Treasures of the earth

14 June 2016 | Story Judith Browne. Photo Michael Hammond.
Tamzon Jacobs started working in retail at the age of 16 as a way to help support her family. Today she's working as a process mineralogist on one of the largest copper mines in Zambia, after completing her MSc in chemical engineering.
Tamzon Jacobs started working in retail at the age of 16 as a way to help support her family. Today she's working as a process mineralogist on one of the largest copper mines in Zambia, after completing her MSc in chemical engineering.

Tamzon Jacobs spent the first half of her childhood in an impoverished community in KwaZulu-Natal, and her teenage years in a small town on the outskirts of Verulam in Durban. University wasn't originally on the cards.

“From the age of 16 … I worked at Foschini's every weekend and all through school holidays, in order to help support my family. Since all the adults around me at the time worked as artisans or in retail, I didn't even realise that going to university was something that I could do; let alone UCT. The first time I saw UCT was on Top Billing with my family.”

This June she's flying back to Cape Town to graduate with an MSc in chemical engineering.

What brought her this far?

“I originally wanted to study marine biology, but I really needed something that would provide financial security. I wanted to break the circle of poverty, and more importantly, I wanted to change my setting and my mindset. I prayed, asking God to give me direction for my life. I fasted. In the Bible, I read a verse in the book of Isaiah 45:3 that spoke of God revealing treasures hidden within the earth if we asked. I believed that this message referred to earth sciences, and more specifically, geology.”

She applied for an undergraduate degree in geology at UCT, knowing she needed 80% for maths at school to be accepted into the science faculty.

Keep going, even when it hurts

In the second half of her matric year, the teachers' union went on strike.

“It badly affected my high school maths and science education. Balancing work and matric during exam time was extremely stressful, and I wrote my exams weak, tired and anxious. I even had a fit the night before my physics exam, but still wrote it early the next morning.”

Getting accepted was only part of the challenge. Following that, it was university fees (thankfully she qualified for NSFAS funding). And then came the challenge of actually being at UCT.

“The lecturers and demonstrators in the General Entry Programme for Science (GEPS) were amazingly patient and very understanding of the various backgrounds from which we all came. Being dyslexic made things especially difficult for me. For example, I wasn't aware that I could get extra time because of this, and so I failed many tests and exams. Knowing the coursework but being unable to put the information on paper was incredibly disheartening and led to many moments where I just wanted to give up. I even considered changing faculties in my first year, but my mother said that giving up was not an option. I pulled my socks up, dried my tears and decided to assemble several study groups.”

From starting her own study groups, Tamzon went on to become a tutor and demonstrator for three years. This is when she saw how many others were struggling.

“I saw so many – too many – intelligent students fail, simply because they couldn't read the textbook or understand the questions or the lecturers. That's one thing about UCT I'd like to see change. For example, to see question papers available in more than one language, and hotseats for assisting students with tutorials, and practical assignments offered in more than one language.”

The people who help you on your way

Tamzon not only managed to pass – she qualified in the top quarter of her third-year class, and decided to continue studying, completing her honours in geochemistry.

“At this stage, I was a qualified geologist. However, to get a good job in the mining industry, you need at least a master's. I loved field work, but I was really good at petrography – identifying minerals and textures through a microscope – because I have excellent eyesight. In fact, my high school nickname was Scanner. For this reason, lab work appealed to me.”

She was guided by Professor David Reid – her “friend, professor and mentor” – toward a relatively new field of science, combining mineralogy, geology and chemical engineering. Dr Megan Becker, a leader in the field of process mineralogy and Tamzon's thesis supervisor, in turn helped her find an academic project – how process mineralogy could be used to optimise plant processing at the Kansanshi copper and gold mine in Zambia.

Mid-MSc, Tamzon's funding ran out. Undeterred, she took up full-time work as a geophysical data processor while she completed her degree.

She counts this time as “one of the most challenging parts of my UCT journey” made up of “countless sleepless nights and many mental burnouts”. And yet she managed to push through.

Today, Tamzon is working on one of the largest copper mines in Zambia as one of a handful of onsite process mineralogists. Her role is to bridge the gap between geology and metallurgy, using various analytical techniques she developed during her MSc in the Centre for Minerals Research.

It's possible to change your life

Who or what inspired Tamzon to keep going, despite the odds?

“My mother and grandmother are amazing, strong women, who take care of their families in the most difficult of circumstances. I'm motivated and driven by the desire to remove my family from poverty, to save my two younger sisters from what I went through, and to show other young women of colour in disadvantaged circumstances that it is possible to change not only your life but the lives of your friends and families.”

Her advice to students who're still struggling through: “Have a vision or plan for your life. Set clear goals, but adapt to life's curveballs. When times get tough, hold onto that vision.”

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