CSIR’s young researcher perseveres against all odds

Growing up in a community with a lack of resources to stimulate learning, and being surrounded by poverty, substance abuse, and high numbers of child-headed families, is a dream killer for most youngsters. These are some of the factors that always push a group of young people into the world of crime.

However, Charles Maphanga, a young researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), did not allow similar conditions in Ga-Mampuru village, Limpopo, to stop him from dreaming big.

His journey to become a scientist has proven that indeed, everyone is a master of his/her   destiny. The 31 year-old became the first family member to go to university and graduated cum laude with a Masters (MSc) in physics from the University of South Africa, now aspiring to pursue his PhD in physics.

“From the age of 14, my mother was a domestic worker. Although she was not afforded the opportunity to receive a formal education, she knew the importance of education and so, I grew up valuing education because I understood the importance it would play in emancipating me from an environment that I felt was not progressive. I had a deep desire to do better and be better and this was coupled with my observant, inquisitive nature.”

“I believe I was a dreamer too. Quite often, I would draw houses and cars, and even write letters to myself explaining who I am and the kind of life I would love to live when I grew up. I had always visualised myself as a leader or being a part of something important that would positively impact lives,” he said.

Charles joined the Biophotonics group at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) under the National Laser Centre (NLC) unit in 2015.

In the two years that Charles has been at CSIR’s NLC, he has participated by contributing both oral as well as poster presentations locally and internationally, leading to the publication of four peer reviewed conference proceedings. Currently, he has one accepted peer reviewed journal publication and has submitted another for internal review. In addition, Charles successfully attracted international funding from the Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) Travel Grant to the value of $3200 ± R45K, a commendable achievement for an MSc student. He has also held a number of leadership roles in the CSIR Optics Student Chapter. In 2015/16 he was secretary general, in 2016/17 he was outreach co-ordinator and currently, he holds the role of being President of the student chapter.

While doing his MSc, Charles focused his research on the use of laser technology as an alternative technique for administering medicines into the human body in a targeted manner other than using the conventional enteral and parenteral routes of drug administration.

Although Charles is working every day to live up to his vision of positively impacting lives, it did not come easy. As a student he worked at a restaurant on a full time basis to make ends meet.

“It was extremely taxing physically and emotionally. I recall how it also affected my academics but, I drew strength from knowing that I need money to sustain myself and assist back home.”

Charles also lauded his MSc supervisor and research group leader, Dr Patience Mthunzi-Kufa for the role she played in shaping his career.  “As a leader she has given me the platform to grow, voice my opinions and ideas while drawing on from my past academic experience as a source of inspiration. This in my view was a refreshing experience which motivated me to want to do better because she inspired me to be better,” added Charles.

As a product of mentorship himself, Charles, is also transferring knowledge and his life experience to scholars from his village. Additionally, he has been actively involved in a job-shadowing project this year where he mentored two scholars for science projects. One of the scholars Charles mentored during this period was selected to proceed to the Eskom National Expo for Young Scientists.

“I am passionate about developing young people in science, it gives me a sense of fulfilment and indirectly, it makes me feel like I am giving another young person an opportunity I never had growing up. “

Inspired by his love for science and young people, Charles is currently looking into establishing an organisation that will assist young people between grade 9-12 mainly from rural areas, to understand and realise the full potential of doing maths and science. His vision is to establish low cost laboratories in the rural areas.