Prof Wesaal Khan from the Department of Microbiology in the Faculty of Science at Stellenbosch University (SU) recently delivered her inaugural lecture, titled “Safe water is a human right: Overcoming the last hurdle towards water security for all.”
Khan spoke to the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division about how her work helps to ensure that all South Africans have access to safe and affordable drinking water.
Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.
We implement cost-effective water treatment systems to ensure that lower socio-economic communities are provided with sustainable and affordable, potable and domestic water sources. To successfully achieve this, we must ensure that our research remains innovative. We currently focus on:
- designing and up-scaling biological (predatory bacteria and bacteriophages ̶ viruses that infect bacteria and replicate within them) and physical (solar pasteurisation and solar disinfection) water treatment systems;
- waterborne pathogen virulence and persistence mechanisms;
- innovation in water quality monitoring for accurate risk assessment; and
- secondary metabolites (small molecules involved in various biochemical processes within living organisms) that exhibit antimicrobial (killing / hindering the growth of different microorganisms) and antifouling (preventing the growth of unwanted organisms on surfaces exposed to water) potential.
My passion for water research started during my PhD studies, which was a collaboration between SU and the Stadtwerke Düsseldorf in Germany, where I was based for two years. Germany has one of the best water supply and sanitation infrastructure systems in the world. Thus, when I started my academic tenure, I knew that I had to apply my basic skills to bring about beneficial and tangible change to the South African society.
How would you describe the relevance of your work?
Our research is relevant to low-and-middle-income countries and specifically the approximately 55% of the South African population who do not have access to piped water in their homes. The multidisciplinary nature (social and applied science) of our research also ensures that community members participate in numerous phases of the project. Thus, before we implement and monitor the water treatment systems in field trials, we conduct social perception studies to determine the community members’ knowledge on alternative water sources as well as their primary water uses and infrastructure needs. Moreover, shortly after we implement the treatment systems, we hold community workshops to explain the principle and simple operation of the treatment systems and the basic maintenance and primary uses of the treated water.
How does your research help ensure that South Africans have access to safe and affordable drinking water?
Our research links directly to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the primary aim is to achieve good health and well-being (SDG 3) for the citizens of South Africa through universal access to safe and affordable drinking water (SDG 6). We strive to achieve this by providing communities in urban informal settlements and rural communities with a sustainable solution to water availability, through the design, construction and monitoring of sustainable, low-cost water treatment systems.
You’ve have spent many years in the challenging environment of higher education. What keeps you motivated when things get tough?
While I am a microbiologist by profession, I primarily consider myself a teacher. So, whether it be teaching a class of 300 plus second-year students, or supervising and guiding my postgraduate students, I consider it my responsibility to contribute to their education and personal development. Above all else, I want to encourage my students as to walk out of my classroom and research laboratory as individuals with a passion for science and learning.
Tell us something exciting about yourself that people would not expect.
I have an identical twin sister, Sehaam Khan, who is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic at the University of Johannesburg.
What would your message be to young girls who aspire to a career in science?
While we were raised on the Cape Flats, my mother was a teacher who stressed the importance of education. Whenever she was congratulated on our achievements, she would always say that her daughters are clever enough to know that they must work hard!
So, I would say to all the young girls (or any young learner) who aspire to a career in science, “work hard, the sacrifices you may need to make are worth it. Above all, believe that you are capable and that you can achieve anything you set your mind to!”
How do you spend your free time?
Binge-watching crime and investigation mysteries or series and trying to figure out who the perpetrator is before the end of the movie or episode!