Getting to Know Other People

Getting to Know Other People

Author: Vera KoesterORCID iD, Gugu KubhekaORCID iD

Dr. Gugu Kubheka is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Here she speaks with Dr. Vera Koester for ChemistryViews about her career path, inspiring chemists in her home country, and her experience at the Lindau Meeting.

They met online during the Lindau Nobel Meeting. Gugu Kubheka was selected by the evaluation committee to participate in the 71st Lindau Meeting, where Nobel Laureates and selected young scientists are brought together in an informal and open environment to exchange knowledge and ideas and share their enthusiasm for science.


What did you like best about the Lindau Meeting?

Interacting with brilliant young scientists from different parts of the world and getting advice from the Nobel Laureates on research. This will help expand my research network with renowned scientists and establish collaborations.

Our conversations went beyond chemistry topics, but also involved getting to know each other’s backgrounds and the respective status of scientific research and development. I enjoyed the time very much.


Which lectures or discussions did you particularly enjoy?

I really enjoyed the talks from the Nobel Laureates. It was very nice to hear the Nobel Laureates talk about their struggles on the road to the discoveries that led to their Nobel Prize. It was encouraging and motivating for some of us who have also encountered problems, and that means there is still hope. You get encouragement as a young scientist—like, “Wow, these are real people”—because we see them as the heroes, as if they are just geniuses who have mastered everything. For me, that was motivating and really inspiring. They’re funny guys, too, and they’re charismatic.

I also liked a panel discussion on trust in science, and chemistry, in particular, and one called “Challenges of Demographic and Sexual Diversity” that discussed whether we have enough women in science, race issues, and issues of the LGBT community not being presented enough.

Another panel discussion I thought was good was “Collaborations in Challenging Times”. The advent of the coronavirus and subsequent biomedical interventions was met with doubt from some groups in society as they associated such developments with a re-emergence of historical adversities perpetuated through science. I found this interesting as there was stigma in the description of certain strains of the virus, which resulted in travel bans that were viewed as discriminatory.

The COVID pandemic has shown that there are some deficiencies in science, particularly in the allocation of quality science to specific regions of the world. Large parts of the world merely participate in clinical trials as needed or act as consumers of the intellectual products of others.


Was there anything that wasn’t so good?

Scientists relying on subjective data to formulate ideas and concepts about Africa and then presenting them at such a revered platform. It is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed.


It is often forgotten that Africa is the second largest continent with many very different countries.

A lot of people don’t know much about Africa except for what is presented in the media, which is most of the time just negative news. It is a diverse continent with sovereign countries, each with a potential to contribute to the world’s knowledge that can help to solve some of the problems the world encounters. The absence of positive depictions in the media that show this potential has given space for the portrayal of the continent as a tourist destination and a place where raw materials are mined. Attention should be directed towards, first, allowing scientists in Africa to provide solutions for Africa.


How would you describe South Africa?

South Africa is a beautiful country with many possibilities. We are one of the best wine producers, we have strong agricultural activity, mining, and a lot of cultural diversity. South Africa is home to some of the Nobel Laureates of the Peace Prize including Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu.


Are there people who have especially inspired you in pursuing a career in chemistry?

I had the privilege of being co-supervised by Distinguished Professor Tebello Nyokong at Rhodes University and enjoyed her constant motivation. Most important was her establishment of the Institute for Nanotechnology Innovation, which is equipped like the best academic institutions in the world with state-of-the-art instruments. This shows that it is possible to achieve our desires when we put in effort and invest correctly.

Having emerged from a background that is common to many South African people, especially African women, her success serves as a motivation to aspiring scientists. She has assisted many students with completing their postgraduate studies, including raising funding, without which studying becomes almost impossible. Her research group has over the years reached a number of milestones and produced intellectuals who are now scientists across the world and allow the continent to benefit from their skills. Whenever I encounter struggles in my research I get motivated by her words: “There are no shortcuts to anything. You don’t even need to be intelligent in this world—you just need to do the work and put in the hours.”


What do you think are big challenges for science in South Africa?

Given our global impact, we need to develop a mindset of having more confidence in our science and translate some of our findings into products. I feel that we mainly rely on the developed regions of the world to provide solutions to our challenges. Although fundamental research is essential for the generation of new knowledge, at this point, there should be incentives and frameworks for development and application research that are aimed at deriving products for the country and the rest of the world. This is somewhat a return on investment and, in turn, funding for research becomes a sustainable and justifiable responsibility.

As a leading research country in the continent, we have to translate more of our scientific discoveries to the market. I’m not saying it’s not being done, but it’s only a few. South Africa has the resources, our universities are well-equipped, and we conduct research at the highest level.


What do you think are the biggest challenges young scientists have to face today?

Limited funding restricts us from exploring complex research ideas in detail and from progression to the market. Work opportunities are severely limited, and this minimizes our desire to motivate youths to pursue postgraduate studies. We are aware that a solution lies in industrialization that is based on the latest scientific and engineering developments.


How can we best educate society about the role of chemistry in today’s world?

Using social media and including real-life examples in school syllabi. Make it available in different languages. Society should be informed that chemistry is at the center of the production of drugs, industrial and household materials, energy, and the treatment of drinking and wastewater.


You design and develop new graphene materials for the removal of toxic organic pollutants in water. Why was your attention focused on this particular area?

I have focused on the removal of toxic organic pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Most of them are found in the atmosphere and water and are carcinogenic. Concentrations of these toxins were found to be above regulatory limits when tested in the water and sediment of the Buffalo River Estuary, South Africa. Therefore, my focus in this area of research is to find effective measures to clean up PAH-contaminated water to reduce the negative impact on the environment.


What fascinates you about your research?

I view my research topic as a puzzle to be solved. That is how I enjoy my work.


What would you like to be doing ten years from now?

Conducting research in a research group that I lead.


Thank you very much for the interview. We wish you all the best and good success for the future.

Gugu Kubheka studied chemistry, geology, and mathematics at Rhodes University, South Africa, and received her Ph.D. in nanotechnology there. She spent research periods at the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM), Berlin, Germany, Shinshu University, Ueda, Japan, and Nanjing University, China, and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Pretoria, South Africa.


Selected Awards

  • NRF Postdoctoral fellowship (2-year funding grant) – 2019
  • DAAD Short Term Research Scholarship for In-Country/In-Region Scholarship (2 months funding grant) – 2018
  • DAAD-NRF In-Country Doctoral Scholarship (3-year funding grant) – 2016
  • Best oral presentation by the 5th International Conference on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology: NanoAfrica, Vaal University of Technology, South Africa – 2014
  • Academic achievement awarded, Kimberley Dining Hall, Rhodes University, Vanderbijlpark, South Africa – 2009.


Selected Publications



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