Saneliswa Magagula leads the way in Science

In the year 2017, Saneliswa entered the Famelab competition and made it all the way to the finals. According to a profile published by the Mail and Guardian in South Africa, Saneliswa’s work focuses on the efficient conversion of biomass to energy through thermochemical processes. She is a member of Engineers Without Borders, where she contributes to the empowerment of communities through access to sustainable energy and the transfer of engineering skills. Magagula is inspired by Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, who says: “Ulala kanjani ungena Ph.D.?” which she translates to “Don’t be comfortable with not achieving your goals”.

“She is the first Swazi to compete in the Famelab, a communications competition designed to engage and entertain by breaking down science, technology and engineering concepts into three minute presentations. ”

This week we begin a series of articles that will run stories of ordinary Swazis who have done exceptionally well in terms of their academic achievements. While we focus on policy and advocacy issues, we also want to promote the best that has been produced by our education system.  The objective of running this series is to inspire a generation of young people who will be dedicated to achieve academically despite the present challenges.

In our article this week, we managed to get hold of Saneliswa Magagula who is not new in making headlines as an academic achiever. In 2005 she was one of the students who topped in the Junior Certificate Examination and recently was trending in South African media for displaying the best talent, knowledge and skill in the field of Science.

Born in Swaziland and attended high school at St Michael’s High School, Saneliswa Magagula  is currently a master’s candidate at the University of South Africa Material and Process Synthesis engineering research unit. She is the first Swazi to compete in the Famelab, a communications competition designed to engage and entertain by breaking down science, technology and engineering concepts into three minute presentations. Contestants from around the world take part armed only with their wits and a few props – the result is an unpredictable, enlightening and exciting way to encourage your curiosity and find out about the latest research in science.

FameLab was started in 2005 in the UK by Cheltenham Science Festival and has quickly become established as a diamond model for successfully identifying, training and mentoring scientists and engineers to share their enthusiasm for their subjects with the public.

In the year 2017, Saneliswa entered the Famelab competition and made it all the way to the finals. According to a profile published by the Mail and Guardian in South Africa, Saneliswa’s work focuses on the efficient conversion of biomass to energy through thermochemical processes. She is a member of Engineers Without Borders, where she contributes to the empowerment of communities through access to sustainable energy and the transfer of engineering skills. Magagula is inspired by Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, who says: “Ulala kanjani ungena Ph.D.?” which she translates to “Don’t be comfortable with not achieving your goals”.

Thulani Lushaba (TL): Thank you Saneliswa for giving us your time to do this interview.

Saneliswa Magagula (SM): You are most welcome. 

TL: Now please explain to our readers what is the Famelab and what does it seeks to achieve?

SM: Famelab is all about bringing science to the people, bridging the gap between science and society. A lot of great work goes on in labs and gets shared within our small scientific communities. Famelab says if it’s important and relevant to the general public, let’ make it accessible. Let’s get create an awareness, get the conversation going and ultimately implement our brilliant ideas. Beyond getting our work published in scientific journals, let the ordinary person know why they should care about what you do. They could be key in funding your groundbreaking research.

It’s been dubbed the “Pop idols of science” because of the format it takes being similar to reality shows like Idols. You have three minutes to impress a panel of judges with the content of your work, the clarity with which you present it and your charisma. Several regional competitions (heats) are held across the country in the early stages of the competition and ultimately 20 participants are chosen to take part in a Famelab Master class leading to the national semi finals. From there, it comes down to 10 finalists and the eventual winner gets to represent South Africa on the world stage, competing with winners from 32 countries worldwide.

TL: Please tell us how you were selected to join the Famelab?

SM: Late last year there was a call for nominations of participants from various Institutions of Research and higher education in South Africa. I expressed my interest and I was nominated to attend a workshop on science communication. After this workshop the first leg of the competition was started in Pretoria.

TL: Who supported you in joining the Famelab?

SM: The director of my research unit Prof Diane Hildebrandt was the first person to encourage me to join. Dr Celestin Sempuga, my supervisor, also was instrumental in me taking that first step. I got a lot of support from colleagues, some of whom were participating themselves which really moved me. I actually almost missed the final of the regional competition but they insisted on not leaving without me and correctly predicted that I would win that night. My biggest support though was from friends and family. They really helped with brainstorming, preparing my presentation and prop, and just talking about it on social media. I got a lot of confidence from knowing they were all behind me. The University of South Africa showed me a lot of support throughout and after the competition as well. Lastly, the most heart warming messages of encouragement came from the 2016 Famelab champ Nozipho Gumbi, who is an incredible researcher and equally amazing as a person.

TL: Why was joining Famelab important to you?

SM: It was an opportunity for me to learn; not only how to do better at science communication to get my own work out there, but also to be aware of what else is going on around me. I was really impressed by the diversity of the work we do in science and engineering and how every one of those scientists made that link to our everyday lives. I care a lot more now about fields that were previously foreign to me. I also believe I am better equipped to tell my story for having been a part of Famelab. I am ready to give a TED talk. I did not anticipate how much fun I would have while doing this though. In the end the experience was worth all the effort and nerve wrecking moments and it inspired me to want to achieve a lot more.

TL: Tell us about the research you presented on Famelab and how it can change societies?

SM: The concept is an ancient one called gasification. It is a process that uses heat to convert carbon containing materials into a gas that can be used to generate electricity. The application of it in informal settlements was the focus for my famelab presentation. Many of the challenges faced in informal settlements are a ripple effect of the lack of access to sustainable energy.  In South Africa these settlements are notorious for crime and violence. They have limited means for income generating activities and this leads to a desperation for survival. Innocent lives, often children, have been lost to electrocution due to unsafe illegal electricity connections. It is not just a township problem and it is not unique to South Africa. Electricity prices increase as a consequence of this theft and that impacts every paying customer. Also, a third of the world population still cooks on an open fire. We see this in our rural settlements and most of our schools. On the other hand, we have an abundance of waste; mealie cobs, plastics, wood chips, sawdust etc and we have a proven technology that can convert this into a usable form of energy. Through gasification, our trash cans are essentially an incredible energy storage. I wanted to show how such a technology could be fabricated simply, at low cost and operated safely with limited technical expertise; in fact as much expertise as is required to start a fire. I believe giving people sustainable energy solutions is a step in the right direction to ending the cycle of poverty. There is so much potential to improve our quality of life in every aspect; education, healthcare, sanitation, housing, all by just having the means to put the lights on.

TL: Do you have any plans in future to come back to Swaziland and assist the country come up with alternative energy?

SM: Yes, It is definitely one of my goals. I am in South Africa to equip myself with skills but I am mindful of the potential we have at home. It would be most fulfilling for me to work in Swaziland, with Swazis to empower our own communities.

TL: Lastly what is your advice for young people who today want to venture into the field of science education?

SM: Get informed. Career guidance is very important. In any field actually, be intentional about that pursuit. It's a lifetime and it's important that you know very early what that career entails. Don't leave it to your teachers. It's your future, do your research. Find somebody in the field and get practical advice on how to get there. Then make your informed choice and work hard. You NEED to work hard.

To respond to these articles email us on swancefa@gmail.com or call us on 2404 9617 or like our Facebook page Swaziland Network Campaign For Education For All (Swancefa).  

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