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Studying beyond the classroom

- Wits Chemistry

Not all chemistry happens in a classroom or laboratory.

Fieldwork allows chemists to collect real-world data that cannot be obtained in a laboratory setting. It allows chemists to work in a variety of settings and to collaborate with scientists from other disciplines. Fieldwork also provides unique teaching opportunities. During January 2023, a few of our 3rd chemistry students joined Prof Marc Humphries in carrying out field research at Lake Bhangazi on the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal.

Students gained hands-on experience in geophysical surveying and sediment coring techniques, and exposure in how these provide valuable tools for understanding environmental change. Projections indicate that severe droughts will impact South Africa by the end of the 21st century, with potentially significant ecological and socio-economic consequences for the region. The geological record provides context for understanding underlying climatic controls and the sensitivity of ecosystems to future climate change. Using various geochemical proxies (inorganic elemental geochemistry and isotopes) students are attempting to reconstruct changes in past hydrological conditions and examine the dominant controls influencing extreme rainfall events which lead to catastrophic droughts and floods in southern Africa.

Time spent in the field allows students to engage with complex challenges, such as impacts related to climate change. It fosters a collaborative learning environment, teaching students how to connect knowledge across various disciplines. Fieldwork can be challenging and demanding, but it is also an exciting and rewarding experience. So long as you can successfully avoid the hippos!