Being solution-oriented has always been my niche, says the future environmental engineer

Leave a mark wherever you go,’ preached the parents of Martha Djan in her childhood days.

Leave a mark wherever you go,’ preached the parents of Martha Djan in her childhood days.

Fast-forward to 2018 and the motivated 17-year-old Gr. 12 Potchefstroom Girls’ High learner is already an Eskom Science Expo international award winner, deputy head girl and the Interact president. She also takes part in community outreach programmes and is a sports fanatic.

The cherry on the cake was when the solution-oriented learner recently took part in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in the USA. Being part of the 1 792 participants from 81 countries, she managed to achieve a gold medal, the Wolfram award, the best participant as awarded by the Duquesne University, a fourth place in the environmental engineering category and 500 dollars for her hard work.

This, she describes as a milestone in her family and said it was God’s grace that granted her the opportunity and opened the doors for her. ‘He allowed me to go and represent my country in the best way possible. It was an amazing experience knowing that, through all the hard work, I was able to achieve such a feat. Ten years ago, I would never have seen myself in that place at that specific time. I had a myopic mindset on life then – I was in this box,’ she recalled.

Martha reached the shores of America after going through a rigorous process in the Eskom Science Expo at both regional and national level.

Equal to the task of solving community problems
The aim of her study was to discover an indigenous plant that would significantly reduce the amount of lead, mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals from the mine soil. She discovered that in the North Sand mine dump in Krugersdorp, the mining processes produce toxins that negatively impact human and environmental health as well as animal and plant survival. ‘The community near the mine dump has been complaining about the dust, health problems like asthma and coughing for the past ten years. A solution was to plant the indigenous plants on the mine dump that can effectively remove these harmful substances,’ she said with concern. Martha was assisted by a mentor from Wits University, a postgraduate student, Anthony Mader. ‘He opened my mind to the environmental sector and how to validate the findings and tackle my project in depth. It took 18 months,’ she said with a sigh.

Martha Djan inspecting the plants in a piece of land allocated by the mining company in Krugersdorp.

Keep your doors open
She says she learnt a lot from her exposure in America.

‘We may think we know a lot in our country but there is still a world to explore out there. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t be narrow-minded by discarding information. Always keep on learning because there is so much to learn in life…keep your doors open.’ ‘There were seven judges out of ten who were impressed that I had not just done an experiment but physically went to the mine dump. Even overseas, they struggle with this type of pollution in mines,’ she said.

The matric learner wants to study environmental engineering at Stellenbosch University next year after receiving a bursary from the same institution. Martha says there was no other course choice besides environmental engineering for her because there is a need for environmental scientists to solve the earth’s problems. ‘Our impact has caused so many problems like pollution, global warming and climate change – there is a need to find a solution to these problems and extend our lifespan on earth. This is the only place where we live, let’s take care of it,’ she said passionately.

At the moment, before going to a tertiary institution far away from her home in Potch, she still has to study and pass her nine matric subjects. ‘I am doing Life Science, Maths, Physical Science, Alpha Maths, Drama, English, Afrikaans and Life Orientation,’ she said.

God gave us the potential to succeed
Martha wishes that other young scientists entering the Science Expo could experience what she did. Her motivation is that ‘God gave us so much potential to be anything and it’s about how much of it we are going to use to make a difference. It doesn’t have to be something major.

‘Don’t let your social circumstances limit you, believe in yourself, dream big and never give up, no matter how hard it gets,’ she urged.

The Bloemfontein-born girl could not emphasise enough the importance of grabbing an opportunity and not limiting yourself. By achieving such a lot at her age, she is definitely making a mark for herself, as her parents groomed her to, and a lot is still in store for her. As she leaves after 40 minutes of non-stop talking, she quickly repeats her family’s teachings. ‘Leave a mark wherever you go. You can say I was there, that you made a difference,’ mimicking her mother’s voice.

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