How was it growing up?

Growing up was a bit tough. My dad was the only breadwinner and he worked in the milling company in our town. My parents did the best they could for their three kids and my maternal grandmother assisted a lot with our upbringing. Though we did not have much, we were taught to dream and to always look out for each other. When one is young, one doesn’t realise the impact of the words, but today these words live with me every day. My siblings and I are the best of friends. My mom and grandmother passed on when I was at university and I have to commend my dad for taking over from two powerful women. He did a pretty awesome job and still continues to do so.

Why did you choose this career?

I never imagined myself as an accountant or a lawyer, but always as a medical doctor. This, for me, was the only scientific career I knew of at that time (I was 10 years old). I was exposed to the possibility of pure science as a career at one of the annual career fairs we attended in our matric year. Though I held on to the medical doctor dream, even applying for medical schools (I got accepted at Wits, but not UCT), I got accepted for a BSc degree with full funding. I took the
opportunity and I have been running with it ever since. I have always been an explorer, wanting to know how things work and where they come from and, when my mind was expanded by all these scientific terms and theories, I was hooked.

What area of hydrogen and fuel cell technology do you specialize in and what does it entail?

I was introduced to fuel cells only at PhD level where I had to undertake research in a project titled, “Synthesis and Characterization of Bimetallic Platinum Nanocatalysts for use in Fuel Cells”. Basically my role was to synthesize anode catalysts for methanol fuel cells using precursor metal salts and a synthesis process known as microwave irradiation. Platinum is a good electrocatalyst for fuel cells, but it is expensive. The aim, therefore, was to use cheaper transition metal such as nickel and cobalt to alloy with platinum and therefore decrease the overall costs of the catalyst. However, we also discovered that these alloys have good carbon monoxide resistance, which is a by-product of the methanol oxidation process. Therefore, using these alloys will result in more efficient methanol fuel cells.

What are you currently working on?

Currently I am working as a Senior Researcher on a completely different research space, that of lasers. Here we use lasers to build, refurbish and also weld components. Though my research focus has shifted, I am still involved in various projects of electrocatalysts and still get invited for talks and review of manuscripts by other authors and editors.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy the ever changing landscape of any scientific environment (I moved from fuel cells and nanotechnology to lasers). As scientists we are at the frontier of every new technology that gets into the market. It starts with an idea, grows into a laboratory scale experiment, then we upscale the process and, after that, the product hits the market. This shows that no idea is a bad idea, all you need are solid scientific facts to prove the idea and the sky is the limit.

Did you struggle to get funding and do you believe that there is enough support for students who are interested in science?

Yes, with Wits I did not get any financial assistance, but at UCT I did not struggle at all with getting funding. When I applied at UCT I specified that I needed financial assistance and they asked for my parents financial details. When the letter of acceptance came it also stated that I have obtained full funding from UCT and TEFSA (NSFAS). My parents had to pay only R 6 000 per year. It was still a lot of money for them but they made it work. From my second year I obtained the Thabo Mbeki Work-Study scholarship where they will pay the parent’s portion, and I worked it off at the UCT Main Campus library for a period of 3 – 6 months after hours. I’m still paying my debt to NFSAS, but could not have achieved what I have if it wasn’t for them.
In terms of support, there are a lot of avenues that one can pursue to get funding. The main being to specify your need for financial assistance when submitting the applications, surfing the companies’ websites for bursary opportunities, approaching your local municipal officials to ask about funding opportunities, etc.

What advice would you give young girls considering a career in science?

Science is a beautiful thing; it expands your mind to levels beyond your imagination. It allows for free and innovative thinking. If that is the person you are, then science is the perfect home for you.

Do you think South Africa is on par with the rest of the world with regards to hydrogen and fuel cell technology?

We are still lagging behind the developed countries in terms of day-to-day use of fuel cell technology in our society. With the current focus on renewable energies, the country is making some headway in terms of implementing the use of fuel cells in particular. In my opinion, such implementation programs should focus on rural South Africa as those are the areas where there is the most need for energy. With that being said, I am excited about the future of the country and the use of fuel cell technology as a whole.

Dr Mathe was born and raised in a township called Maokeng, in Kroonstad, Free State. She attended primary and high school in the township at Reaitumela Combined School and Dr Reginald Cingo High School, respectively.

She has a BSc Chemistry, BSc (Hons) Materials Science and MSc Physics from the University of Cape Town. She then went on to complete a PhD in chemistry at the University of the Witwatersrand. The CSIR has been her sponsor through a studentship program for her MSc and PhD degrees. SAASTA spoke to Dr Mathe to learn more about her and her research.