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#STEMStories: Shilpa, Research Administrator, South Africa

Shilpa Rumjeet is research administrator at the Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research (CeBER), at the University of Cape Town (UCT), where she is responsible for the coordination of various projects. Her main project focuses on wastewater generated by biorefineries and the value-added products that can be created from this wastewater if processed appropriately such as biofuels and clean water.

She is also involved in many side projects which range from investigating post- mining transformation through the fibrous plant economy to the assessment of the techno-economics of valorisation of vinasse in the sugarcane industry. Rumjeet’s main aim is creating value from waste, “I strongly believe that we need to move towards a bio-economy where the traditional petroleum derived products such as fuel and plastics are substituted with their bio-based and biodegradable counterparts.” Rumjeet believes in a waste free future, “incidentally we must move towards a circular economy where there [is] no waste generated when waste is treated as a resource from which we can extract value. My work revolves around these emerging concepts and I derive immense satisfaction in knowing that I am contributing in the move towards a sustainable future.”

Rumjeet has journeyed far to reach her current position. She completed her primary and secondary education in her home country of exotic Mauritius; after which she pursued a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering at University of Cape Town in South Africa from which she graduated with honours in 2012. She then obtained a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering, specialising in Bioprocess Engineering.

This was followed by her return to Mauritius where she worked as a bioprocess engineer involved in the production of biogas from wastes at a start-up company. However, her true passion has always been research and when she was offered a job in the research centre of her former postgraduate supervisor, Prof Harrison she gladly accepted and returned to South Africa. From her experience thus far in the engineering field, Rumjeet surmises that “it has been easier to navigate [her] professional life in an academic environment as opposed to an industrial one. Being a female engineer in the field presented more challenges where sometimes you would feel undermined with regards to your male colleagues.”

One of the highlights of her career thus far was being selected as one of the 25 winners of 736 applicants from over 100 countries for the annual international competition called Green Talents hosted in Germany in 2018. Green Talents focuses on identifying promising potentials in sustainable development research and enterprise. The participants joined a local 2-week science forum where they had an opportunity to learn about the German sustainable development research landscape.

With regards to her opinion of the future of STEM in Africa, Rumjeet is very optimistic, “I think there is a lot of space for the STEM community to grow especially with South Africa’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals...” She is also positive about the progress of African women in STEM, “There is a growing incentive to attract more girls to STEM fuelled by organisations like Women in Engineering, who are doing a marvellous job of providing support to both students as well as budding professionals and entrepreneurs.” Her advice to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field is “sustain your motivation and drive throughout your education/career. Remind yourself that hard work eventually pays off.”

Read more about this Geeky Girl, Shilpa Rumjeet in an insightful interview below, which will have you converting words into knowledge in much the same way as she converts waste into value.

1. Describe what your work entails.

I am involved in the coordination of various projects in CeBER. My main project revolves around wastewater biorefineries targeting the use of wastewater as a resource for producing value added products such as biofuels, bioproducts and clean water2. My side projects include (i) a community of practice projects to investigate post-mining transformation through the fibrous plant economy3; (ii) the techno-economics assessment of various process options for the valorisation of vinasse in the sugarcane industry.

2. Describe your STEM journey.

After the completion of my secondary education in my home country, Mauritius I moved to South Africa to pursue my tertiary education at the University of Cape Town. I enrolled in the Chemical Engineering programme and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering with honours in 2012. I went on to obtain a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering in 2016, specialising in Bioprocess Engineering. I returned to Mauritius and worked as a bioprocess engineer in a start-up company dealing with the production of biogas from wastes. Being driven by research, I accepted a job offer in the research centre of my former postgraduate supervisor, Prof Harrison and returned to South Africa in mid-2017.

3. What excites you about your job? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?

I strongly believe that we need to move towards a bio-economy where the traditional petroleum derived products such as fuel and plastics are substituted with their bio-based and biodegradable counterparts. Incidentally we must move towards a circular economy where there are no waste generated when waste is treated as a resource from which we can extract value. My work revolves around these emerging concepts and I derive immense satisfaction in knowing that I am contributing in the move towards a sustainable future.

4. How would you describe your experience as a woman in the STEM space?

Personally, I felt it has been easier to navigate my professional life in an academic environment as opposed to an industrial one. Being a female engineer in the field presented more challenges where sometimes you would feel undermined with regards to your male colleagues. It was more tedious to earn respect from your peers.

5. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field?

Sustain your motivation and drive throughout your education/career. Remind yourself that hard work eventually pays off.

6. As a STEM woman in Africa, how do you foresee the growth and progress of STEM on the continent? Is Africa a “land of opportunity”?

I think there is a lot of space for the STEM community to grow especially with South Africa’s commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which requires significant contribution from the scientific communities. There is a growing incentive to attract more girls to STEM fuelled by organisations like Women in Engineering, who are doing a marvellous job of providing support to both students as well as budding professionals and entrepreneurs.

7. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career?

In 2018, I was selected as one of the 25 winners of the annual international competition called Green Talents. This competition aims to identify high potentials in sustainable development. Last year, 25 winners were selected out of 736 applicants from over 100 countries. We participated in a 2-week science forum in Germany where we had the opportunity to learn about the German research landscape on sustainable development.

8. How do you maintain a work-life balance?

It is sometimes hard to maintain the work-life balance. I sometimes must make a conscious effort to leave work behind and focus on other things when I get home. However, it is important to maintain a balance for one’s wellbeing, both physically and mentally.

9. Who is your role model? Who inspires you?

On a personal level: My mum. I admire her strength and resilience in adverse situations.
On the professional side: My boss, Prof Sue Harrison. I admire her dedication to her work. She is passionate and extremely hard-working.

10. Where can more information or insight into your work be found?

1http://www.ceber.uct.ac.za/
2http://www.futurewater.uct.ac.za/FW-WWBR
3http://www.resilientfutures.uct.ac.za/
https://www.greentalents.de/awardees_awardees2018_shilpa-rumjeet.php

Shilpa Rumjeet interviewed by Dhruti Dheda

Dhruti Dheda is a Chemical Engineer with a strong interest in media and communication. She is the editor of the Engineers without Borders South Africa Newsletter and the Community Manager – South Africa and Regional Outreach for Geeky Girl Reality. If you wish to collaborate or network, contact her at dhruti@geekyreality.com or find her on twitter @dhrutidd