When clean water becomes a life calling
As the country marks Women's Month, the Department of Science and Innovation is celebrating phenomenal women who are making their mark in the science, technology and innovation sector.
Dr Yolanda Tancu views the world from a molecular perspective, mainly thanks to her PhD in analytical chemistry from Rhodes University. She also holds an MSc in inorganic chemistry from Stellenbosch University and a BSc (Honours) in chemical sciences, majoring in chemistry and biochemistry, from the University of the Western Cape.
With this academic foundation, she works as a water scientist, studying emerging water contaminants of concern, their link to known and unknown chemicals, and how they are impacting water systems.
For Tancu, chemistry touches almost every aspect of mankind's existence in one way or another. "The makeup of the entire universe – including all humans and species, is determined by chemistry," she says.
Today, her research at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) involves analysing water as a resource and as a source for consumption. "Chemicals may go undetected; they need to be looked for and located. Once detected, chemicals become of interest to scientists," she says.
Although Tancu is less involved in marine-related water matters, her contribution in the marine space was illuminated during the water crisis in the Western Cape, when she was involved in a desalination project. The CSIR research team explored how desalination could be used as an alternative to ensure water provision.
"Desalination is an intricate process and, while the teams learned a lot in modelling experiments, the process still requires significant research," she says.
In one of her projects, Tancu is investigating microplastics as an emerging pollutant. "Plastics are still mostly non-degradable, and our water bodies (marine, rivers and dams) are the sinks that capture the plastic sources. These emerging pollutants resulting from human activity lead to plastic waste in critical water sources, with further negative cascading effects," she says.
She says that evidence-based research is critical to influence decision-making for best practices relating to quantifying hazardous pollutants in water sources.
Emerging water pollutants are mostly man-made. "Often when we are inventing and innovating, we forget nature. As humans we have a responsibility to look after nature, because it impacts how we live. Once the resources are less available, it will drastically affect the quality of our lives."
Tancu values the relationships she has built with the women in her team. "Everyone's diverse academic and research strengths have resulted in a powerful multidisciplinary water research team. Our clients benefit from this but, individually, we are benefitting through our own professional growth," she says. She feels that relationships can be beautiful when there is a sense of awareness, respect and treating one another with dignity – which she experiences first-hand at the CSIR.
When Tancu first joined the CSIR, most of her colleagues were men. It made sense, considering how labour-intensive field work for research projects could be. But now, she says that women are slowly starting to make progress as water researchers. "Women are resilient and adaptable enough."
The CSIR holds an impressive reputation for using water technology and research to change lives in positive ways. Water researchers in the organisation play a leading role in being part of the change that influences water supply for future needs. This extends to working closely with the industrial and manufacturing community.
"There is a concept called 'safe-by-design'. We are advocating for industry to consider sustainable approaches in its operating environment as it relates to waste generation, be transparent about operations, and approach water experts for assistance."
Tancu says that water is a complex subject matter, with competing views and priorities. "Some aspects that deserve research and development investment include water tools and technologies to test the quality of water for the public; catchment monitoring for water quality and quantity; re-use of non-potable water in industry; and the relationship between organisms, soil and pollutants for maintaining the ecosystem health," she suggests.
Tancu appreciates her role in turning ideas into tangible solutions at the CSIR. "I enjoy my work the most when I hear the success stories! Being there when a project is conceptualised, implemented, completed, and generates more than the expected results is rewarding. Technology uptake brings me joy," she concludes.