Trying to save the environment might not seem like a cool thing, but for Dr. Natasha Ross, it is not about being cool. For the Chemistry Lecturer, it is about protecting the future of not only her son, but all children who will become victims if we do not find a solution to the environmental crisis.
Coming from the small fishing town of Hawston, Natasha is very aware of how nature provides and puts food on the table. Sources of energy like oil cause huge damage to the oceans and can greatly harm the livelihood of her fishing community. The harm can become so bad that it might wipe out food sources (in the ocean and on land) and lead to the starvation of our kids and grandkids.
Natasha basically focuses on research that tries to find ways to replace harmful energy sources (like oil) and replace them with renewable energy sources that won’t harm the environment. A very powerful source of energy is the sun but scientists are still trying to figure out how to make ‘sun charged’ batteries powerful and stable enough to replace oil, nuclear and coal. Natasha, who works in the scientific area of ‘Photovoltaic Cell Technology’ and ‘Storage of Renewable Energy’, is basically one of the scientists trying to figure this out. However, before Natasha decided that she would become a warrior for the environment, she was just a kid who loved science.
After matriculating in 2005, she was not certain what she wanted to study, but she did know that she wanted to do “something out of the ordinary” and make a difference in the world. She began studying Chemical Science at the University of the Western Cape where she completed her 3-year degree, Honours, Masters and of course, Doctorate. For her Honours, Masters and Doctorate, she developed scientific innovations that were so cool, that it got published in academic journals.
For her Honours, she developed a nanocomposite biosensor for determining the metabolic profile of anti-retroviral drugs in human serum and for her Masters, she constructed a novel nanocomposite immunosensor for anti-transglutaminase antibody detection. For these projects, she wrote two papers which was published in ‘Analytical Letters’ and the ‘Journal of Bioactive and Compatible Polymer’. She also contributed to a section in the academic book, Biomedical Applications of Nanostructured Materials.
For her doctorate, which she completed in 2013, she began focusing her research on what she is doing now. She looked at the synthesis of modified nanostructured manganese oxide cathode materials for the improvement of the stability and energy storage capacity of Lithium-ion batteries (which, in a nutshell, is basically the same kind of science that makes it possible for Elon Musk to build electric cars). For her efforts, she published two papers in 2013 and 2014, both in the academic journal, Electrochimica Acta. In addition, she has published papers in Electroanalysis, International Journal of Electrochemical Sciences and the Journal of Bioactive and Compatible Polymer. She has presented her research at various national and international conferences and she is a recipient of the University of Michigan’s African Presidential Scholarship (where she visited the university’s Energy Institute). Her research has also been selected for academic exchange and collaboration in 2020 by The University of Missouri/South Africa Education Program.
Natasha is currently a lecturer at the University of the Western Cape’s Chemistry Department and she is a research group leader at the Sensorlab (an electrochemistry, nanoscience and sensor research laboratory based at the University). She lectures in first and second-year chemistry, Honours level Statistical Thermodynamics and Nanoscience (for energy storage and conversion systems), Masters level Nanochemistry, and supervisors Masters and PhD research students.
Natasha says that her list of achievements was purely as a result of hard work and sacrifice, both in school and university. She does however state that, as the youngest of five children, it was the support of her single mom and siblings that got her through the tough times. Their support resulted in her being the first member of her family to complete a university degree, which also makes her the first member of her family to become a qualified scientist and complete a PhD. Growing up in small town also gave her a greater appreciation for the small opportunities that came her way. This is also why she is heavily committed to giving those small opportunities to kids with a similar disadvantaged background like hers.
In addition to her job as a lecturer, Natasha also teaches grade 11 physical science to learners from previously disadvantaged backgrounds and she is particularly interested in getting young girls interested in science. She says that there are two reasons that girls don’t want to study science: They think they are not smart enough and they believe that scientists are ‘socially awkward nerds’. Natasha feels that with the help of parents, educators like herself can change those beliefs and make girls see that, not only are they more than smart enough, but that science is actually pretty fun. Natasha herself as anything but the stereotype of a ‘socially awkward’ scientist.
First thing you need to know about Natasha is that she likes fashion. Her profession allows her to make a pretty good salary and that means that if she walks into a store and sees the shoes she likes, she buys it. She is also a bit of a daredevil who enjoys fun activities like jumping out of planes and parachuting down to the ground. And of course, science becomes even more fun when your job pays for you to travel the world.
The most important advice Natasha has for people looking to become scientists is that you have to be passionate about it. You have to view science as a fun hobby rather than just a job. If it is not fun, find something that you feel passionate about and then work hard at being a success. “Ultimately, success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out,” says Natasha.
She adds that it is ‘easy to become overwhelmed or discouraged, and fall into the habit of a bad routine.” She emphasises that “it is pressure that forms the diamond and that nothing worth having comes easy”. Her advice is to ‘set high goals, be honest, never say no, and always surround yourself with people that are positive, supportive and has a passion for doing their best’. You will always reach a point where you feel distressed and feel like crying, but if you keep at it, your success will make it all worth it.
For many young girls (and boys), science might not seem like a cool thing. It is something that the nerds do but the thing about science nerds is that they rule the world. They invent the computers and phones that you read these stories on and when world leaders (who are themselves nerds) want answers, they turn to the scientists for answers. And someday, when the environment has been saved and future generations aren’t starving, you should always remember that it was the scientists that did it. Dr. Natasha Ross is one of those scientists, and it will be written that when she helped save the environment, she looked fabulous doing it.
Note: A special thanks to Dr. Natasha Ross for taking the time to assist with the story.
Sources: Edited from an article at www.uwc.co.za (Nicklaus Kruger), other