Refilwe Mofokeng

Turning the tide against plastics!

Published on 02 May 2019
Refilwe Mofokeng
Refilwe Mofokeng

Refilwe Mofokeng is a PhD candidate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, where her research focuses on quantifying marine related pollution. Also managing – and changing attitudes towards – marine pollution. Refilwe travelled to the University of Birmingham for her Blue Charter Fellowship earlier this year.

Follow Refilwe on Twitter (@FiFIPR) to keep up-to-date with her research.

I remember eagerly anticipating the email from the ACU in mid-November 2018, which was to let me know whether my application for a Blue Charter Fellowship had been successful or not. When I finally received the email, before I could make sense of the contents, I located the famous congratulatory line 'We are excited to let you know that your application was successful'! I leapt out of my chair and danced around my room in excitement which was shortly followed by, the reality of passport, visa and accommodation preparations.

Fast forward to New Year's Eve (31 December 2018), when I had already been in London for a few days. I was told that the royal wedding gown was still on display at Windsor, needless to say I spent New Year's Eve in Windsor Castle! At that time, I had no idea I was to meet Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Sussex just a few weeks later at City, University of London, where I was part of a group of scholars from all over the world who took part in a research showcase. I was able to discuss my work with The Duchess, along with Raj Sahoo, another Blue Charter fellow, and our supervisors. Her love for education and intelligent engagement with every fellow was mind-blowing.

Finding effective solutions to manage marine pollution

My background is in Ecotoxicology in the marine and estuarine environment which encompasses both metal and organic pollutants. My interest is to determine the impact of pollution in the marine/estuarine environment and to establish cost-effective means to detect levels of pollution by using relevant benchmark organisms and identify environmentally relevant background concentrations.

My PhD looks at determining the synergistic effect of microplastics with metals in the environment using the potential benchmark amphipod Grandidierella lignorum for toxicity testing in South Africa, using Durban Harbour as a case study. Durban Harbour is the busiest cargo transport harbor in the Sub-Saharan Africa and is subject to extensive loading and offloading of goods. As a result, it is subject to leakages of contaminants, such as metals and oils, and spilling of goods including microplastics which are used in pre-production of plastics.

Broadening my horizons

My study is in line with the Commonwealth Blue Charter as it seeks to find relevant solutions to the effective management of marine pollution. I believe the Blue Charter programme plays a crucial role in helping map the extent of marine pollution globally, and in understanding scientific activity and discussion with regards to marine pollution. Meeting fellow Blue Charter recipients from different parts of the world and exchanging findings – as well as challenges – has broadened my understanding of the extent of the issue of marine pollution, particularly where the science of microplastics/plastics is currently. As a result, my thesis discussion has also been informed by these engagements.

To say the fellowship experience has changed my perspective would be a gross understatement. Not only have I met incredible scientists such as Professor Stefan Krause, who was hosting me at the University of Birmingham, and Professor Richard Thompson, a renowned scientist in the microplastics field based at the University of Plymouth, I was also mentored and supervised by young incredible scientists who are helping shape the science of microplastics – Dr Matthew Cole and Dr Holly Nel. I have truly learnt a lot and am more than honoured to have been part of developing analytical methodologies.

The ability to visit and share my work at various universities in the UK, including Birmingham University where I was based, Cardiff University's Water Research Institution, Plymouth Marine Laboratory and City, University of London was incredible and surreal all at once. I am grateful to the ACU for the opportunity and I am hoping that more students get the opportunity, as the only way to grasp the gravity of this opportunity is through experience.

I am now looking forward to putting my experiences from my fellowship into action at home in South Africa, and I also hope to continue working with the other fellows and scientists I met along the way!