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Student story

Dinga Wonanke

20 July 2023

"Studying in an environment with such helpful people always makes you feel at home..."


PhD in Chemistry

With research in Theoretical and Computational Chemistry, Dinga’s studies give him the opportunity to investigate how everyday chemical reactions work through computer modelling.

“The first definition I learned at school was, ‘Physics is the study of how and why things happen the way they happen’. As a theoretical and computational chemist, I try each day to answer this question of how and why a chemical reaction evolves the way it evolves,” he says.

Originally from Cameroon, he was inspired by the idea of Chemistry after learning about the corrosive nature of acids.

“The first time I heard about acids, I was told that an acid is very dangerous and if it falls on your hand — it would dig through your bones and get to the other end and only water could stop its action. I was so amazed when I heard this and was curious to know what else an acid could do. I went further to ask the question of knowing what will happen if you threw an acid on the ground, will it dig the ground ‘til it gets to the underground water level? I asked this question because in Africa, we dig boreholes called wells, from which we fetch water. So if an acid could dig a hole why stress people to dig wells?

“My home teacher, who tried to frighten me by telling me this unbelievable action of acids, responded by saying, ‘When you start studying chemistry, you will answer this question’. Because I wanted to know more about what acids could do, Chemistry became my favourite subject.”

Dinga later went onto developing an interest in Quantum mechanics with master’s research in Physical and Theoretical Chemistry. His findings ultimately lead to his current PhD at UC.

“After knowing the limitations of an acid, I learned about electrons and was told that it was a constituent of an atom that had both wave-like and particle-like properties. This got me so confused that I wanted to understand this in more detail and that’s how I found myself today doing quantum chemistry.”

His current PhD research investigates alternative means of using solar energy over current power sources.

“Currently there is no cost effective way to capture, convert, store and utilise solar energy efficiently. My day-to-day activity involves modelling and designing new, cheaper, photovoltaic molecules that can efficiently utilise solar energy, with the aim of eventually propelling solar energy to become the ultimate source of energy for our planet.”

While he’s been at UC, Dinga has also taken part in a Marsden Project at UC funded through the Royal Society of New Zealand.

“UC is made up of a community of very supportive staff and students. Studying in an environment with such helpful and caring people always makes you feel as though you are at home. There is never anything to worry about because help is available everywhere.”

As such, he advises other PhD students to make use of support services available, such as the Academic Skills Centre that he uses often, and to remember their motivation for research.

“A PhD may seem difficult and at times very challenging and impossible to reach the end, but you need to keep in mind that if you know too much or knew everything, there is no point doing a PhD. We study because we don’t know everything and wish to improve on our knowledge.

“Doing a PhD in quantum chemistry will never seem easy at the start, because you need to have a strong understanding of mathematics, physics, chemistry and computer science. However, if you keep in mind that you are here because you wish to learn, the research becomes fun and you get self-motivated to work harder with lots of patience, despite the challenges. A PhD is not an easy undertaking, but it is incredibly rewarding.”

When he isn’t busy with his own research, Dinga takes part in the community by actively assisting his local church and studying the Bible, taking part in the Christchurch Pops Choir as a singer, and coaching a Bhutanese soccer team as part of a community development programme.

His philosophy is something he plans to take into a career of helping others grow in their self-confidence, get better at whatever they do and learn the beauty of quantum chemistry.

“Ever since I was a kid, I have always loved to try different things and share my experience with others,” he says. “At my current stage of life I have a burning desire to be an academic researcher, which will give me the opportunity to lecture, train postgraduate students and perform high level research. Moreover, I wish to be a motivational builder, counsellor and a coach for the underprivileged and destitute.”

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