Life of hardship leads young KZN scientist to seat among the Laureates

2016-06-08 14:41
KwaZulu-Natal born Sphumelele Ndlovu, 29, has been selected to participate in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. (Supplied)

KwaZulu-Natal born Sphumelele Ndlovu, 29, has been selected to participate in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. (Supplied)

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Durban – For Sphumelele Ndlovu, 29, things didn't always come easy.

His mother sold chickens to provide for the family who lived in poverty. In his matric year, 24 out of his 28 teachers walked out on the pupils. As a result, Ndlovu failed to get results good enough to qualify for university.

But it was his love for applied mathematics and physics that would eventually pull him through.

Now Ndlovu, who hails from Pietermaritzburg in Emazizini near Elandskop, will brush shoulders with some of the greatest scientific minds in the world.

Only 402 of the most qualified young scientists are given the opportunity to experience the unique atmosphere of the Lindau Nobel Laureate meetings. Here, more than 30 Nobel Laureates gather to share ideas and thoughts on science.

Ndlovu was selected to take part in the meeting devoted to interdisciplinary topics with Nobel Laureates in the fields of physiology and medicine, physics, and chemistry.

It will be held from June 26 to July 1 in Lindau, Germany.

Each one, teach one

Ndlovu is currently a University of KwaZulu-Natal Physics PhD student.

Speaking to News24, Ndlovu said while there will always be obstacles in life, "you have to keep fighting".

Reflecting on his school years, he said when his teachers walked out, instead of giving up, the pupils developed a culture of teaching each other.

"So if someone was really good at something, they would assist everyone else,” he said.

Even after failing to qualify for university, he kept working hard.

"There was a foundation programme for science at UKZN. I wrote a test and managed to get into it. It was a big help because if you get more than 70% in the test you have access to more financial assistance such as housing allowances. I managed to get this," he said.

Ndlovu said funding was always an issue during his early university days, even though poverty wasn't always something "the [family] knew they were in".

"When you are in that situation, you never think you are worse off than someone else because you are not exposed to those getting more money."

After completing his foundation course in 2006, Ndlovu applied to study maths and chemistry.

"In my first year I realised applied mathematics and physics was my thing."

He continued his studies until 2009 when he discovered he was short of credits.

"I had to spend 2010 completing an information technology credit. But at this point I had begun working as a teacher at a school."

Finding a career path in science

But he soon gave up teaching after realising it was not for him.

"I decided to go back to university. Before starting again, I consulted Dr Naven Chetty, a lecturer from the school of chemistry and physics at UKZN, and he advised me to come back and take up physics as a major. He encouraged me and agreed to be my supervisor for my honours project."

Ndlovu completed his honours project in 2011 and 2012 and applied for funding to complete a master's project.

"I got funding from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research [CSIR]. Thanks to working with Dr Chetty, it took just a year to complete my masters. I had decided that after my teaching job I would focus on school and do everything on time and finish everything as quickly as possible."

 Ndlovu said that soon after completing his master’s he got a call from the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory in Gauteng near Krugersdorp.

"I had applied for laser related job months beforehand, but when I applied, I did not even have my results. They still called me in for a meeting."

Ndlovu said the company asked him for a copy of an identity document so they could book him a flight.

"I initially declined the flight. I had never flown before and was afraid. [I] told them I would prefer to drive. They were kind enough to explain I would be too tired and I flew up. Now that I look back at that, it is quite funny."

Joining a team of scientists

Ndlovu joined a team of scientists and academics developing a project to measure the distance between earth and the moon using lasers.

"When they told me about the project – I had already had a background on lasers in my studies. I realised I wanted to be part of this project."

Ndlovu has now undertaken his PhD in the laser study.

"I am hoping to finish everything this year."

Ndlovu is currently part of a team of scientists for the Lunar Laser Ranging Project.

"We are using mirrors from the initial moon landings to measure the distance from the Earth to the Moon. We use the lasers from the observatory here.

This is only the sixth project in the world to do this and the only project in Africa and the Southern Hemisphere."

Reach for your dreams…and then some

Advising other young hopefuls, Ndlovu said his family was his inspiration.

"My mother and my brother were definitely what kept me going. My brother has now followed in my footsteps and completed his B.Comm Finance qualification. He always tells me I inspired him and that makes me feel better than anything.

"I think young people who want to study and do something always focus too much on academics. Academics are very important, but you must also balance your life. The most important thing is to dream big and persevere."

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