Takunda Chitaka is no stranger to the challenges that life can present along the way or success and graduated with her PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cape Town (UCT).
Chitaka was one of 10 emerging scientists to receive the Blue Charter fellowship from The Association of Commonwealth Universities last year and was also the first recipient of the Excellence in Academia PETCO Award for research she had been working on since 2016.
Her PhD thesis is titled “Inclusion of leakage into lifecycle management of products involving plastic as a material choice,” in which she argues that litter should be included in the lifecycle management of plastic products.
For the past few years Chitaka has been walking the beaches around Cape Town, conducting surveys to estimate the amount of litter that flows into the marine environment and explore how this knowledge can influence development of strategies and interventions.
The physical tasks like picking up litter from beaches and the painstaking analysis of what was recovered from the shores, meant the flare-up of an old injury could have been devastating. She broke her hip when she was 11 and was told she would have constant pain.
She consulted a doctor who told her she needed a hip replacement, which she couldn’t afford. Faced with the prospect of not being able to walk properly or do any physical work, she refused to give in to the physical pain or the mental uncertainty.
“So we decided to crowdfund and the stars aligned.” Her supervisor Professor Harro Von Blottnitz drove the fundraising effort himself – from the heart. “I’m not a quiet person professionally, but personally I like to keep everything to myself. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that supported in my life. People really rallied around and said, ‘This girl needs to get surgery, let’s help her’. My surgery was fully paid for, crowdfunded, which I still think is wild!”
A month later she was presenting a PhD proposal, having just recovered from the operation. “I insisted, and I went for it and it didn’t go well,” she said. Her proposal was sent back for revision.
In 2017 she attended an international conference where she took part in a competition for PhD projects, and finished second. With that experience, Chitaka gained the confidence she needed to have another attempt at representing her PhD proposal – and it was accepted. All of a sudden her life got very busy – from lecturing to being involved with the faculty’s student council to doing beach surveys. But life’s challenges were never far away. Even after her hip surgery, she had debilitating pain. She needed a second surgery. There was no time to rest. Chitaka was selected for a fellowship in New Zealand in 2019. She gritted her teeth and decided that, in spite of the pain, she would give it her all. “I went to my doctor and said, ‘Write me a script.’ I packed about six months’ worth of pain medication in my suitcase. Am I supposed to stop living my life because my body hates me? No, I must get on board,” she said.
“Life is hard, but then you don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater,” she said. “You persevere; you have to be positive for yourself. Your inner voice has to be positive. You have to say, ‘Life sucks right now, but I’m going to keep going.’ Look at where you’re going. Don’t dwell on where you’ve come from.”