Process Engineering student graduates after battling brain tumour

By Rozanne Engel

The shocking discovery of a tumour on his brain brought Andrew Steiner’s studies to an abrupt standstill only one year into his MEng course at Stellenbosch University (SU) in 2017. But he did not allow this unplanned interruption to deter him and on Wednesday, 3 April 2019 Steiner received his MEng (Chemical Engineering) degree during SU’s graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Engineering.

Steiner says that when he started his MEng course at SU in 2016, he was very optimistic and confident that he would complete his degree in the two years required.

“I honestly didn’t expect that anything was there. When I was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2017, I had to take a year off for the five brain surgeries and for recovery. During my season of hospitals, meningitis, surgeries and recovery, I was very grateful for my family support and fortunately, the NRF granted me an extension bursary so that I could finish off my masters.

“When I called home to tell my mom that I had passed, it was a struggle not to cry. We were all so overjoyed. My oral presentation and closed exam went seriously well. I always enjoyed maths and problem solving and chemical engineering is a discipline that draws strongly on those two. Initially I just applied for this course because I had the marks and my dad is a chemical engineer from Switzerland, but I realised I wouldn’t be happy doing anything other than chemical engineering.”

Steiner’s MEng research focused on degradation of furfural, which is a platform chemical, produced from biomass such as sugarcane bagasse, corncobs or wood. His thesis shed new light on how to minimise degradation. Furfural can be processed further to produce many products from cosmetics and fragrances to nematocides and fungicides to Lycra material and rocket fuel.

He essentially added a piece to the puzzle of understanding furfural production so that it can be produced more effectively (making it cheaper), which will allow more industries to turn to furfural instead of petrochemical based chemistry.

Although Steiner is very happy to be done with his studies, he says he will miss the beautiful Stellenbosch mountains and wine farms. He is also grateful for the support from the SU disability unit, who helped find student volunteers to assist him when he returned to campus after his recovery. “This group of students volunteered to take turns to walk with me to and from campus. It was all organised by the disability unit of SU. Those students literally barely knew me and they signed up to help me out, which was so amazing.”

Steiner says that while overcoming his illness and returning to SU to complete his studies, his faith and realising that finding his purpose and meaning in life was more important than ever.

“Students seek to find purpose or meaning in a good time, achievements, success and relationships, but to put it very simply: That’s all meaningless and fades in time. The only constant and the only thing worth living for is our heavenly father. I’m not for a moment saying that God and success, relationships, etc. are mutually exclusive. I’m just saying that He is the only thing that will give satisfaction, fulfilment, peace and purpose. Seek Him first and those good things will be added to you.”

Steiner advises his peers and prospective students to use every opportunity to study and advance their education. “Study something because you love it and not because you think it’ll get you into a position where you’ll earn well.”

He plans on working in Switzerland in the bioresource engineering field, because he believes this industry is doing important work to mitigate climate change and would like to be involved in that.

Photo caption: Andrew Steiner.

Photo credit:
Stefan Els (SU).