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UKZN graduate recognised among Mail & Guardian's 200 Young South Africans

Dr Sphumelele Ndlovu, an alumnus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), has been named one of the Mail & Guardian's 200 Young South Africans for 2019.

Ndlovu was recognised in the category of Science and Technology for his work as one of five directors at the Indabuko Institute, an organisation that focuses on research and development of energy solutions. He currently serves as the acting managing director.

Ndlovu graduated with his PhD in Engineering from UKZN in 2018, having undertaken his research while being part of the Professional Development Programme for PhD studies under the Space Geodesy Programme at Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO). He was a member of the first African team working on measuring the growing distance between the earth and the moon using lasers.

His path to academic success was not an easy one, and is detailed in his memoir, Aiming for the Stars, published in 2018. He wrote it to inspire fellow South Africans to reach for their dreams. In the book, Ndlovu chronicles his journey to his PhD from humble beginnings in the form of a challenging start at a school in eMaswazini, KwaZulu-Natal, which lacked resources and teaching staff.

Ndlovu's career at UKZN began in the Science Foundation Programme. It led to his reading for a BSc degree in Applied Mathematics and Physics and moving on to postgraduate studies, which saw him complete his master's degree in just 11 months.

His research has been lauded by the South African Institute of Physics. It has also resulted in his attending an International Laser Ranging Workshop in Washington DC in 2014, as well as the 2016 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany, and the BRICS Young Scientist Conclave in India.

Ndlovu also worked for the South African Weather Service as a scientist within the Air Quality Services department before pursuing his work with the Indabuko Institute, where his role involves developing research proposals.

The development of the institute resulted from Ndlovu being selected to participate in the 2016 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. This led to an invitation to meet with the former energy and economics advisers to the president, Silas Zimu and Dr Bheki Mfeka.

Ndlovu regards his work with the institute as the highlight of his career, bringing together as it has a team of young, vibrant and talented scientists to form the institute, and gaining support from the Department of Trade and Industry's Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme, all in under 18 months.

"Scientific research, which always poses challenges that require solutions, has given me an opportunity to learn new things and, in the process, has taught me how little we know," said Ndlovu.

Ndlovu, now a father of two, was raised by a single mother who sold chickens to pay for the education of her two sons. He said it is his mother who has inspired his determination, the writing of his book, and the success he has achieved as a top young South African.

Words: Christine Cu'enod