Xolani Mhlanga: from Nelspruit to California in the name of Geology

By Anima McBrown

Professor Tsikos has received the University’s Internationalisation Committee award (2015), yesterday evening, 26 May 2016, for his work in the promotion of international exchange and allied collaborative research. He gives special credit to PRIMOR’s biggest sponsors, ASSMANG Ltd, and the continued support from the industry, because theirs is a winning partnership. He also makes special mention of Professor Tim Lyons, from the University of California Riverside, his close collaborator and good friend, who he considers crucial to the growth and development of one of his students, Xolani Mhlanga, whose growth as a scholar has been largely due to their international collaboration.

Professor Tsikos talks about how Mhlanga’s work is in many ways an extension of his own PhD research from 20 years ago. He takes a vested interest in the progress of his students and wants them to continue to grow, achieve and maximise their potential even further. As the developer of PRIMOR (Postgraduate Research in Iron and Manganese Ore Resources), a Research Unit in the Geology Department, Prof. Tsikos is a renowned expert in his field. This is what makes students like Mhlanga fortunate to be working with such exceptional leaders.

Xolani Mhlanga: from Nelspruit to California in the name of Geology

Xolani (“X”) Mhlanga comes from the town of Kanyamazane, Nelspruit, in the province of Mpumalanga. Having always known that the field of Geology and Science was going to be his chosen career path, the now 25-year-old PhD student has charted a truly impressive study and research journey at Rhodes University since 2009. Mhlanga comments that: “I’ve never seen myself doing anything else”, and ever since starting this walk seven years ago – he has not looked back.

He completed a BSc degree in 2012, with majors in Geology and Environmental Science. He then obtained his Honours degree in Geology in the following year, when he carried out a project on ore-grade relationships in Hotazel Manganese Ores at Gloria Mine in the Kalahari Manganese Field. Subsequently, he enrolled for a Masters which was upgraded to a PhD in late 2015. His PhD project constitutes the continuation of his previous Honours work. His emphasis is on understanding the interplay between primary and diagenetic cycling of carbon and metals in the Hotazel formation. His work is centred on the combined use of mineral chemistry, stable isotope geochemistry and metal speciation techniques.

Mhlanga’s work took him to the University of California at Riverside, a visit which saw him work with species-specific analyses of iron and manganese from November 2015 until February 2016. He admits that a big part of his success thus far is due to the motivation and influence of his supervisor Professor Hari Tsikos, and his co-supervisor Professor Timothy Lyons from Riverside. With their guidance and support, and the sponsorship of ASSMANG Ltd, Mhlanga has been able to fully devote himself to his project, titled: Unravelling the primary deposition and diagenetic history of the Hotazel Fe-Mn Formation, through the application of mineral chemistry, stable isotopes and speciation geochemistry.

Whilst in California he did a lot of lab analyses, tests and experiments which would sometimes require him to pull 10-12 hour shifts of extremely intense and concentrated work each day. In December 2015 he presented his latest work at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference, an opportunity which fosters more valuable knowledge-making and experience. His exposure and growing prominence in his field of study has also resulted in another abstract of his being accepted for the 35th International Geological Congress (IGC), which will be taking place in Cape Town from 27 August – 4 September 2016. As a proud representative of Rhodes University and a pioneer of South African geological research, Mhlanga is genuinely looking forward to making his presentation in front of yet another global audience.

But who is this young scientist outside of the Geology labs? Mhlanga admits to being a quiet, humble guy that enjoys hanging out with his friends and sharing the occasional beer with his work colleagues. As an avid soccer fan (Arsenal) and somewhat of a master behind the FIFA console, he makes sure to get enough relaxation time away from his high-capacity research. Professor Tsikos talks about the absolute pleasure it is to work with Mhlanga. He also shares that Mhlanga is a soft, kind guy – someone who is naturally likeable and so can win you over effortlessly.

If ever Mhlanga was accused of being in danger of falling into the oftentimes wayward stereotypical mould of ‘stiff academic’ or ‘boring scientist’, he would certainly not be a fit. “I’m just myself”, he says smilingly, and concedes that just like anyone else he does have his fair share of fun. He considers himself a social character, which helps dispute any assumptions of the ‘uptight lab boffin’. He laughs about finding himself at a time in his life when most of his friends are getting married. I ask him how he counters any pressure to follow suit, but he is very comfortable with where he is in his career. Well in reach of his personal goals and milestones, he says: “there is a right time for everything”.

Yet it has not been an easy road to get to this point. He opens up about the death of his father in May of 2012, a loss which presented the biggest blow in his life so far. Although there were challenges that threatened his return to Rhodes, he stuck it through and pushed past the hardships to attain personal triumph. Now he finds himself at PhD level, a most inspiring and commendable achievement for him and his family. 

About his supervisor, Prof. Hari Tsikos, Mhlanga says: “He is one of if not the most intelligent guy I know. We work well together because in many ways we share a lot of things in common.” Their working relationship is made stronger because not only do they both enjoy soccer (Prof. Tsikos here understandably a rival as a proud Tottenham Hotspur supporter), but they also have a very good understanding of one another. All of this contributes towards the important foundation of mutual respect and genuine friendship.

Currently Mhlanga is focusing on publishing some papers, and spends most of his time developing his research. He hopes to submit his final thesis next year in June.

A true role model and one to watch in the future of geology and science: we wish him all the best.

Caption: "X" at Manhattan Beach, surrounded by the two sons of Prof. Tim Lyons his co-supervisor, while doing research at the University of California Riverside.