Receiving a Distinguished Teachers’ Award (DTA) from UKZN is a career highlight for Associate Professor and Academic Leader in Chemical Engineering Professor David Lokhat as it acknowledges the years of hard work and dedication he has put into honing his teaching skills.
Lokhat says he knew engineering was the career for him from childhood. ‘I always enjoyed discovering how things worked and was fascinated by phenomena such as electricity, motion and the phases of matter.’
The Durban local chose to study at the then University of Natal, with his first choice of Chemical Engineering being arbitrary, but leading him into a vocation that has brought fulfilment.
In his final year of undergraduate studies, he visited the Lódz University of Technology in Poland as part of an industry-supported project that cemented his passion for research and paved the way for master’s studies under the supervision of Professor Matthew Starzak at UKZN – he graduated cum laude.
His PhD at UKZN won him awards and a patent for a new process he developed with his supervisors.
In 2013 he joined the staff of UKZN as a lecturer in Chemical Engineering and has developed his research focus in catalysis and chemical reaction engineering, work which is aimed at developing new materials and technologies for sustainable and efficient chemical processing. He specifically works on process intensification in reactor technology to develop and apply advanced materials for more efficient, environmentally benign reaction and separation systems for process industries.
Lokhat’s research is especially applicable to the fields of energy and water, and he advances his research as head of the Reactor Technology Research Group and as an associate member of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Research and Development (WASH R&D) Centre.
He has received several accolades, including the South African Institution of Chemical Engineers (SAIChE) Innovation Award for outstanding and innovative contributions to the profession or industry, and a Royal Academy of Engineering Leader in Innovation Fellowship for his research. He was inaugurated as a member of the South African Young Academy of Science in 2021 and is a rated scientist with the National Research Foundation.
He is also president of the SAIChE, and an editor for the South African Journal of Chemical Engineering.
At UKZN, Lokhat has twice been among the top 10 young published researchers and received the College of Agriculture Engineering and Science Distinguished Teachers’ Award in 2017, having received the Best Lecturer Award for the Discipline of Chemical Engineering from the School of Engineering for five consecutive years prior to that.
He has supervised seven doctoral students and 24 master’s students to graduation, and has 57 journal papers, 13 peer-reviewed conference papers and 11 book chapters to his name, in addition to having edited a book.
Teaching forms a vital component of Lokhat’s work as he transfers knowledge to the next generation. His lectures have an intentionally conversational flow and he links the concepts and ideas he is introducing to those students that will already be familiar with, thereby expanding on their established understanding.
He grounds his lessons in global perspectives and the skills required of professional engineers, equipping students with techniques and methods and facilitating their learning.
‘The greatest teacher is the one you never knew you had!’ said Lokhat.
‘The main goal of my teaching is to prepare students for lifelong learning, to instil in them the enthusiasm for acquiring knowledge, to help them evolve into self-creating, self-determining authors of their own lives. Having this goal in mind makes the task of teaching Chemical Engineering much easier,’ he said.
Lokhat is elated and humbled at the recognition, saying the award was one that was truly special.
‘Seeing my students grow in knowledge, confidence and strength to take on the challenges that our country faces is the greatest reward – I feel pride in playing a role in students’ development from grade school to graduate,’ he said.
Coming out of a global pandemic that transformed aspects of teaching and learning, Lokhat sees opportunities for curriculum development, teaching innovations and technological advancement in new online or hybrid teaching arrangements, which he believes will remain an integral part of teaching and learning strategies going forward.
‘I found relevance in the use of Problem- and Project-based learning approaches and corresponding methods of instruction in my design-based modules and piloted a new peer-to-peer bonus system, which leverages the knowledge-sharing potential of the student network,’ said Lokhat.
For chemical engineering, where process industries are increasingly digitised, new methods of learning and assessment will advance rapidly and, says Lokhat, should be embraced to maintain quality and integrity.
His journey to becoming a distinguished teacher has been guided by the input of Starzak as his mentor, colleague Professor Indresan Govender, and his students who he thanked for the influence they had on his development.
Words: Christine Cuénod
Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal