These women are passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are advancing science in their diverse fields. One of these “Wonder Women” from the School of Engineering is Dr Konstantina Velkushanova, an Environmental Engineer who is not afraid to get her hands dirty in her work with UKZN’s pioneering Pollution Research Group (PRG).
The field of Water and Sanitation (WASH) and Sanitary Engineering is growing rapidly and Dr Velkushanova says that soon, the human excreta the PRG is spending its time finding management solutions for will be a resource worth its weight in gold.
She goes on to explain that a third of the world’s population lacks access to improved sanitation facilities, the majority of which are in the developing world. “Clean water and sanitation is one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals set to be achieved by 2030, so we need to focus our efforts towards achieving these goals,” said Dr Velkushanova.
Investigating the value of human excreta (such as faeces and urine) may not seem appealing, but this is exactly where Dr Velkushanova’s expertise lies.
‘The daily urine we produce might be sufficient to, firstly, produce enough electricity to charge our cell phones, and secondly, grow our own crops and vegetables, without the need for fertiliser,’ said Dr Velkushanova.
For the past seven years, she has been working with the PRG on a wide variety of projects on the topic of WASH in developing countries, focusing on non-sewered sanitation solutions, improved faecal sludge management (FSM) and the development and evaluation of innovative sanitation technologies. These projects have a vast footprint, including collaboration with organisations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), South Africa’s Water Research Commission (WRC) and eThekwini Municipality’s Water and Sanitation division (EWS). One of the projects she is currently leading is a BMGF-funded grant to develop a standardised approach to faecal sludge analysis worldwide, with partners from EAWAG in Switzerland, IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in The Netherlands and the Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand.
Dr Velkushanova’s path to this career began with an early fascination with how and why we exist on our planet and in the universe. Her passion has always been driven by the need to protect our planet and resources and for this reason she chose her career path in Environmental Engineering.
‘Science always fascinated me and it has never stopped being the number one reason why I chose my career path with 100% no regrets,’ she said. ‘Science is always fun and versatile so that everyone can find their niche.’
Her earliest memories of scientific exploration are of examining amoeba and onion cells under a microscope in Grade 4, and it has only become more interesting.
Dr Velkushanova is the Vice-Chair of the Executive Committee of the FSM Alliance and a Deputy Chair of the newly formed Non-Sewered Sanitation Specialist Group (NSS SG) of the International Water Association (IWA).
Her long list of accomplishments includes being a co-founder and planning committee member of the Women in Water and Sanitation Network, and a committee participant and South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) representative on several international committees and working groups.
Dr Velkushanova has also been a principal investigator for several projects related to FSM and NSS, has organised conferences and symposia in South Africa and abroad, and has guest lectured at several institutions. Her PhD was completed at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom thanks to a scholarship from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and she received awards for the academic results she attained in her MSc research in environmental protection and sustainable development in Bulgaria.
She acknowledges that her field has been male-dominated, although this is changing fast, with more women receiving recognition.
‘I feel that we need to do more to encourage young women to undertake the same career paths as us and we need to ensure that there is access to school education for all young people,’ she said. She cited initiatives like the Department of Science and Technology’s Women in Science Awards as being one way to achieve this and to continue raising the standard of women in science.
She believes that women in science can strike a balance between firm leadership and caring, with the challenge being to apply each aspect when needed and in good measure.
‘We need to be continuously aware of the way we present ourselves and our ideas, and we always look for different inspiration to reinvent ourselves, all of which works to our advantage,’ said Dr Velkushanova, who says her source of inspiration lies in overcoming the daily challenges she faces.
‘Gender is not a factor to define our professional and personal achievements,’ said Dr Velkushanova. ‘Women are easily adaptable in different environments and naturally curious to learn new things, and we have natural intuition that contributes to our work.’
All of this comes with hard work and perseverance and she encourages up and coming female scientists to believe in themselves and to never give up.
‘You can contribute to the world and the sciences as much as anyone else,’ she said. ‘Keep going – hard work always pays off, and remember it is alright to make mistakes – they always teach us valuable lessons and help us grow!’
Dr Velkushanova added that there is much to be encouraged about when it comes to the state of science in South Africa, particularly developments that followed the publication of the White Paper on Science and Technology in 1996. Despite the considerable need to provide WASH services in South Africa that fulfil basic human needs, confer dignity and save lives. Dr Velkushanova cited the impressive work of the WRC in capacity building and the generation and dissemination of high quality knowledge and applied research.
Dr Velkushanova is keen for her contribution to include effective communication of scientific findings to the various stakeholders and groups it affects most. She values the open sharing of knowledge and experience that characterises the collaborative scientific process.
When she is not working on innovative WASH solutions, Dr Velkushanova applies her teaching skills to instructing Afro-Latin dance at Durban Red Salsa, and is also a keen runner and sportswoman, which she says keeps her sane. She has lent this skill to open-air salsa events, festivals and wellness days.
All of our Wonder Women in Science could easily be undercover superheroes, so here is some inside info on the kind of superhero we’ve found in Velkushanova:
Q. What would your super power be and why?
Teleportation – because I travel a lot for work-related activities and this will save me a lot of time and effort. And hopefully I will be able to do more.
Healing Ability – this is related to what we are trying to achieve through our work in the field of water and sanitation – to provide a safer and healthier environment for everyone and save more lives, particularly among children and other vulnerable groups in communities, including women.
Q. What would be your theme song?
I love Queen’s songs – somewhere between We are the Champions and Don’t stop me now.
Q. What would your superhero gadget be and why?
Of course, Wonder Woman’s invisible jet and bracelets of submission. (I always wanted to be a Wonder woman!)
I need them to perform my daily operations smoothly and to help me keep the balance in my life (although sometimes I feel I already have modified versions of these gadgets).
Q. Who would be in your “all-star team” to take on the world?
My PRG research team and my local and international WASH superhero-colleagues.
Q. Where would your secret lair/ hide out be?
In a remote hut, somewhere high in the mountains.
Q. What is your kryptonite (weakness)?
I need to sleep every night.
For other inspirational Wonder Women In Science stories, visit: wwis.ukzn.ac.za
Words: Sashlin Girraj