PhD in Physics the Best Birthday Present Ever
Dr Lerato Shikwambana received the best birthday present ever from UKZN – a PhD in Physics!
The up-and-coming young Physicist’s birthday coincided with the September 2017 Graduation ceremony of UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.
Shikwambana’s doctoral dissertation involved the study of aerosol constituents in the lower troposphere (small particles in the atmosphere up to 8km in altitude).
‘Most of these aerosols are harmful to human health and to the environment,’ explained Shikwambana. ‘The overall objective of my research was to study these aerosols using LiDAR, satellite and model data. I wanted to map out the distributions of these aerosols across South Africa, as well as explain their sources and impacts on the atmosphere and environment.’
Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) is a remote sensing technique that studies the atmospheric properties from the ground up to the top of the atmosphere.
‘Another interest was to study aerosols that are transported into South Africa from sources in other parts of the world and also study their impacts,’ he said.
Shikwambana was motivated to study at UKZN while employed at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as a researcher. ‘My project was on studying aerosols and clouds using a LiDAR system built in-house,’ he said. ‘Since I knew that UKZN is the only university in South Africa that also has a LiDAR system it made sense for me to do my PhD through them.’
His decision was facilitated when his supervisor, Professor Sivakumar Venkataraman, who was also employed by the CSIR at the time, moved to UKZN. ‘So that made it easy for me because I knew already who I would work with for my project,’ he said.
Shikwambana said he was motivated to use LiDAR technology for his research because LiDAR work is still in its infancy in South Africa and Africa as a whole. ‘My interest was in growing the topic within the country and publishing more on it,’ he said. ‘LiDAR is a great tool to use for studying and understanding the properties of aerosols and clouds. There is lots of work still to be done to grow the topic.’
Shikwambana explained the significance of his research: ‘Long term monitoring of the atmosphere helps us to understand the behaviour of aerosols,’ he said. ‘The data from long term monitoring helps in developing climate change models. Climate change is a topical and real situation and a better understanding of this subject can help us plan better for the future.’
Shikwambana paid tribute to his family in supporting and encouraging him to study. ‘My wife, Boitumelo, was very patient with me throughout the journey and I thank her for her support.’
Shikwambana is currently pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship with the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) in the space science division and will continue to collaborate with UKZN and use its LiDAR to study the upper atmosphere. ‘I enjoy research and would like to remain in academia,’ he said, ‘although I also have a desire to start my own company within the science engineering technology sector.’
Shikwambana had the following advice for his fellow students: ‘I would like to encourage anyone who has a passion for science and engineering to follow that dream. It is not an easy road, it takes a lot of hard work and perseverance. Some days you may feel like giving up. But always remember the passion that has brought you this far!’
Words by: Sally Frost