Professor Selo Ndlovu is an Associate Professor at the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering at Wits University and President Elect of the SAIMM. She holds a DST/NRF-funded research chair (SARChI) in Hydrometallurgy and Sustainable Development. She presents hydrometallurgy courses to chemical and metallurgical engineering students at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and also supervises Master’s and Doctoral research students. I recently sat down with her for a chat about her career, students, and the SAIMM. This was shortly after the successful Hydrometallurgy Conference, for which she was the chairperson of the organizing committee. We spoke about her choice of metallurgy as a career, the importance of postgraduate studies, women in engineering, as well as the importance of organizations such as SAIMM.
IT: What sparked your interest in metallurgical engineering while in high school?
Prof. SN: When I was a student I was drawn to mathematics, physics, and chemistry, specifically inorganic chemistry. Further to that, we were taught about the processing of different materials to make products. We were taught about the Bayer process for the production of alumina, the Haber process for ammonia production, the production of sulphuric acid etc. I found all that fascinating. I wanted to know how I could apply such knowledge, and what the impact would be in the community and industry.
In my final year of high school we had a career fair. We had university and industry people coming to tell us about metallurgy – that metallurgy is related to mining, and that almost everything around us has passed through some metallurgical process. When I saw how the chemical and physical characteristic of metals can be manipulated in order to extract metals from ores and move from a solid rock to a solid metal and started connecting it to all that I had learnt in high school, I was captivated; I felt this was where I wanted to be.
IT: How were perceptions about women in engineering by society and male counterparts when you were studying, and how did you work around them?
Prof. SN: Although my parents did not fully understand what engineering was all about, they were very supportive; in fact they were supportive of all of us – a family of six children; five girls and one boy. They didn’t question our choices. At the university, out of 20 students in my metallurgical engineering class there were four women, but we did not have any issues, we were all treated fairly. However, in industry things were slightly different. In one of my early industry jobs, I came across one lady who had graduated years before me but was in a lower position. She was in a position lower than those held by men she had graduated with and some who had graduated after her. She was frustrated and even thinking of changing career direction. When you walked around the plant you were looked at and treated as if this engineering thing was a hobby for you, you were not taken seriously. When I looked at the company I noticed that the leadership positions were mostly held by men. The women in higher position were in accounts and HR departments – positions like plant metallurgists, superintendents, and production managers were held by men. It was demotivating and I realized that this might be my reality in my career if I did not take charge. Fortunately for me, I had my goals. I took a position in another company where I went with a new and an awakened perspective, with intentions to stand out as an engineer. In that company I went on to lead a section. The overall lesson from this experience was that in spite of challenges, as long as you have your own goals, know where you want to be, work hard for that, and project yourself with confidence, you will make it.
IT: Have things changed for women in industry?
Prof. SN: I don’t think things have changed that much; it just depends on individuals. I often hear women talking about the sacrifices they have made in order for them to make it in industry. Some indicate that they have, for instance, had to lock away some of their femininity and think and behave like a man. They have become tough; have had to sacrifice having families to keep up. I think it is a shame because I believe that we should be able to use our female values to bring a different, creative, and nurturing perspective to leadership. We should not apologise for being a woman in the workplace. We should not be afraid to cry or show emotions for fear of being labelled weak. We should not change the way we dress for fear of not being ‘one of the boys’. Cry if something touches your heart; wear a pink hard-hat if you feel like it. If you project who you truly are, if you know who you are and you stick to that known self, no-one will make you do what you don’t want to do in life. You will, however, be able to make choices that you will be happy with in your career and in your life.
IT: Why academia? Why not plant general manager (GM) or CEO and such?
Prof. SN: I have thought of that in the past; but my passion lies in education – if not academia it would likely be an education entity, a scientific institute that teaches children locally and in remote areas about science. I love passing knowledge to young people; I love teaching and am very passionate about hydrometallurgy. I also love research. I love the fact that as a teacher, I can design a course that can benefit the students and industry. You can only get this whole package in academia. Furthermore, in research we have more leeway than is the case when you work for a company. But ultimately, I love seeing students’ minds being opened because of what they have learned. I love seeing students benefitting from what they have learnt. I think about the number of students that have passed through my hands. Some of them are in the metallurgical industry; some are not, but for me that is powerful because you are building capacity not just for the metallurgical industry, but for other areas in the country’s economy. Instead of just managing a section, I am contributing by providing the people that are going to work in and ultimately manage the industry.
IT: Why should young engineers participate in professional engineering bodies such as the SAIMM?
Prof. SN: Participating in SAIMM allows you to engage with people and get information about what is happening in the field of mining and metallurgy; you are not isolated as you are in the industry. It is a good source of news and views about technological developments in the mining, metallurgical, and related sectors. The SAIMM to me is like a book that needs to be passed on from one generation to another. When I was a student, the SAIMM was a good resource for us. We knew about the SAIMM and the work it did; about SAIMM magazines, books, colloquia, and publications. These resources were donated to the university libraries. Booklets from workshops such as the one recently conducted at the Hydrometallurgy Conference were donated to libraries and we found them useful. The information in these resources shaped our minds as young mining and metallurgy students. Through the SAIMM resources in our libraries we had access to valuable mining and metallurgy information that was not readily available in textbooks. More than 120 years ago the SAIMM took a leadership role in championing the mining and metallurgy industry. Now the Young Professionals Council has the opportunity to do the same for the youth. Besides its educational role, the aspect of entrepreneurship in YPC is a very powerful tool in these times where jobs are no longer readily available.
IT: What projects are you currently focused on?
Prof. SN: My work is primarily in hydrometallurgy, and we are currently looking at the processing of low-grade ores, tailings, and waste material such as autocatalysts and electronic wastes with the focus being on the value recovery from such material and the associated environmental impacts. We are looking into metal values such as PGMs, gold, copper, cobalt, etc. Yes, Africa still has large resources of raw material, but we must also look forward. America, Europe, and China are doing a lot of urban mining research and we should not lag behind.
IT: What are the benefits of postgraduate studies in your view?
Prof. SN: Someone who has done postgraduate studies thinks differently. There are skills you get from postgraduate studies that you don’t get at undergraduate level, such as self-motivation and independent learning. During undergraduate studies, you rarely take the initiative. During postgraduate studies you learn how to communicate your ideas effectively in different ways and to people with different levels of knowledge. Literature investigation teaches you to critically examine a wide range of information and ultimately extract what is relevant. You learn to analyse data and make critical judgements out of your work. You learn how to manage your project, how to deal with complex, unpredictable issues, and how to make informed decisions based on incomplete information. In the end, you see things differently, are open-minded and more professional in your approach. That is why most people who do postgraduate studies tend to have wider career paths. Postgraduate studies enhance your skills.
IT: The few PhD graduates and candidates I have interacted with mention that postgraduate studies taught them a lot; beyond the knowledge they accumulated on their topics, they also grew emotionally and spiritually.
Prof. SN: Sometimes in your postgraduate work things do not go according to plan. As much as a supervisor will guide, the person who has to make it work is you as the student. You have to find alternative ways of doing things if the initial experimental plans are not technically or financially feasible. You learn public relations as well; sometimes you have to work collaboratively with people from different disciplines and cultures who might not share your ideals or are generally difficult to work with but they are essential to your work. Somehow you must negotiate your way around those challenges, respect the differences, and find a middle ground. These are issues that help you grow as a person and further ensure that when you go into industry, you are able to find alternative approaches to working with people.
IT: What wishes do you have for your students in general?
Prof. SN: I wish that those who only have an undergraduate degree could come back and do postgraduate studies for the above reasons. This doesn’t necessarily have to be in metallurgical or chemical engineering or at PhD level. As I indicated, the skills that postgraduate studies give you can open up opportunities. I wish my students success in their careers. I wish they can stand out in what they do and become leaders in their chosen fields. But more importantly I wish them happiness in their lives because that is what is more important. If you’re happy in your life; happiness should follow suit in your career.
IT: What are you most proud of about your students over the years?
Prof. SN: Most of the past students I have seen are doing very well and I am proud of them. Some of them are happily married with kids and I am happy that they are well-rounded. Some of them are not in the metallurgical or chemical engineering field anymore; some are running their own businesses, which is one benefit of an engineering degree – it allows you to easily move into other careers. Some of them have gone on to do postgraduate studies in well-renowned international universities and are now based abroad. Some of them say I made a significant impact in their lives and I am always happy to hear that I made a contribution. What matters most to me is to build capacity, make an impact in young people’s lives and get them to go out and be successful in their careers and lives. If I have somehow managed to do that then I am happy.
IT: What women in engineering issues are you passionate about?
Prof. SN: I wish for more women in leadership positions in engineering. I wish the few women that are in top positions could do more to ensure that more women go up the ladder. I feel we are not doing enough for the young generation of women in engineering.
IT: As a young female engineer, I was very happy to meet Ellie Wheal (GM of Samancor Ferrometals and Ferroveld), my heart leaped because it is rare to meet a female engineer in that position. Our manager in the Pyrometallurgy division at Mintek (Isabel Geldenhuys) is the first female manager of the division and one of the few women managers at Mintek. I celebrate her because it is rare to see women engineers in leadership positions.
Prof. SN: I think we as women need to make an effort to get women up the corporate ladder, men will not do it. When you look at company organograms, it is only at the third layer where young female engineers are populated. Very few of them make it to the top. Where do the rest go? I do not believe that that they are incapable of reaching the top.
IT: Who are your favourite women in engineering?
Prof. SN: In most cases women in top leadership positions in the engineering industry are in finance, accounting, and HR. There are few women who went through the professional engineering path that made it all the way to the top. The women that inspire me, although not all professional engineers but who are working in the field, include Professor Rosemary Falcon, who has done a lot for the coal industry; Nonkuleleko Nyembezi-Heita, the former CEO ofArcelorMittal South Africa Limited;Daphne Mashile Nkosi, the ‘Iron Lady of manganese’; and May Hermanus, who has done a lot of work in mining safety. I admire all these women; they have survived and made it in a tough environment. I am also inspired by a friend of mine, Carol Taylor, a geologist working in the mining industry who is very passionate about education especially for women.
IT: Some global and ECSA statistics recently presented at a Women in Engineering conference, indicated that the number of women studying towards an engineering degree has been increasing over the years, and the percentage of women graduating as engineers has also been increasing at the same rate. However the percentage of women practising has been decreasing. According to the ECSA statistics, the percentage of women studying engineering has been higher than 20% since 2005, yet in 2005 the percentage of women practicing was 10% lower than in 1996, in 2014 it was at 5%. What are your thoughts on this trend?
Prof. SN: It could be due to a lot of reasons, some being the environment and the culture. The culture in the engineering field is still not accommodating for women. Women sometimes struggle to fit in a culture that is generally male-dominated and sometimes you have to sacrifice your femininity or family time. Further to that, in most cases women have to work harder to prove they are capable of doing their jobs and cannot be too assertive for fear of being labelled aggressive. The work/life balance is also difficult; there isn’t much flexibility for your family. Because engineers are generally easy to adapt and have skills that are globally sought, women then tend to move to alternative industries that can accommodate them.
IT: Can the structures and the culture change to accommodate women beyond the policies?
Prof. SN: My firm belief is that it is the engineering women in leadership positions who can make the changes. They are the ones who can ensure that we grow more women into higher positions. It is women at the top who can propose structures, culture, and an environment that will accommodate women in the engineering industries. Men have not been successful thus far and I doubt they will be in the future; they see things differently after all …
IT: Regarding challenges in the metallurgical (process engineering) sector such as high cost of electricity, load-shedding, and depressed iron and steel markets; what R&D opportunities can be drawn out of the challenges, which young engineers can run with?
Prof. SN: Challenges certainly always present opportunities for new technology. Regarding electricity challenges and coal resources; people are talking of fuel cells, biogas, renewable energy, energy mixing initiatives such as those proposed for Sasol. There are plenty of opportunities for research, development, and entrepreneurship in these areas. Remember that projects that have succeeded where people took risks. Do not be afraid of failure; success is never final and failure is never fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.
IT: I have observed that some of the most excellent and diligent leaders in different areas of life have a healthy work/life balance. I know you love reading and running. Why is that important to you?
Prof. SN: I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t have a hobby. You need time for yourself; your ‘Me-time’. For me running is therapeutic. Running helps me reflect and work through issues weighing on my mind. I find as academics we are always on the run, always busy, we never get to sit still and reflect on our plans and the impact of our work. When you run, you reflect and make plans and even set targets. Reading on the other hand is my escape; I escape from all the noise and issues. I also love baking; the smell of cookies reminds me of my mother who is very central to what I am today. My doctor encourages balance; spiritual, physical, and mental balance. All these things balance your life so that it isn’t always about work only. But above all you have to look after yourself so that you are able to look after others.
IT: If you were elected President of South Africa or Zimbabwe today, what developments would you prioritize?
Prof. SN: Education and health; an educated nation is able to solve its own problems. Particularly, a nation with educated women. As the saying goes ’if you educate a woman, you educate a nation’. Beyond technical education, I believe young girls need to be taught life skills. There is a lot of information that older women can pass down to young women. Issues such as sex and health, gynaecological visits, breast health, alcohol, dieting, are some of the issues that women face as they grow and sometimes you find out information when only it’s rather late.
Itumeleng Thobadi is a senior engineer at Mintek.