Takunda Chitaka will be graduating with a PhD in Chemical Engineering this month.

Equally, she is no stranger to the challenges that life can present along the way. However, it is not her failures or successes that define her life, but rather her spontaneous and positive approach, which has allowed her to grow as a researcher and a human being. She will be graduating with her PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cape Town (UCT) this month.

Takunda was one of 10 emerging scientists to receive the Blue Charter fellowship from The Association of Commonwealth Universities last year, and was also the first recipient of the Excellence in Academia PETCO Award for research she had been working on since 2016.

The award – established by PETCO, a South African organisation specialising in the recycling of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic – recognises the importance of peer-reviewed research to underpin strategic interventions in recycling, minimising waste, and sustainability.

Takunda’s PhD thesis is titled “Inclusion of leakage into lifecycle management of products involving plastic as a material choice”, in which she argues that litter should be included in the lifecycle management of plastic products.

She was nominated for the PETCO award by her supervisor, Professor Harro von Blottnitz.

Highly motivated

For the past few years Takunda has been walking the beaches around Cape Town, conducting surveys to estimate the amount of litter that flows into the marine environment, and explore how this knowledge can influence development of strategies and interventions.

Her research has seen her speak at international conferences and take up a fellowship in New Zealand for six months. But it has been far from smooth sailing for the 29-year-old, who was born in Zimbabwe. Her story is one of triumph over adversity, although she refuses to accept that she is remarkable in any way – just determined and highly motivated to succeed.

“The reason I ended up in Cape Town is because of my dad. He gave me two options. He said, ‘My child you can go into medicine or engineering’, because he’s an engineer who wanted to do medicine initially,” she said.

“My supervisor is the most supportive and most compassionate person Iʼve ever met.”

“He loved Cape Town. When I got my acceptance into UCT, I conveniently hid it, until I knew I had to go. I got there, but I hated engineering. I graduated … but I can’t design a plant to save my life,” she laughed.

An encounter with Professor JP Franzidis from the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment in the final year of her undergraduate studies at UCT changed her thinking.

“It was research day when they tell you what everyone else is doing. I remember JP Franzidis was doing a presentation – and he had two minutes. I never considered myself as a spontaneous person because I like to plan my life, but when I heard him speak, I said: ‘Yeah, I’m going to do that [master’s]’.”

While doing her masterʼs, Takunda found that she had a passion for teaching, and so she began thinking about lecturing. “I realised … you need a PhD to teach. So I said to myself, ‘Let’s do that then’,” she said.

She is deeply grateful to Professor Von Blottnitz for the impact he has had on her life – professionally and personally.

“My supervisor is the most supportive and most compassionate person Iʼve ever met. He was like, ‘I know where you want to be, and I’ll help you get there.’ And then he said, ‘But you know I’ve got a research idea …’ I jumped onto the project, and it was great,” she said.

Pain and a PhD proposal

Takunda’s PhD research involved physical tasks like picking up litter from beaches and the painstaking analysis of what was recovered from the shores, which is why the flare-up of an old injury could have been devastating. She broke her hip when she was 11 and was told she would have constant pain.

“It was 2016, and then life happened. I mean what would life be if life doesn’t happen? … It was immense pain – sciatica. I thought, ‘It isn’t a good way to start your PhD; this is not fun.’ ”

She consulted a doctor who told her she needed a hip replacement, which she couldn’t afford.

Faced with the prospect of not being able to walk properly or do any physical work, she refused to give in to the physical pain or the mental uncertainty.

“So we decided to crowdfund … and the stars aligned.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt that supported in my life. People really rallied around.”

Von Blottnitz drove the fundraising effort himself – from the heart. “I’m not a quiet person professionally, but personally I like to keep everything to myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that supported in my life. People really rallied around and said, ‘This girl needs to get surgery, let’s help her’. My surgery was fully paid for, crowdfunded, which I still think is wild!”

A month later she was presenting a PhD proposal, having just recovered from the operation. “I insisted, and I went for it and it didn’t go well. There was scepticism about a chemical engineer dabbling into plastic pollution and marine studies,” she said.

Her proposal was sent back for revision.

In 2017 she attended an international conference where she presented in a competition for PhD projects, and finished second. She was speaking to a diverse multidisciplinary audience in the field of lifecycle management. With that experience, Takunda gained the confidence she needed to have another attempt at representing her PhD proposal – and it was accepted.

Planning is not everything

All of a sudden her life got very busy – from lecturing to being involved with the faculty’s student council to doing beach surveys.

“I realised you can plan all you want for life but things don’t always go according to plan. There are so many opportunities in life; when an opportunity comes, don’t just let it go past you just because you’ve already got a plan,” she said.

“Through randomly studying towards my masterʼs, I discovered my passion. If I hadn’t been an engineer because of my dad, I wouldn’t have gone on to do my masterʼs. I want to learn from every experience, and find new experiences, so I put my hand up for random things that sound like fun. What do I have to lose? But I will be enriched.”

But life’s challenges were never far away. Even after her hip surgery, she had debilitating pain. She needed a second surgery.

“Am I supposed to stop living my life because my body hates me? No, it must get on board.”

“My surgeon wouldn’t charge me for consultations, and he fitted me into his surgery days. I didn’t tell a lot of people that I went for the second surgery because I didn’t want to disappoint them. I got the second surgery – and it didn’t work. I still have chronic pain until this day.”

Giving it her all

There was no time to rest. Takunda was selected for a fellowship in New Zealand in 2019. She gritted her teeth and decided that, in spite of the pain, she would give it her all.

“I went to my doctor and said, ‘Write me a script.’ I … packed about six months’ worth of pain medication in my suitcase. … Am I supposed to stop living my life because my body hates me? No, it must get on board,” she said.

Over the course of her health struggles and through her victories in the academic space, Takunda, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Western Cape, has learnt that she is indeed her father’s child – it’s where her adaptability and tenacity come from. He is, after all, a man who went from being an engineer to a businessman, politician and ultimately a chicken farmer after his retirement.

“Life is hard, but then you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” she said. “You persevere; you have to be positive for yourself. Your inner voice has to be positive. You have to say, ‘Life sucks right now, but I’m going to keep going.’ Look at where you’re going. Don’t dwell on where you’ve come from.”

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