Dr Usisipho Feleni is gaining recognition as one of the young outstanding researchers within the science community. This was recently confirmed when she was awarded an NRF-SAASTA Engaged Scholarship Grant of R500 000.
Dr Feleni is currently a lecturer at the Institute for Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability (iNanoWS) in the Unisa’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology. She is also a thematic area leader for Applied Electrochemistry at iNanoWS. She is involved in the supervision of four Master’s and two Doctoral students, and has undertaken the co-mentorship of two postdoctoral fellows.
Dr Feleni was awarded the grant to develop exhibits at the Cofimvaba Science Centre in the Intsika Yethu Local Municipality, Eastern Cape. The science centre serves as a platform for the introduction of innovative technologies to improve the quality of learning and teaching in the Cofimvaba School district in the Eastern Cape. The platform could also be used to introduce other latest technologies that have been tested in other contexts.
The science facility also aims to help advance the department of science and innovation (DSI)’s efforts to raise awareness and promote public engagement with science. It will use out-of-the-box approaches to stimulate and excite learners as well as encourage young people in general to pursue STEM fields. This will also contribute to the development of the skilled workforce that South Africa so badly needs.
The facility will accommodate up to 50 000 visitors per annum in school groups and it will focus on four areas including promotion of science engagement, curriculum support for mathematics, science and technology and science, engineering and technology career education and talent nurturing.
The centre also targets specific sections of community for engagement such as:
- learners and students
- science interpreters
- the general public
- indigenous knowledge holders
- researchers and scientists
Dr Feleni’ s application for the grant coincided with the Cofimvaba Science Centre’s plans to host a comprehensive STEM career awareness programme that will help guide the learners choose the right careers. The science centre will achieve this by having interactive and hands-on exhibits and related programmes.
Giving back to her hometown
She says it was the centre’s ambitious goals that attracted her to apply for the grant, adding this was the only possible way in which she could make a difference and give back to her hometown. More importantly, it will provide her a platform to act as a “role model to a younger generation”. The other key reason why the project is close to Dr Feleni’s heart is the fact that she was born in Ndungwana, a small village in Cofimvaba. It is here that she attended both primary and secondary schools in the same area. What is more, during her school days she struggled to choose her career paths “because there was not career guidance, science centre exhibits and role models” from the Eastern Cape.
Making positive and meaningful difference
She says she was raised with the knowledge that being a leader also means being the greatest servant. This inspired her to make a “positive and meaningful difference in society through the identification of African problems and by using African solutions to solve them”. Thus her ultimate professional mission is to ensure she “utilises her knowledge and leadership skills to encourage and promote innovative ideas to advance medical diagnostics and affordable energy.”
Dr Feleni says this will also motivate learners, students and researchers to build their science careers as well as do their MSc and PhD projects to address and find solutions to intractable national and global challenges such as climate change, food security, environment sustainability and health issues.
According to Dr Feleni, the grant will also be used to showcase the nanotechnology applications for environmental electrochemical based protocols for medical (e.g. testing for diabetes, HIV, SARS-Cov-2, TB and other diseases) and water analysis, as well as for cost-effective energy storage material development. In addition, the grant will be used in developing curricula and for training in physical chemistry and integrated chemistry for learners in grades 8 to 12.