IN A CLASS OF HER OWN
By Lethu Nxumalo
Marilyn Monroe once said ‘give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world’. That isn’t quite fitting for this nice as pie 27 year old mom who is already proving to be head and shoulders above the others. Her weapon is her lab coat.
Cylinders, stir bars, reaction kits and gas discharge tubes are some of the material that would gladly replace some of her kitchen utensils on any given day. Zikhona Tywabi’s love for science started early in her school career and has developed over time.
“I first became interested in Chemistry when I was still in high school, I found the subject to be enjoyable especially when in the lab mixing chemicals. My love intensified when I got to tertiary because we were doing more practicals and we were exposed to a lot of products. I remember the first experiment from first year involved nail polish and I was just blown away by the whole experiment.”
Tywabi who is a research student describes Chemistry as everything that surrounds us saying it is everywhere and it is everything. She says it is the mixing of compounds, involved in making industrial processes and that it is not what the naked eye sees but that is the end product of Chemistry. She explains that there are many applications such as in medicine, forestry, in agriculture as well as clothing and textile to name a few.
Dressed up to the nines, not a hair out of place under her lab coat, the self-confessed ‘die-hard’ Joyous Celebration fan gets into detail about her research project.
“My research project falls under CSIR Forestry and Forest Products research center situated at UKZN Howard College under the supervision of Dr Bruce Sithole. The overall objective of the group’s project is to contribute to the evolution of current South African chemical pulp mills into forest bio refinery. In so doing enable our local industry to keep up with the technology developments in order to remain internationally competitive and economically sustainable and in addition to help the country minimize its energy problems and environment footprint.”
Her research study is about processing South African eucalyptus saw wood dust with the unbleached pulp and bleached pulp in ionic liquids and Co-solvent mixtures. It is sponsored by the National Research Foundation and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
In laymen terms the project is about breaking down the bio mass fraction into Hemicellulose and lignin cellulose parts using ionic liquids and Co-solvents. Ionic liquids are known as green solvents that have low vapour pressures. They reduce being disposed to the environment. The objective is to find a better process to the current for creating viscose fibres.
“Traditional solvents have been used to make rayon fibres through the Viscose process that uses calcium disulphide, sulphuric acid, sodium hydroxide, but all these solvents suffer from high environment toxicity, and solvents cannot be recycled and re used. That is where the interest in ILs “green solvents” was born.”
On being a black South African woman in 2014, Tywabi feels it is still quite a challenge considering present dangers that threaten women on a daily basis.
“We live in fear because of rape; we are not free to walk alone at night or even during the day because we always fear for our lives. You know I was in Spain a few months ago, I felt safe walking in the city of Madrid and I pray so hard for that life in SA.”
On a more positive note, she strongly believes that South Africa has created more opportunities for women to progress career wise. She believes that we are “…on the roll; we just need to rid ourselves from the cultural and religious barriers that hinder our full rise. South Africa is alive with possibilities.”
This live wire is proof that hard work and dedication yield desirable results. Her list of achievements include passing her Mtech degree in Chemistry with a CumLaude, being accepted for the South African Netherlands Research Programme of Alternatives in Development (SANPAD) Research capacity initiative co-hort of 2012/2013. Awarded the NRF- Scarce skills grant for Postgraduate students.
She has published one journal article in journal of Phys ChemB in 2011, submitted 2 other manuscripts which are under review, to the Journal of Cellulose and Journal of Carbohydrate polymers. She has also had the opportunity to present her work at various national and international conferences. Her latest achievement was being nominated for the Women in Science fellowship award organized by the Department of Science and Technology and event which will be held in August 2014 in Johannesburg.
To put the icing on the cake, she appeared on the 24 hour news channel eNCA talking about her project.
Tywabi says research is her first love and wants to one day be one of the best rated researchers in the world.