The story of CEO, Esta van Heerden

The Story of CEO, Esta Van Heerden:

Should one ask her colleagues about her, Esta’s courageous and inquisitive nature would be the first thing to come to their minds. Her most treasured personality trait, both by her and those who know her, is her passion for new knowledge. Esta’s most beloved fictional character, Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird beautifully mirrors her belief that all perspectives and angles must be inspected thoroughly before a decision is made.

This has resulted in Esta becoming acknowledged as an active and well-rounded scholar, not only in the world of academia, but in sports and cultural endeavours as well. She thanks her parents, Tobie and Adrie, for providing incredible empowerment and support, as well as guidance towards higher levels of critical and creative thinking.

Margaret Thatcher said that women should never “be for sale”. Rather, they must stand on their values, which is an incredibly important aspect of Esta’s approach to her work. She fully believes that decisions should be based on ethical and resourceful insights.

Her childhood curiosity, along with her core values, allowed her to work towards a future within the academic world. This is how she ended up at the University of the Free State, where she was introduced to Biochemistry.  For Esta, the idea of understanding life and its control from several aspects is very exciting. She believes that it allows humanity to utilise biotechnological knowledge to improve the lives of people across the globe.

Esta’s mentors, Professors Derek Litthauer, Robert Verger, and Serge Mouka, taught her that there is no substitution for dedication and hard work. This empowered her to chase after various opportunities, including working in international laboratories, where she excelled amongst her contemporaries.

After receiving her PhD, Esta ventured into the field of extremophiles, and she was blessed with an opportunity to travel into the centre of the earth with a USA-led program aiming to explore life in extreme environments.  An incredible group of world-renowned scientists formed a close friendship during this project, that assisted them in creating an advanced network of specialists in the field.

As Professor Tullis Onstott remarks in his book, Deep Life, “life is a piece of cake”. Esta believes that she found delicious frosting in working with her incredible mentors from this project – Tommy Phelps, Tom Kieft and Mary DeFlaun. However, she feels that “life in extreme environments” perfectly describes her feelings in those early years of her career. She had never presented on an international stage before, and she suddenly found herself at the NASA Astrobiology institute – as leader of a project that still continues 18 years later.  The publications, presentations, media exposure and grants very soon led to Esta becoming the last South African to receive the TWAS award for excelling young scientists, a great honour and life-altering moment in her career.

Venturing into deep mines, even as far as 3.6 kilometres below the surface of the earth, struggling through mud in small cave spaces, tiptoeing around acid sacks, investigating samples from the Antarctic, and dissecting tough soil in the Kruger Park at night (which Esta admits frightened her, but she always remembered to carry along a bit of courage in her pocket) – allowed their team to find nature’s most elegantly adapted bacteria and then intensively work to understand every aspect of their metabolisms. Esta’s passion for this understanding catapulted her out of bed every morning.  These strange bugs have such smart solutions for humankind!

Esta was determined, not only to grow as a scientist, but also to ensure that her research could impact South Africa’s environment and people in a positive way. Therefore, during her research career at the University of the Free State, she explored and developed as many solutions for environmental issues that the industry could define, and the concept of bringing these solutions to clients naturally led to the birth of iWater.

The exhilaration of discovery and mentoring is a large part of Esta’s daily road-map. She has been able to successfully direct this passion towards industry, and iWater now captures all of her drive and passion in the company’s vision to create sustainable solutions for future generations.

  • Now 2018 - 2020

    Extraordinary Professor

    Appointment at North West University as Extraordinary Professor in the Centre for Water Sciences and Management

  • 2018

    CEO and environmental scientist - iWater Solutions Pty Ltd

  • From 2013 - 2016

    Distinguished Professor

    Appointed as Distinguished Professor at North West University in the Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management.

  • Since 2010

    Full Research Professor

    Laboratory of Extreme Biochemistry,
    Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, University of
    the Free State.

  • 2009

    TWAS young scientist award

    In 2009, the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAF), including Department of Science and Technology (DST) Young Scientist Prize award went to Dr Esta van Heerden, a biochemistry researcher and at the time Associate Professor in the Department Biotechnology at the University of the Free State.

  • 2001

    Women in science collaboration award with USA, Mary DeFlaun from Geosyntec Consultants

Industrial Experience

  • Planting pilots for the on-site showcasing of mine drainage treatment systems (Design, building and operations)
  • Treatment strategies for fly ash leachates or drainages
  • PCE decontamination and characterisation
  • Metal-microbe interactions and nanoparticle formations
  • World Bank water quality monitoring projects (Liberia)
  • Wateraid projects on the mining/extractive impacts on drinking water quality in rural communities
  • Blasting residue and agricultural fertiliser, as well as partially treated sewage waste biodegradation
  • Biobarrier formations in push-and-pull remediation strategies
  • Inorganic (specific metal) remediation
  • Bioleaching
  • Microbial biomarkers for contamination and degradation;
  • Panel expert member of the Water Research Commission and the National Research Foundation


  • South African Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (1992 – present)
  • Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering (1994 – present).
  • South African Council for Natural Scientific Professionals (SACNSP 400407/14)
  • International Mine Water Association (Member no. 1172)
  • Water Institute of Southern Africa Association (Member no. 36946)
  • Environmental Law Society member