I completed my degree at UCT in 1978. I really did think I was going to win a Nobel prize one day. I had studied Chemistry and Maths, and I imagined myself in a laboratory with flasks and test tubes bubbling away, with me making all sorts of amazing discoveries. I didn’t know just how much I didn’t know. (Sometimes, that’s a happy place to be.)

My first job, in 1979, was at SAWTRI – the South African Wool and Textile Research Institute – a division of the CSIR – the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. I was a laboratory assistant, and I was paid R400 a month. (I left at the end of the first year for a much better salary – R440 a month – at the University up the road.)

I was assigned to help with the research being done by Dr Etienne Weidemann. His focus was on the shrinkage of wool. Could the shrinkage be controlled? How? How best?

The theory was actually very interesting. My task, not so much.

Every day, I would :
• Collect woollen fabric woven on-site;
• Cut the fabric into 30cm x 30cm squares;
• Overlock the edges to prevent any fraying;
• Overlay a metal template, with 9 equidistant holes in it, on each square;
• Use a koki pen to draw dots where the holes were;
• Treat the squares in different ways – soaked in different dyes or solvents, dry-heated, etc;
• Wash the treated squares under controlled conditions – today at 30oC, tomorrow at 45oC, today for 50 minutes, tomorrow for 90 minutes, etc;
• Dry the washed squares under different conditions – at room temperature, under a sun lamp, in a wind chamber;
• Measure the distance between the holes on each square;
• Work out the percentage shrinkage;
• Report the results to Dr Weidemann.

Looking back, I realize that this really was one of the most mundane jobs I could ever hope to have. (In those days, it wasn’t a struggle to find a job, especially if you had a degree, so there was no “I’m just glad I have a job” sentiment.)

I loved that job. I loved the job because of the people.

SAWTRI was a research environment, and people’s minds were curious – always searching. Being around that was a privilege.

SAWTRI was a community. Everyone knew (really knew) everyone else. I made friends there that have lasted a lifetime.

SAWTRI was part of the prestigious CSIR. I felt the honour of working for such an organisation.

SAWTRI was fun. There was a lot of laughter. Our saunters to the canteen at lunch times were often broken by a dash into the carding and combing section, and a dive into the massive pile of wool on the floor. Lots of giggles.

Hats off, truly, to the people of SAWTRI. I had a dull, dull task, but it never dulled the experience of my first job, or my dreams for my next. I’m very grateful for that.