31 January 2018

South Africa: Researcher Perseveres Against All Odds

A researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has not allowed his background to determine his future.

Growing up in a community with a lack of resources to stimulate learning, and being surrounded by poverty, substance abuse and high numbers of child-headed families, did not deter Charles Maphanga from achieving his dreams.

Maphanga, who grew up in Ga-Mampuru village, Limpopo, did not allow these conditions to stop him from dreaming big.

CSIR said his journey to become a scientist has proven that indeed, everyone is a master of his or her destiny.

The 31-year-old became the first in his family to go to university and graduated cum laude with a Masters (MSc) in Physics from the University of South Africa, now aspiring to pursue his PhD in Physics.

"From the age of 14, my mother was a domestic worker. Although she was not afforded the opportunity to receive a formal education, she knew the importance of education.

"I grew up valuing education because I understood the importance it would play in emancipating me from an environment that I felt was not progressive. I had a deep desire to do better and be better and this was coupled with my observant, inquisitive nature," Maphanga said.

Charles joined the Biophotonics group at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) under the National Laser Centre (NLC) unit in 2015.

Since joining the unit, Maphanga has participated by contributing both oral as well as poster presentations locally and internationally, leading to the publication of four peer reviewed conference proceedings.

He currently has one accepted peer reviewed journal publication and has submitted another for internal review.

In addition, Charles successfully attracted international funding from the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) Travel Grant to the value of $3200 ± R45K, a commendable achievement for a MSc student.

He has also held a number of leadership roles in the CSIR Optics Student Chapter. In 2015/16, he was secretary general. In 2016/17, he was outreach co-ordinator and currently, he holds the role of being President of the student chapter.

"While doing his MSc, Charles focused his research on the use of laser technology as an alternative technique for administering medicines into the human body in a targeted manner other than using the conventional enteral and parenteral routes of drug administration," the CSIR said.

Charles lauded his MSc supervisor and research group leader, Dr Patience Mthunzi-Kufa, for the role she played in shaping his career.

"As a leader, she has given me the platform to grow, voice my opinions and ideas while drawing on from my past academic experience as a source of inspiration.

"This in my view was a refreshing experience which motivated me to want to do better because she inspired me to be better," Charles said.

As a product of mentorship himself, Charles, is also transferring knowledge and his life experience to scholars from his village.

"I am passionate about developing young people in science. It gives me a sense of fulfilment and indirectly, it makes me feel like I am giving another young person an opportunity I never had growing up," he said.

Inspired by his love for science and young people, Charles is currently looking into establishing an organisation that will assist young people between Grade 9-12, mainly from rural areas, to understand and realise the full potential of doing maths and science.

His vision is to establish low cost laboratories in the rural areas.

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