Dr Rehana Malgas-Enus, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science, is among a selected group of several Stellenbosch University (SU) staff members who are participating in the Future Professors Programme (FPP), an initiative of the Department of Higher Education and Training. The FPP aims to develop a transformed next generation of South African professors across all disciplines. Read more about her career journey.
Inorganic chemist Dr Rehana Malgas-Enus's research is about catalysts, and how cost-effective nanosized substances speed up chemical processes. This big-hearted lecturer was also the catalyst for the Stellenbosch University Chemistry Outreach Initiative (SUNCOI), which offers secondary-school learners a chance to try their hand at laboratory experiments.
Her RME-Nano Research Group in SU's Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science designs metal nanoparticles with special properties for targeted applications – stable, green nanomaterials that solve environmental and medical problems, without creating new environmental issues.
Malgas-Enus is a 2021 fellow of the Future Professors Programme (FPP) (Phase 01) of the Department of Higher Education and Training. The FPP helps shape senior lecturers into esteemed scholars who can lead by example and through excellence, and can meaningfully contribute to their respective fields at universities in South Africa and beyond. Programme support includes guidance on the National Research Foundation (NRF) rating and funding processes, how to be a well-rounded scholar, regular small-group counselling sessions, as well as lectures and workshops by eminent scholars.
“Our mentors not only motivate and inspire us academically, but also advise us on how to manage our careers and take care of our mental well-being. That's priceless and amazing, especially during these difficult times," she says. “It's not just about moulding us into the future professorial cohort, and to be the best and do the best academically. They also evaluate current circumstances and adapt the programme accordingly to maximise the benefits to participants.
“Through the counselling sessions, we learn a lot from one another's experiences. We have realised that there are, in fact, not that many differences between universities. We have the same struggles, and we help one another through them, which is an invaluable exercise. It's so much more than I ever could have hoped for. It truly aims to prepare us for the professoriate," Dr Malgas-Enus says.
Reflecting on her career journey, she says her mother, Jasmiena, has been her role model. “Whenever she showed her support for my endeavours, she'd say: 'Knock their socks off.'" These priceless words have helped Dr Malgas-Enus excel beyond the limits of her childhood in Mitchells Plain on the Cape Flats.
“My mother was in her thirties, the same age I am now, when my father passed away. She did not have a nice job like I do, but worked in a tool factory. I also worked there during university holidays. Your fingers literally go numb. Since I was 10, she supported us on her own. Her example made me feel responsible to do my part too. I made sure that I got top marks, and I always had a plan to study."
Dr Malgas-Enus did not plan to study Chemistry, but wanted to be a medical doctor who develops cures. However, in 2001, she walked into the first-year practical classes at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and realised how Chemistry could help her create solutions.
“I just fell in love. I didn't even know that you could study Chemistry, and what you could do with it. I had never been exposed to practicals or to the subject via the internet."
She has since carefully plotted her career path. By her second year of study, she told her professors that she would be pursuing a PhD (which she obtained from SU in 2010). And during her MSc years, then still at UWC, she already set her sights on becoming a professor. “I've never been tempted to go into industry. As an academic, I can do my own research and follow my own interests," says Dr Malgas-Enus.
“My father told me I could be anything that I wanted to be. I've since never for a second thought that I couldn't be what I wanted to be. It's all about how you are raised," she explains.
She is also a firm believer in the power of words. “Never tell students they will not make it. Tell them they have potential. I must still come across a student who works hard and then does not make it. They just need the right support," says the former recipient of a Claude Leon Foundation merit award for lecturers, and 2018 winner of an NRF science engagement award. In fact, she admits she will go as far as befriending her students' mothers to ensure that the students are supported from all quarters. “You cannot not be involved, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our students feel anxious and overwhelmed.
“If I'm in a position to help people, why wouldn't I? While chasing the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, one could still die tomorrow or in two years' time. In the meantime, I want to feel I've done something meaningful with my life – now!"