Story Niémah Davids. Photo Supplied. Read time >10 min.
“As long as you’re alive, the dream is alive. And remember, it doesn’t really matter how you got into the deep end, it’s your responsibility to make it to the shore,” said University of Cape Town (UCT) MSc graduand Senzo Mgabhi.
Senzo will graduate with his master’s in chemical engineering from UCT’s Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment (EBE) during a virtual graduation celebratory event on Tuesday, 15 December 2020. But his journey to graduation meant that becoming a master jumper was necessary, as he had to dodge life’s hurdles to attain success.
“It’s been a rough ride; growing up was tough. But faith is the reason I am here today. Faith never let me down,” he said.
Working odd jobs
Senzo was born in Mfekayi in Mtubatuba, north of Durban. After his mother’s death in 2005, his younger brother, Sanele, and he moved in with their uncles. The move was necessary. Life in Mfekayi was “crime infested and toxic”, and moving in with their uncles meant that their living conditions improved. But life was hard, he recalled, and they had very little to get by on.
To support himself and his brother, Senzo picked up a number of odd jobs during the school holidays and eventually over weekends. He used the money to pay their school fees and to buy necessities.
“I would mow the lawn, act as a security guard, sort books in the library – and I would even do some cleaning.”
“I am so thankful to my high school principal, who gave me most of this work. I would mow the lawn, act as a security guard, sort books in the library – and I would even do some cleaning. This helped a lot,” he said.
Introduction to chemical engineering
Senzo said that he was first introduced to chemical engineering in Grade 10 when his English teacher suggested that he join the school’s environmental club. It was during club discussions and debates, often during break and after school, that he was indirectly schooled on some of the basics of chemical engineering.
But he was still mystified about what a career as a chemical engineer really entailed.
“I knew that chemical engineers were somehow involved in the pollution of water bodies like lakes, wetlands and the ocean because they’re the ones who permit the chemical discharge into the water. That was all part of our discussions,” he said.
“So, I thought if chemical engineers contributed to the pollution somehow, then they are just the right people to correct the environmental challenges we face today. Even though I was overzealous and borderline naive at the time, I wasn’t far off from the truth.”
As he continued to attend more club events, his fascination with the field grew. Senzo said he recalls a journal entry in 2007 where he wrote that studying towards a chemical engineering degree would be his education mission.
He knew that getting into university would be tough, and he poured everything into his schoolwork. He performed well in Grade 11, and ahead of his final matric exam he secured a provisional bursary to complete his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at UCT.
‘Apprehensive’ bus trip
As part of his provisional bursary Senzo attended a year-long graduate programme sponsored by Anglo American Platinum in 2008. At the beginning of 2009 he boarded an Intercape bus at the Durban bus station and made the voyage to Cape Town. He remembers having mixed feelings during this trip – he was somewhat apprehensive about the school-to-university transition and how he’d cope at UCT.
“But as soon as I set foot in Cape Town, what stood out for me, and still does, was the amazing reception I received. There was already a shuttle service waiting to take me to my new home – University House residence – and everyone was so friendly. My anxiety disappeared,” he said.
“Because of the injury, I missed most of my October lectures.”
His first year got off to a good start. The school-to-university transition was tough, and Senzo said that he quickly realised that maths and science at university were “poles apart” from maths and science at high school. Though challenging, he performed reasonably well throughout the year. But fate stepped in, and on the eve of his final exam he fractured his knee while playing in a residence soccer match. This injury presented a huge setback for his academic performance.
“Because of the injury, I missed most of my October lectures, and as a result I performed poorly in my maths exam that November,” he said.
Maths was a prerequisite
Senzo was on the brink of academic exclusion, so he added an additional year to his undergraduate degree. But he forfeited his bursary, which contained strict conditions that the sponsor would not pay for a failed course.
He described his “second first year” as a dark one. He had always been very competitive in the lecture hall, and high academic performance was essential to him and his friends. This, he said, was sometimes good because it motivated them to achieve above-average results. But after his poor performance in his exam the previous year, he said that the pressure associated with always being a top achiever weighed heavily on him.
“Graduating with my degree was a victory. I was so happy that I made it to the finish line.”
“I slipped into a depression. I was devastated that I needed to add another year to my degree. I felt like a loser and I carried this burden for several years,” he said.
But he made a solid commitment to his academic programme. When he wasn’t in class, he was in the library studying. During his spare time, he also worked as a student front-desk assistant, computer lab assistant and a student invigilator to settle his outstanding fees. This work didn’t get in the way of his studies.
With the support of an EBE faculty psychologist and a strong on-campus support system, he sailed through his undergraduate studies and graduated in 2015.
“Graduating with my degree was a victory. I was so happy that I made it to the finish line,” he said.
Chasing his master’s
In 2016 Senzo decided to pursue his MSc in chemical engineering. It’s been three years and many sleepless nights since then, and he is grateful that he will finally make it onto the virtual stage later this month.
“Doing a postgrad is tough; it takes so much perseverance. But I have to say, it’s very rewarding, especially now that it’s all done,” he chuckled.
He said that he endured some setbacks at the beginning, which included having to change his research topic.
“When I started, my preliminary research suggested that I was likely solving symptoms other than the root cause of the problem, which happens in novel research questions. I therefore had to change course and focus on what I was convinced was the root cause very fast,” he said.
And that’s what he did.
Senzo’s research focused on the kinetics of hydrated lime dissolution in acid mine drainage (AMD) neutralisation. AMD, he said, is a major environmental concern in South Africa and other mining countries, like Australia, Canada, the United States and Germany. It contains high concentrations of dissolved heavy metals and sulphate anions with low pH levels. It’s toxic to plants and aquatic life.
“I am so grateful to my supervisor, Professor Jochen Petersen. He really helped me through this process and supported me 100%.”
Treating AMD, Senzo explained, requiresa a neutralising process with hydrated lime in order to adjust the pH levels and ensure that it adheres to acceptable environmental standards. He said the end goal is to recover valuable metals and reclaim water, but this method can also result in the formation of water-retaining sludge, which “defeats the effort”.
“This is where my research comes in. If we understand the rate at which sludge forms, then we can backtrack to hopefully stop the formation process altogether,” he said.
But when he submitted the first draft of his MSc thesis in February 2019, one of his examiners ordered a rewrite.
So, he booked a spot at the postgraduate section in the UCT library and read dozens of books on how best to write a scientific thesis, and he eventually mastered the task. However, he said, feedback on his second thesis was significantly delayed, and he was forced to reregister in October 2019. He worked throughout the holiday season to submit in time for his February 2020 deadline.
“I am so grateful to my supervisor, Professor Jochen Petersen. He really helped me through this process and supported me 100%. I even had to stay over at his place for a week or so to finalise the writing process.”
Senzo said that he has had many standout moments while pursuing his MSc.
Having the opportunity to participate and present his research at several local and international conferences, working with exchange students and researchers from all over the world and becoming a tutor and supervising final-year students in the department have all been listed as “significant highs” during his postgraduate studies.
“I am grateful to my sponsors, my supervisor and everyone in the faculty who contributed to my success.”
“It’s been a journey of a lifetime. There are so many people who made this possible. I am grateful to my sponsors, my supervisor and everyone in the faculty who contributed to my success,” he said.
Senzo is currently employed by the City of Cape Town in the Water and Sanitation Department. Following his graduation, he will work towards attaining professional registration with the Engineering Council of South Africa. He’s also in the process of researching PhD opportunities in the field of sustainable mining, and water and wastewater treatment.
“I believe in lifelong learning. My undergraduate and postgraduate studies is the start of all of that. I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.”