Meet Dr Yolanda Tancu
Dr Yolanda Tancu views the world from a chemistry perspective, mainly thanks to her PhD in analytical chemistry from Rhodes University. Acquiring this academic expertise in chemistry laid the foundation that she is now able to apply in her work as a water scientist. She studies emerging water contaminants of concern and their link to known and unknown chemicals, and how they are impacting water systems.
For Tancu, it’s quite simple: Chemistry touches almost every aspect of mankind’s existence in one way or another. “The makeup of the entire universe – including all humans and species, is determined by chemistry.” It was this understanding that chemistry is the common denominator in meeting the basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, health, energy, clean air, water and soil that first attracted her to the field. In the road leading to her PhD, she achieved a Master’s degree at Stellenbosch University in inorganic chemistry, and a Bachelor of Science and Honours from the University of the Western Cape in chemical sciences majoring in chemistry and biochemistry.
Today, her research at the CSIR involves analysing water as a resource and as a source for consumption. “Chemicals may go undetected; they need to be looked for and located. Once detected, chemicals become of interest to scientists,” she says.
Although Tancu is less involved in marine-related water matters, her contribution in the marine water space was illuminated during South Africa’s water crisis in the Western Cape, when she was involved in a desalination project. The CSIR research team explored how desalination can be used as an alternative to ensure water provision. “Desalination is an intricate process, and while the teams learned a lot in modelling experiments, the possible approaches to remove the salts that cause scaling from the sea water, it became apparent that the process still requires significant research,” she says.
Engineered nanomaterials, nanoplastics and waste chemicals in our waters
Emerging pollutants are increasingly found in water systems. Of particular interest are engineered nanomaterials and microplastics. In one of her projects, Tancu is investigating micro-plastics as an emerging pollutant – how to characterise the hazards they impose in water systems and the exposure they bring to organisms in the water, such as the physical effect of plastics on species found in water bodies and systems.
“Plastics are still mostly non-degradable and our water bodies (marine, rivers and dams) are the sinks that capture the plastic sources. These emerging pollutants resulting from anthropogenic activity create long-term effects resulting in plastic waste in critical water sources, with further negative cascading effects,” she says.
Tancu says that it is important to be able to quantify the problem of emerging pollutants in water. Evidence-based research is critical to influence decision-making for best practices relating to quantifying hazardous pollutants in water sources.
Emerging water pollutants are mostly man-made. “Often when we are inventing and innovating, we forget nature. Nature, like us, has a limited lifespan. As humans we have a responsibility to look after nature, because it impacts how we live. Once the resources are less available, it will drastically affect the quality of our lives.”
Water research chose her
Her academic background would have led her to the production and manufacturing of chemicals. However, upon joining the CSIR, her first project involved examining engineered nanomaterials in an environmental context: where do these nanomaterials end up, how they behave in aquatic systems and what the health and safety implications are. That was all it took to draw her into water research.
A rising tide of support for female water researchers
Tancu values the relationships she has built with the women in her team. “Everyone’s diverse academic and research strengths have resulted in a powerful multidisciplinary water research team. Our clients benefit from this, but individually, we are benefitting through our own professional growth,” she says. She feels that relationships can be beautiful when there is a sense of awareness, respect and treating one another with dignity – which is her experience at the CSIR.
When Tancu first joined the CSIR, her colleagues were mostly males. And considering how labour-intensive field work for research projects can be, there was at least some explanation for it. But slowly women were starting to make progress as water researchers. “Women are resilient and adaptable enough.”
Tancu says most of the senior researchers in the Stellenbosch-based team are fairly new in these roles, with no seniors to guide them. “But we have the experience and are determined to be the change and be the future leaders. We are already doing the work and achieving results,” she assures herself.
For the love of science, technology and innovation
The CSIR holds an impressive reputation in using water technology and research to change lives in positive ways. Water researchers in the organisation play a leading role in being part of the change that influences water supply for future needs. This extends to working closely with the industrial and manufacturing community.
“There is a concept called ‘safe-by-design’, and we are advocating for industry to consider sustainable approaches in its operating environment as it relates to waste generation; be transparent about operations and approach water experts for assistance.”
Commenting on her views about water research priorities, Tancu says, Water is a complex subject matter, with competing views and priorities. Some aspects that deserve research and development investment include water tools and technologies to test the quality of water for the public; catchment monitoring for water quality and quantity; re-use of non-potable water in industry; and the relationship between organisms, soil and pollutants for maintaining the ecosystem health,” she suggests.
Every drop counts
The accumulation of small beginnings growing into larger, grander feats and developing into something that becomes appreciable and understandable goes a long way in the water science space. This is what empowers Tancu in her work at the CSIR. “I enjoy my work the most when I hear the success stories! Being there when a project is conceptualised, implemented, completed and generates more than the expected results, is rewarding. Technology uptake brings me joy,” she concludes.