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From Mhluzi to Marion Island – Young graduate makes her mark in SA polar research team

Dineo Mogashoa – one of the first wave of bursars to graduate from Coal South Africa’s Community Scholarship Scheme – is working as an assistant researcher on the sub-Antarctic Marion Island, worlds away from where she grew up in Middelburg’s Mhluzi township.

“My dad worked as a cook and my mother sold lunches at school. As a family, we could afford the basics, but I’d always known that for a tertiary education, I’d have to look elsewhere,” she says.

Unlike Anglo American’s traditional bursary scheme, community scholarship beneficiaries are not required to study in fields related to mining, nor do they have an employment obligation to the company on completion of their studies. Scholarships are awarded exclusively to learners living in host communities and must come from financially-constrained backgrounds.

“I applied for more than 20 bursaries and was willing to study anything, however I’d dreamed of becoming a scientist from a very young age and felt fortunate when I was awarded a scholarship that enabled me to study something I was passionate about,” she says.

After earning a BSc in environmental sciences and an honours degree in ecology at the University of Pretoria, Dineo was selected as a member of a team of scientists who spend 13 months at a stretch working on this remote volcanic island as part of the South African National Arctic Programme.

Situated in the southern Indian ocean, conditions on Marion are harsh – constant winds, low temperatures and large amounts of snow and rain make it an inhospitable place to live, so it’s not surprising that just 24 overwintering researchers and base personnel are its only residents. Research on the island focuses on biological processes, bird and plant life and the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems found there.

“The wind here is hectic – I can’t emphasise this enough! We have to wear gumboots every time we step out as the flat plains closer to the coast are mires. The interior is beautiful and rocky, and there’s a lot of interesting wildlife,” says Dineo who has seen penguins, seals, walruses, albatross and killer whales in their natural habitat.

She makes the point that once the helicopter from the famed supply ship SA Agulhas II touches down, walking is the only form of transport.

“I recently walked the island’s complete circumference in one day. It’s about 90kms and took 19-and-half hours to finish. It was by far the most physically challenging thing I have ever done.”

With her Antarctic adventure set to end soon, she’ll be exploring new horizons. “I hope one day I’ll get the opportunity to work for Anglo American to give back to the company that made it all possible.”

And her advice to talented young people from similarly challenged backgrounds? “Allow yourself to dream even if your reality doesn’t allow it, because dreams turn into goals and goals into achievements.”

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