Zwonaka Mapholi wants to grow with Stellenbosch University and become a great researcher, lecturer, and engineer

From a young age it was evident that Zwonaka Mapholi would become an engineer. It was obvious he had a burning curiosity that is found in many an engineer. He says: “Growing up, I found myself in trouble with my parents and older siblings, because in many cases I became a little too curious and break open their devices just to see how they function (it normally did not end well for me). So, the combination of curiosity, and the love of physical sciences as well as mathematics lead me to engineering. Mr Mapholi joined the Department of Process Engineering in January 2020 as junior lecturer.

In 2017 he received a BScEng in Chemical Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand and is currently enrolled for a PhD (upgraded from master’s) at Stellenbosch. The title of his thesis is Structural characterization, antitumor and antioxidant effects of fucoidan recovered by novel extraction methods from South African kelp, Ecklonia maxima.

He talks about his decision to embark on postgraduate studies. “During my vacation work with Rheinmetall Denel Munitions and my fourth-year research work (Skripsies), I had my mind made up that I really want to further my studies and be in a research-oriented environment. I don’t thrive on repetitive tasks, as I often lose the excitement and passion for it. So, I went into postgrad with the intention to build my research skills, with the hope that if I end up in the industry, they will place me in Research and Development.”

When the time came for him to pick a topic for his master’s he came across an advert posted by Dr Neill Goosen (Department of Process Engineering, Stellenbosch University) who was looking for master’s students. Mr Mapholi says: “When I saw the field of research and his work, I was immediately hooked. Apart from that, I wanted to come to Stellenbosch University, having grown up in the rural areas of Limpopo, the scenery of Stellenbosch was an ideal environment for me (quiet, unlike cities) – a great university with amazing surroundings. When it comes to the research topic, my supervisor introduced me to the world of seaweed.” He talks about his research field: “Briefly, seaweed is seen as an alternative sustainable feedstock for bioprocessing. It contains valuable active compounds with potential applications in pharmaceutical, functional foods and cosmetics. Fucoidan is one of those compounds. My master’s work is focused on optimizing a technique of extraction by means of ultrasound technology, enzymatic hydrolysis to extract fucoidan from seaweed. The prime focus now of the PhD is to investigate the link between processing techniques and the potential bio-functionalities such as anticancer, antidiabetic as well as antioxidant capacity of the fucoidan.”

Joining the academic world is a perfect fit for him: “For me, I loved the idea of not being boxed, the fact that I get to pursue projects that excite me at my own time, and still play a role in the development of society (research aspects). Secondly, when it comes to teaching, I would say I am joining into what my family does; both my parents are high school Geography teachers, while my older sister is a lecturer in Geology at the University of Free State. In 2013 I saw a bit of destiny when I was asked to teach Physical Sciences during study time to other Grade 12 learners in my High School (Mbilwi Secondary School). I learnt a lot from that experience. To teach your peers was both daunting and exciting. It meant I had to prepare harder, ensuring that I understand the concept well enough to explain it to others. The experience also yielded great results for me personally, as I was in the top 40 matric students for Limpopo Province and obtained 100% for Physical Sciences.

“In my new position as junior lecturer, 50% of my time is focused on my studies and  50% on lecturing duties. This provides me with an appropriate and amazing opportunity to transition into a full academic. I have not really been involved with the actual lecturing of students apart from assisting in Thermodynamics, as well as assisting in Engineering Chemistry with loading online questions for assessments. However, I believe this phase will play a crucial role in developing me into the lecturer I hope to become. I am really eager to get back and meet the students again.

“The first two months of lockdown I spent in the Western Cape, with my lovely girlfriend, Thabisile Khoza. Both of us are doing our postgrads, Chemical Engineering and Metallurgical Engineering respectively. We tried to focus on that besides work and did things we both love, such as cooking and watching series. Currently, we have moved to Vaal, where she works half days at ArcelorMittal, and I do my daily tasks.

My immediate goal is to complete my PhD, and to stay in academia and continue with research. There is quite a lot of scope in the forever-growing Bioresource Engineering field and other areas that I have fallen in love with. I really want to grow with Stellenbosch University and become a great researcher, lecturer, and engineer. I hope that I will also get an opportunity after my PhD to pursue an MBA or alternatively a master’s in Development Finance.”


Left: Zwonaka Mapholi.

Right: For his master’s, Zwonaka Mapholi investigated how the extraction of high-value fucoidan from kelp can be enhanced through ultrasonication.