‘Circumstances do not define who I am and the hardships I’ve faced should not be allowed to alter my dreams and determination. Challenges will always be a part of life and harsh times do not last but tough people do.” – This is the adage with which Dr Philisiwe Nomngongo lives her life and it clearly defines her journey from the rural Eastern Cape village of Flagstaff to the hallowed halls of the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
When she was 10 years old, Nomngongo’s father passed away and this placed a huge burden on her unemployed mother who now had to find ways and means to take care of the family. The reality and the responsibility to raise a family of six was too much for her mother and at the age of 11, Philiswa had to look for part-time jobs to pay her school fees and assist her mother to provide for her siblings. She collected firewood to sell and her teachers paid her to fetch water for them. On school holidays, she made air-dried mud-bricks which she sold to different households. These early struggles had a profound bearing on Nomngongo’s life and instilled in her a work ethic that is based on hard work and diligence.
In 2008, she graduated with a BSc Applied Chemistry from the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) School of Chemistry and received her BSc (Hons) a year later. In 2011, she received her MSc and proceed to UJ where she completed her PhD in 2014. In 2015, Nomngongo joined the Faculty of Science at UJ as a lecturer of Analytical Chemistry and became Associate Professor of Analytical Chemistry in 2015. Nomngongo says her love for science developed in high school and was inspired by curiosity to know about things around her. Analytical chemistry as the branch of chemistry where one analyses many samples to identify and know the amount of component present satisfies my curiosity. This, coupled with working with different kinds of samples like soil, water, food, cosmetics and medicines amongst others, is what excites me about analytical chemistry,” she explains.
Her hard work and dedication have not gone unnoticed. In 2017 she received the prestigious South African Women in Science Award (WISA) for Distinguished Young Woman Researcher in the Natural and Engineering Sciences. These awards are an initiative of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and seek to recognise and reward excellence by women scientists and researchers and further profile them as role models for younger women. “Winning the 2017 SA Women in Science award was awesome and unbelievable, especially considering that it was based on a rigorous review. “The cherry on top was that there were other amazing women nominated.”