PhD Graduate is Worth her Salt!

Dr Onajite Theresa Diejomaoh Abafe was awarded a PhD in Chemistry for research in the field of ionic liquids, which are liquid salts that have unique properties that make them suitable for a wide range of applications from catalysis to biomedical uses.

Onajite was supervised by Professor Bice Martincigh and Professor Annegret Stark.

Said Martincigh: ‘Onajite synthesised, characterised, and determined the physical properties of cation-fluorinated ionic liquids and their binary mixtures. Most noteworthy was the finding that the properties of ionic liquids could be influenced by fluorination and that making binary mixtures of fluorinated and non-fluorinated liquids resulted in ionic liquids with various properties allowing the use of her ionic liquids in a wide range of applications such as for the removal of carbon dioxide from flue gas streams, thereby reducing the atmospheric load of carbon dioxide.’

Born and schooled in Nigeria, Onajite was awarded a BSc Honours degree in Chemistry from Delta State University before starting work as a field chemist in an oil-servicing firm. She later proceeded to the University of Port Harcourt where she graduated with a Master’s degree in Chemistry summa cum laude in 2014.  This achievement fired her desire to build a career in research in order to provide solutions to real life industrial and environmental problems.

She says the results of her PhD research could be extended for the sequestration of carbon dioxide from the environment, thereby combating extreme climatic conditions such as global warming which threatens the existence of wild life and humans. ‘My synthesized ionic liquids have the potential for the remediation of the highly carcinogenic Stockholm Convention’s persistent organic pollutants such as the “Forever chemicals” – per fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) in the environment,’ she said.

Onajite found her PhD experience to be challenging. ‘I began this journey as a young nursing mother to a five-month old baby,’ she said.  With her husband working and residing far away in Pretoria, she had to deal with most parenting issues on her own and found herself shuttling between crèche and campus on a daily basis.

She was in hospital for a month during the third-year of her PhD owing to the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of a very rare and life-threatening blood disorder, which forced her to suspend her academics for that semester. ‘By the grace of God I recovered and was able to resume in the second semester of 2019.  I finished the rest of my laboratory experiments, and wrote and submitted my thesis in the same semester,’ she said.

Onajite Abafe thanked everyone who played a role in her success. ‘I am very grateful for my husband’s support from the beginning until the end,’ she said. ‘As a PhD holder in the same field, he was able to mentor and guide me throughout.’

She also thanked her uncle, Mr Fidelis Akpoghiran who sponsored her master’s studies in Nigeria; her parents Mr and Mrs Joseph Diejomaoh, who encouraged her all the way through her academic journey; Dr Muhammed Mohsin Azim, a postdoctoral fellow in her research group (the SMRI/NRF SARChI Research Chair in Sugarcane Biorefining); and her supervisors.

Words: Saneh Mahlase

Photograph: Supplied