'Village poverty can be hurdled'
Despite growing up in a Limpopo village with no resources, scientist Charles Maphanga was so smart in school that he passed grades 7 and 8 in one year.
In 2002, aged just 16, he matriculated from Kgahlanong Secondary School at GaMampuru village in Sekhukhune district.
Now 31, Maphanga, the last of seven children raised by a single mother, works as a researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria. He is based at CSIR's National Laser Centre (NLC), which is funded by the Department of Science and Technology.
Maphanga, who is part of the biophotonics research group, has several qualifications that he said give him added advantage in the field of research.
"I have an undergraduate degree in human physiology, genetics and psychology, and also an honours degree in medical virology, both obtained from the University of Pretoria."
Last year he obtained a masters degree in physics cum laude from the University of South Africa.
"I am very glad that throughout my academic journey I managed to diversify my academic focus from genetics to molecular biology, and now doing applied physics in the field of biophotonics," he said.
Being the first in his family to progress to university, Maphanga said his mental strength was tested at the tertiary level.
He worked as a waiter at night and weekends to earn some cash to survive student life.
"My mother still had some of my siblings and grandchildren who were dependent on her. So the only way through university was to get a job while I was a student so that I could sustain myself financially and still send money home to assist my mother."
Maphanga said the fear of failing and going back to the same living conditions in the village kept him on his toes.
"I have always been a well-behaved kid and that kept me grounded and focused.
"At campus I had a study partner who knew my family background and my work commitments. We prepared for semester tests and exams together."
Maphanga was lucky to get an internship at a private laboratory after graduating. He went on to join a clinical diagnostic laboratory where he worked in a molecular biology laboratory to diagnose various infections and later worked as a medical scientist until he joined the CSIR.
"Joining the CSIR on a masters studentship in physics became the turning point of my life. I have always loved research and CSIR offered exactly that.
"I am in a better space and living my dream. I spend my day mostly in the lab performing experiments. I do both biology experiments (eg cell culture, microscopy, etc.) and physics experiments...
"I also have to create space to search and read publications on specific topics pertaining to my research.
"Periodically I also have to present during journal clubs. Whenever I have time I mentor pupils and also have to expose them to the lab environment to stimulate their thinking with the hope of attracting more young people to the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics."
Maphanga is currently the president of the CSIR-Optics Student Chapter which comprises postgraduate students in the field of optics and photonics.
He encouraged young people not be discouraged by their background.
"A disadvantaged background should not discourage anyone to pursue their dreams. Start by acknowledging and embracing your family background," he said.
He encouraged pupils to give their all for good Grade 12 marks, while they seek information on scholarships, bursaries and other forms of funding beyond matric.
"The vicious cycle of poverty [can] be broken. It is possible and has been done by so many people. It just requires mental strength."