday lives.
Keeping true to her goals, Leswifi came back to South Africa and joined VUT’s department of chemical engineering as a lecturer, and was later promoted to senior lecturer.
“The journey, personally and professionally, through my studies in the US was challenging, but it brought out the best in me. Personally I learned that we should not let our backgrounds determine the person we want to become in future. I learned that all it takes is courage, perseverance, patience, tenacity and belief in oneself, regardless of what people say or think of you,” says Leswifi.
At VUT she teaches chemical engineering courses such as fluid mechanics, heat and mass transfer, environmental engineering and research methodology at postgraduate and undergraduate levels. Her research interests include renewable energy and water and wastewater treatment. She has published five articles in peer-reviewed journals and six conference presentations, and has supervised undergraduate and graduate students: five to completion and five in progress at master’s level.
“Being a lecturer and researcher does not mean I know it all. Every day is a learning process for me and I embrace that learning process with an open mind, hence I enjoy working with my students so much, because I learn so much from them too,” she says.
“We are living in a world of new, advanced technology; this technology changes every day. Processes in industries change with the market demand. In my BTech class, I always ask working students if there are technologies at their workplace that have been improved to match the new demands. If there is, I ask the student to share that information with the rest of the class.”
In collaboration with her alma mater TUT, one of Leswifi’s current research projects is the use of biomass in removing contaminates in water and wastewater from industry. She is also involved in the designing and commissioning of a containerised water treatment system for Dr JS Moroka municipality in Mpumulanga, designed to treat brackish water to potable quality level.
Her career success has however not given her immunity from the difficulties and challenges that come with being a working mother in a predominately male-dominated field, but she takes it in her stride and has a “nothing is impossible” attitude.
“Whether in class or in the workplace, women tend to be undermined. We have to go the extra mile to prove that we are capable of being in the Stem field. The only way to survive in a field dominated by men is to be strong and stand your ground. During a Forward to Professorship Workshop I attended in the US, one of the speakers told us that we women tend to be apologetic all the time. We apologise for things that we don’t have to be apologising for. We can be humble and still be unshakable; we must stand our ground,” she states firmly.
Leswifi is also the chair of the Departmental Research and Innovation Committee and a representative of the Faculty Research and Innovation Committee at VUT.