College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Chemistry’s Future Professor is Passionate about Teaching Science

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Dr Precious Mahlambi from the School of Chemistry and Physics has been selected to participate in the National Research Foundation (NRF) and Department of Higher Education and Training’s (DHET) Future Professors Programme (FPP) in recognition of her potential as an up-and-coming academic leader in the field of analytical environmental chemistry.

Nominated by the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES) in response to a national call for nominees, Mahlambi’s selection identifies her as among South Africa’s most talented academics. The FFP provides selected academics with a structured, intense programme to accelerate their journey to professorship, thereby strengthening leadership in South African Higher Education.

Mahlambi’s commitment to advancing scholarship through scholarly work, her creativity, novelty and productivity, willingness to learn and her resilience and openness to collaboration made her stand out in the selection process.

‘I feel honoured and humbled to be selected, especially because the professor rank is the highest in the academic career that we all aspire to attain,’ she said. ‘Being part of this programme will help me gain the required skills, experience and pedigree, and enable me to promote excellence in teaching and research at various levels.’

Motivated by her love for transferring knowledge and inspiring the next generation of scientists, as well as the scarcity of Black female South Africans in academia, particularly in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, Mahlambi chose to pursue further studies in science, and a career in tertiary education.

‘I aim to simplify the teaching and learning of Science to help students understand its role and importance in our daily lives so that they will be encouraged to study it up to postgraduate level,’ said Mahlambi.

Mahlambi pursued her undergraduate, honours and master’s studies through the Durban University of Technology, and her PhD in analytical environmental chemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand.

She joined UKZN as a lecturer in 2015, progressing to senior lecturer in 2020. Mahlambi is the only environmental analytical chemist on the Pietermaritzburg campus and is focusing on research with positive environmental and human health impacts. She is working on method development and application for the assessment of organic and inorganic pollutants (and removal strategies) from various water sources, soil and sediment, and fruit and vegetable samples.

Mahlambi aims to develop effective, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly pollutant analysis and removal methods to contribute to solving the worldwide challenge of water pollution and ensuring sustainable use of limited freshwater resources. She is also working on green synthesis of silver-based nanoparticles and their application as antibacterial agents with the aim of developing new and/or improved antibiotics.

Mahlambi has 29 publications to her name, and has received several grants and awards, including sponsorship from Sweden to participate in an exchange programme at Lund University during her PhD, and a Pittcon Travel Grant from the American Chemical Society in 2020 to attend and present at a conference in Chicago in the United States. Her research has been supported by a Thuthuka grant from the NRF since 2017.

Mentorship is a major component of Mahlambi’s work; she highlighted the importance of developing the next generation of environmental analytical chemists, saying that expertise in this area is in high demand and it remains a scarce skill in South Africa. She has supervised or co-supervised eight master’s students – who have all completed on time and with publications – and seven honours students, with six master’s and five PhD students currently under her main supervision.

Mahlambi credited God for her success in life, and thanked her husband Dr Mphilisi Mahlambi for his unconditional love, support, commitment, encouragement and belief. She also thanked her daughter for her emotional support and understanding, and expressed gratitude to her late mother and grandmother for their love and support.

Mahlambi acknowledged her Environmental Analytical Chemistry Research group students for their respect, enthusiasm and commitment that encourage her to mentor more students and grow her own knowledge. She also thanked fellow academics in the Discipline of Chemistry for the role they played in her development.

‘Congratulations on your achievements,’ said Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the CAES Professor Albert Modi. ‘You have made us proud as a College; keep up the fabulous work with the assurance of our support all the way.’

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied