Woman engineering student scoops science award in Berlin

Tamlyn Sasha Naidu from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa, was this year’s breakthrough winner of the emerging talents at the Falling Walls Science Summit held in Berlin, Germany. Falling Walls is the unique global hub connecting science, business and society.

The summit shapes the future of humanity through impact-oriented ideas and discoveries, driven by a shared dedication to creating breakthroughs across borders and disciplines. The summit takes place annually and, in 2022, it was held early in November.

Young scientists from across 54 countries presented 78 competitive science pitches to researchers and thinkers who gathered at the summit to discuss breakthroughs with global leaders in science, politics, business, and the media.

Naidu (30), a post-doctoral fellow in the department of science (school of geography) studying towards a PhD in chemical engineering, won the award, thanks to her work on acid mine drainage (AMD), a project that aims to treat afflicted waters.

She emerged as the winner after pitching her AMD project at the Falling Walls Lab. The Falling Walls Lab is a world-class pitch competition, networking forum, and stepping stone that brings together a diverse and interdisciplinary pool of students and early-career professionals by providing a stage for breakthrough ideas both globally and locally. Naidu spoke to University World News about her project.

UWN: What is your project about?

TSN: My project is about AMD. It has affectionately been dubbed ‘acids to value’. I started working on the project this year. However, it’s built off research that has spanned decades and had multiple research and industry partners. My journey with AMD began in 2016 when I started my masters at Wits. The technology we were testing back then added to the technology train we eventually proposed this year.

UWN: What is the aim of your project?

TSN: The project aims to treat AMD-afflicted waters, allowing for the reuse of this water within the mining context, that is as process water to avoid contamination of freshwater reserves, or within mining-afflicted communities. That means cleaner water entering rivers and underground water basins used for subsistence farming, avoiding polluted waters eventually entering dams and putting strain on existing water treatment infrastructure.

At the same time, the project aims to derive value from the mining wastewater by extracting valuable rare earth elements and producing viable concrete aggregates and biofuel as by-products of the treatment process.

UWN: What motivated you to research this project?

TSN: Engineering equips one with so many skills and problem-solving techniques. It allows one to tackle many of society’s issues. The love of engineering was a great motivator for this project – with so many societal, economic, and environmental facets, it was, and still is, a rewarding challenge to try to solve. I am just lucky I got the chance to apply my skills to this one.

South Africa is a beautiful country but there is a massively unequal distribution of wealth and resources. Water is one of them. My supervisor brought this to our attention when we were still undergraduates.

It is unacceptable that people, entire communities, should have to endure limited or no access to water. This also motivated me. Our water resources, therefore, need to be protected, and AMD, one of the larger polluters of water in South Africa, needs to be addressed.

UWN: What is the biggest challenge you face while working on your project?

TSN: Technical challenges have always been there, but they have been ironed out. The main challenge for this project will be effectively involving and engaging communities to accept AMD treatment. I don’t think science or engineering can be done in isolation from society or psychology. We need the involvement and understanding of the people to be truly effective.

UWN: Your project won. How does it make you feel?

TSN: I think all 78 pitches were incredibly fascinating and relevant. Although I believe in my project, I think it’s a common affliction (of women in science) to feel as though they are undeserving and ‘don't belong’. I feel the same way. I trust that the esteemed jury knew what they were doing, though, and am working on feeling proud of my work and myself.

UWN: Who funded your project?

TSN: The project was funded by the Water Research Commission of South Africa, while my studies were funded by [South Africa’s] National Research Foundation. I am working on it with a team of 15 people currently handling various technical, social, legal and economic issues related to AMD and implementing this technology on a larger scale. This project, which is a combination of three smaller ones, is now funded through the Danish International Development Agency, or DANIDA.

UWN: What unique lessons have you learned from other students’ pitches?

TSN: First of all I learned that science is personal. So many topics and projects were founded because of personal experiences and observations. Secondly, science has no age. I am 30 and there were contestants aged 37 and even 19.

This means that it is never too late or too early to make a difference. Research needs to be interdisciplinary. It cannot be done in isolation. I experienced various specific unique scientific perspectives, too. Every pitch taught me something, most importantly that most problems need real solutions from humans.

UWN: What can universities do to support young women scientists?

TSN: Universities should create spaces where women can be comfortable and help them build confidence in themselves. This should enable young women scientists to share their unique scientific perspectives and be credited for their work.

I also think that higher education institutions need to help their female delegation, for instance researchers and students, to be more open-minded and change the lenses of science into more practical studies. There are so many university science programmes for women but we still have a massive gender gap in many fields. I think, while we have created more opportunities, we haven’t dealt with the crux of the matter like eliminating biases.

UWN: What advice do you have for young scientists like yourself?

TSN: Have a shot at every opportunity and participate as much as you can. Half the battle is just showing up. When an opportunity presents itself, do lots of networking. Meet people, engage them – that’s how you learn.

You lose 100% of the shots you don’t take. You get massive growth and personal development when you force yourself out of your comfort zone; remember to do everything with humility.