Securing Global Energy Security Through Innovative Research

Securing Global Energy Security Through Innovative Research
Dr Precious Mangena earned herself a PhD in Plant Breeding.

Dr Precious Mangena has graduated with her PhD in Plant Breeding for her work in developing a superior sweet stem sorghum hybrid over a short period of time using a male gametocide so that the crop can be used in bio-fuel production and related activities.

Mangena’s research was funded by the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) and the National Research Foundation (NRF).

In the context of global challenges such as energy crises, climate change and food insecurity, Mangena -who was a student at the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) - was interested in contributing to the effort to increase biofuel production worldwide through sweet sorghum breeding to help enable global energy security, independence from fossil fuels, reduction of greenhouse gases emissions and mitigation of adverse global climatic change.

Mangena’s sweet sorghum hybrids are superior to commercial cultivars as far as biofuel production is concerned, and her research will play a pivotal role in sweet sorghum breeding as application of male gametocides to sweet sorghum has not been previously evaluated.

‘The use of male gametocides in sweet sorghum breeding will reduce the time taken to develop new hybrid varieties by five to 10 years, thereby increasing hybrid seed production and reducing the costs of production of a sorghum hybrid dramatically,’ said Mangena.

This crop is suitable for biofuel production thanks to its adaptive and constituent traits, and can yield a high biomass per hectare on marginal lands that are unsuitable for food and feed production. It can also be used as a dual-purpose crop, meaning that biofuel production will not compromise grain production for food.

Mangena’s plans for the future include applying experience gained during her PhD research to collaborations with other plant breeders on developing crop varieties that will address the many challenges the world is facing, such as climate change and food and nutrition insecurity.

The experience of completing her PhD has, she says, taught her how to keep up-to-date in the fast-developing scientific arena, and how to translate ideas from scientific literature into new approaches to breeding problems. She has also learnt important writing and presentation skills, publishing scientific findings and working independently.

‘I am grateful for the opportunity to work with other plant breeding students at the ACCI to broaden my knowledge. I am also grateful for the excellent supervision, teaching and administrative support,’ she said.

Mangena thanked her supervisor Professor Hussein Shimelis and co-supervisor Professor Mark Laing for their guidance, support and patience. She expressed gratitude to the TIA and the NRF for funding her studies and thanked Mr Ian Doidge and technical staff for their field work support. She also thanked God for carrying her through her studies, and her family for their love, prayers, sacrifices, support, understanding and encouragement.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal 


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Preventing Swine Farming Economic Loss Through Microbiology

Preventing Swine Farming Economic Loss Through  Microbiology
Dr Yuzi Wu, who graduated with a PhD for research on Mycoplasmal pneumonia of swine (MPS).

Dr Yuzi Wu is one of six students who have graduated from UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES) under an agreement between UKZN and the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences (JAAS) in China.

Following several visits and the signing of a five-year Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in 2014, academics at UKZN and JAAS began the supervision of nine PhD students from China in disciplines including Microbiology, Biochemistry and Crop Science. The MoU encourages co-operation between staff and students for study and research purposes that include staff and graduate exchanges, collaborative research and exchange of information.

Dr Hafizah Chenia from UKZN’s School of Life Sciences and Professor Guoqing Shao of JAAS supervised Wu’s research on Mycoplasmal pneumonia of swine (MPS) caused by Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae. This chronic and contagious respiratory disease is characterised by high infectivity and morbidity and is widespread in intensive pig farms worldwide, restricts the development of livestock breeding and results in huge economic losses. Without early detection and treatment of outbreaks, large herds are culled to prevent disease transmission. As livestock farming increases, there is a greater need to prevent the economic loss incurred by disease outbreak.

Wu’s work was aimed at enabling identification and detection of Chinese disease-causing strains of M. hyopneumoniae using molecular biology techniques in order to facilitate better surveillance of the pathogen in Chinese farms and allow comparison with strains from other geographical locations. She also investigated the utility of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for rapid detection and diagnosis of M. hyopneumoniae in swine by examining the efficacy of PCR in diagnosis when using proper clinical biological samples.

Wu optimised a 16S rRNA gene-specific PCR assay, now in use as a National Standard for M. hyopneumoniae detection in the People’s Republic of China, based on recommendations from her study.

‘Yuzi has been an amazing student, diligent, hard-working with lots of motivation and perseverance,’ said Chenia.

Wu obtained her Master’s from Shanxi Agricultural University and works at JAAS. She is passionate about her research career and using it to contribute to society. She said the process of attaining her PhD was like a treasure hunt, with the challenges being well worth the reward. She thanked her supervisors for their careful instruction and supervision, saying she has benefited greatly from their knowledge, work ethic and optimism. She also thanked Professor Qiyan Y Xiong for her guidance and support, and Professor Zhixin X Feng for his help and encouragement. She also credited staff at the Veterinary Research Institute JAAS for their care, staff at the Swine Disease Prevention and Control Laboratory for their assistance, her parents for their understanding and support as well as her husband for his tolerance, understanding, contribution and care which enabled her to successfully complete her studies.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Supplied 


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MSc in Plant Breeding for Nundwe

MSc in Plant Breeding for Nundwe
Mr McDonald Nundwe graduated with a Master’s degree in Plant Breeding.

Mr McDonald Nundwe has graduated with his Master’s in Plant Breeding which involved characterising sweet sorghum germplasm for biofuel production.

Accomplished through the UKZN Improved Master’s in Cultivar Development in Africa (IMCDA) which is funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the research examined traits that can be directly or indirectly selected for breeding for biofuel production. The research also explored genetic diversity of sweet sorghum germplasm using single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP). 

This research will, says Nundwe, enable him to contribute effectively towards the development of superior cultivars that address food insecurity and nutrition issues. 

Nundwe studied towards a Bachelor of Science in Agronomy at the University of Malawi. Since he had an interest in crop improvement, he chose to apply for a scholarship in Plant Breeding through AGRA which landed him at UKZN; ‘one of the best decisions thanks to UKZN’s proven reputation for research excellence’. 

‘The programme is unique in that it combines research and internships,’ explained Project Manager Dr Julia Sibiya.

Students spend between six and 12 months as interns at a seed company, national breeding programmes or Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centres where they also carry out their research projects. This produces graduates who do not struggle to find employment or PhD funding. 

Nundwe was based at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in Potchefstroom during his Master’s and has subsequently been employed by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Malawi. He plans to one day pursue a PhD. 

He found the experience of completing his Master’s an exciting one and thanked Sibiya, Dr Nemera Shargie, Professor Rob Melis and Professor Hussein Shimelis for their support and guidance. 

Words: Christine Cuénod 

 Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Searching for Mathematical Insight into Higher Dimensions

Searching for Mathematical Insight into Higher Dimensions
Mr Simphiwe Mathenjwa who graduated with a Master’s in Applied Science.

Mr Simphiwe Mathenjwa graduated with his Master’s in Applied Mathematics from the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS) for his research on local isometric embeddings that have importance to Astrophysics as they could generate new solutions to the Einstein field equations, giving mathematical insights into physical models of higher-dimensions.

Mathenjwa investigated local isometric embeddings of four-dimensional pseudo-Riemannian manifolds into five-dimensional Einstein spacetimes.

‘The study of higher-dimensional theories can help explain fundamental questions that are of physical and cosmological significance, such as why there are only six types of quarks and leptons, why neutrinos are massless and whether we live in a Universe with finite spatial dimensions,’ he explained.

In his research, Mathenjwa obtained new exact solutions to the field equations, which are of physical importance since they describe spacetimes that can be used to model various astrophysical and cosmological phenomena and describe qualitative features that can emerge in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

‘The secrets of the Universe may be buried in the Einstein field equations and its solutions may provide a window to some of these secrets as well as having applications in modern technology,’ he said.

Mathenjwa is a keen chess player, reader and traveller. His love for Mathematics began in his youth when he realised that this was the best way to explain natural phenomena. Pursuit of this field was, he said, part of working to satisfy his curiosity about the workings of the Universe even if he could only draw one physical insight from mathematical models that could further influence various branches of science.

He was drawn to studying at UKZN because of its quality education and proximity to home as well as its academic reputation in mathematics, statistics and computer science.

He received his Bachelor of Science in Applied Mathematics and Statistics from UKZN, as well as his Bachelor of Science Honours cum laude. During his studies, coursework and research projects on general relativity, cosmology and astrophysics sparked an interest in this field and laid a solid foundation for his Master’s. He described working towards his Master’s as fun and challenging, finding that perseverance, consistency and patience are essential ingredients.

He thanked his supervisor, Dr Gareth Amery, for the role he played in getting him to complete his Master’s; administrative staff in the SMSCS, particularly Mrs Shereen Marimuthu, for their support; Professor Loyisa Nongxa; the SMSCS, particularly Dr Sudan Hansraj; UKZN for providing assistance and material support as well as his family and friends who helped him succeed.

Mathenjwa now works as a data scientist at IT service management company EOH, and plans to complete his PhD. He is passionate about shaping future leaders and contributing to research in his field that will influence future theories.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied 


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Saving the World Through Entomology

Saving the World Through Entomology
Research in Entomology earned Mrs Yurita Yona Boodhram a Master’s degree.

Malaria is a disease transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes; the highest impact of the disease is seen in Africa where 90 percent of worldwide deaths occur as a result of the disease.

Therefore, there is a need to control Anopheles mosquitoes in order to reduce the spread and impact of the disease.

It is against this backdrop that Mrs Yurita Yona Boodhram’s Entomology Master’s degree research sought to understand the survival differences between malaria vector mosquitoes that are bred in the laboratory compared to those caught in the wild. Her research aimed to improve the current alternative biological control systems due to the increased insecticide resistance by Anopheles mosquitoes.

‘I have never pictured myself doing anything else besides being a scientist and I also did not have much knowledge in malaria as well as mosquitoes and I felt like this could be a good challenge for me,’ said Boodhram.

She attributes her success to her supervisors, Dr T Olckers and Professor R Maharaj, the Malaria Research Unit team at the Medical Research Council of South Africa as well as her friends and family who continually supported her throughout her studies.

Graduation for her is a proud and triumphant moment as she struggled with writing her thesis despite smooth sailing where data collection is concerned.

Boodhram is currently a Cosmetic Scientist at Amka Products and plans to further her studies to possibly diversify her career profile.

Words: Ntokozo Dladla 

Photograph: Supplied 


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Passion for Agriculture Earns Mchunu Master’s Degree

Passion for Agriculture Earns Mchunu Master’s Degree
Mr Lindani Mchunu (left) with one of his supervisors, Dr Alfred Odindo.

Mr Lindani Mchunu graduated with his Master of Science in Agriculture degree after investigating the identification and selection of Tepary bean genotypes for yield and drought tolerance in South Africa that can be used as parental lines of breeding as well as for large-scale production. 

The South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI) research intern was always drawn to the agricultural sector as a career choice; choosing to study at UKZN because of its strength in agricultural teaching and research. After financial challenges forced him to take a gap year once he had completed high school at Velangaye High School in Nkandla, Mchunu received financial support that allowed him to enrol at University. 

He is passionate about agriculture and hopes to be an example to young people who believe agriculture is limited to farming by demonstrating opportunities. ‘Agriculture plays a significant role in the economic development of our country and I see it not just as a career, but as a business,’ he said. 

After witnessing the decline in farming practices in his area, he was motivated to work hard to equip rural people with the knowledge and resources necessary to combat challenges that affect their crop production. 

While he found his Master’s studies challenging, he was satisfied with his results, saying that the process taught him that good things do not happen instantaneously, and that maintaining a positive attitude, focus and discipline is essential for success. His Master’s has been a step in his pursuit of knowledge, and his research concerned seeking methods to fight the challenges of drought through alternative and sustainable methods. In the context of climate change, climate variability and population growth, this kind of work is, he believes, important for ensuring food security for South Africa and the world. 

He thanked his supervisors, Professor Hussein Shimelis and Dr Alfred Odindo, for their guidance and encouragement throughout his study, and gave credit to his lecturer Dr Lembe Magwaza for teaching him the principles of agricultural research. 

Mchunu also thanked his family, particularly his parents, for not giving up on him when he chose to further his studies, and thanked his grandmother for her wise words and prayers. He also thanked the Nazareth Tertiary Student Association for their guidance through prayer. He thanked members of his business brand: Shisan Thosan for their wise words and teachings. He also thanked his university friends, especially the class of 2015, for being there during stressful, happy and hard times. 

He plans to learn more about the sugar industry in his current role and expand his knowledge of research practices. 

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph supplied


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From Herding Cattle to Improving Quality of Data Analysis

From Herding Cattle to Improving Quality of Data Analysis
Master’s graduate, Mr Lethani Ndwandwe.

Mr Lethani Ndwandwe has graduated with his Master’s in Statistics for his work on missing data imputation techniques; work which will contribute to tackling the common occurrence of missing data that affects data conclusions.

‘We need to come up with strategies on how we can improve the quality of data before we even think of analysis,’ said Ndwandwe.

Ndwandwe’s road to achieving his Master’s degree has been challenging. He grew up in the rural area of Nongoma in northern KwaZulu-Natal where he had to walk more than 15 kilometres each day to school. He was orphaned as a child; a devastating blow which he considers the worst experience of his life, but one which motivated him to pursue success. His childhood was characterised by fetching cows from their grazing lands and fetching water from the river. He also attended schools which lacked motivation where the pursuit of Higher Education is concerned.

A friend enthused him about the University; telling him that after studying there, he would find employment. His friend assisted him with the application process, and he was accepted. He describes joining UKZN as “the best feeling ever”. During his studies, he was a house committee member and class representative.

Despite a friend discouraging him from pursuing the Discipline of Statistics saying it was too difficult, Ndwandwe pursued his interest and credits Professor Delia North for helping him believe in himself and in his ability to achieve a Master’s degree.

He said the process of attaining his Master’s was challenging, however the experience shaped and prepared him for his PhD in Statistics, which he is currently pursuing while he fulfils his responsibilities as a lecturer at Sol Plaatje University.

He thanked his Master’s supervisor Dr Siaka Lougue, and co-supervisor Ms Annapurna Hazra, for their support as well as his friends from the Housing Department including Sbu Khumalo, Ezrom Lebodi and Lerato Khoale for their support. He also thanked his friends Phelelani Nxumalo, Sakhile Shinga, Sbu Ziqubu, Mndeni Mkhize, Nkosenhle Dlamini, Anele Nyembe, Thami Madide, Smiso Msomi, Scelo Dlamini and Lungi Shelembe for their encouragement.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Supplied 


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Success Despite All Odds

Success Despite All Odds
Ms Pachia Marimuthu graduates with her BSc in Chemical Engineering with her parents by her side.

Enthusiasm and hard work paid off for Chemical Engineering student, Ms Pachia Marimuthu, who graduated with her BSc in Chemical Engineering. 

Being an undergraduate, Marimuthu has already used the opportunity to communicate and propose for her final engineering design research, which is the economic viability of an acrylic acid plant. The rigorous research would be conducted to determine a process scheme which would result in an optimum design that considered economic and environmental considerations, health and safety regulations. She is hoping that doing this research will serve to justify the design and optimisation of the acrylic acid production plant, with the main objective to accurately design, optimise and provide a technical engineering design to determine the feasibility of the acrylic acid plant. 

She considers her parents as her greatest heroes and role models. ‘My mom and dad have been instrumental in my life. Their guidance and unconditional love have moulded the roles of perfect parents. As I graduate, I would like to express my undying appreciation to my mother and father for always pushing me to be the best, their unwavering support and continuous encouragement. I am so blessed and thankful for everything they do for me and I am so proud to call them my mom and dad,’ she said. 

Currently working as a Process Engineer at Deloitte Consulting, Marimuthu plans to complete her PhD, MBA as well as PrEng. ‘I would also love to manage my own consulting practice soon but my ultimate and most important goal is to send my parents on a holiday and build a secure, comfortable life for them,’ she said. 

Marimuthu’s passion is what helped her pull through in her academic journey as there were days she thought she would not graduate. ‘My first year of university was shattering. I got a supplementary exam for 80 percent of my modules. I rewrote and had to repeat them the following year. It was at this time that my career choice was questioned. However, I knew Chemical Engineering was my passion and so I cried a little, but then I wiped away the tears, picked myself up, took out my textbooks and continued to study. Last year during my final year, I had just gone through the challenging experience of final year Design, only to log onto Student Central and find that I passed all but one module. It was at this time I really felt like throwing in the towel but I realised that giving up was not an option and so I pressed on,’ said Marimuthu. 

Outside of Engineering, she is also pursuing a Diploma in Photography as it is one her passions.

She urged aspiring Engineering students to never give up, trust and believe in their journey.

Words: Manqoba Hadebe 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Cum Laude for Statistics Master’s Graduate

<em>Cum Laude</em> for Statistics Master’s Graduate
Master in Statistics  cum laude  graduate, Mr Mohanad Mohammed.

Mr Mohanad Mohammed from the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS) has graduated with his Master’s in Statistics cum laude after conducting a study that involved combining statistical and machine learning approaches to enhance cancer disease state classification based on high dimensional microarray data.

Mohammed recently presented this research at the International Conference on Computer, Control, Electrical, and Electronics Engineering in Sudan where he received the Best Paper award for a presentation on using stacking ensemble for microarray-based cancer classification. This was Mohammed’s first international presentation and was a moment of pride for him, his supervisors and friends.

Mohammed, who hails from Sudan where he received his BSc from the University of Gezira, was drawn to UKZN after learning about the University’s Professor Henry Mwambi’s work from a former student. His research was supervised by Mwambi and Professor Bernard Omolo at the University of South Carolina, whom he met during his (Omolo) visit to UKZN to present at a SMSCS research seminar.

Mohammed’s research compared cancer classification methods based on microarray data. He analysed 10 cancer datasets using seven statistical methods that can be used to improve the early detection of cancer; therefore allowing early intervention and reduce mortality. He said such analyses could aid decision-making for intervention by clinicians.

Mohammed plans to continue his research to PhD level at UKZN. He plans to employ more advanced statistical and machine learning methods in his research on combining information from next generation sequencing data with gene expression data aimed at selecting the best genes to sensitively differentiate between cancer subtypes. This type of research falls under the University’s Big Data and Informatics Research Flagship.

He expressed his gratitude to God for seeing him through his studies, and thanked his supervisors for their presence, inspiration, patience, dedication, guidance and assistance. He also thanked his parents, brothers, sisters and family members for their love and support; Dr Murtada Khalafallah for his moral support; UKZN as well as the University of Gezira and the Sub-Saharan Africa Consortium for Advanced Biostatistics training (SSACAB) for financial assistance.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Supplied


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Uganda’s First Potato Breeder Tackles Devastating Crop Disease

Uganda’s First Potato Breeder Tackles Devastating Crop Disease
PhD graduate, Dr Prossy Namugga, is hooded by UKZN Registrar, Mr Simon Mokoena.

Dr Prossy Namugga has graduated with her PhD in Plant Breeding through the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) after working on the development of high-yielding and early maturing potato genotypes. 

Namugga, who hails from Uganda, aimed to contribute to the country’s food security by developing high yielding and early maturing potato (Solanum tuberosum L.) genotypes with resistance to Phytophthora infestans, the agent that causes the devastating Late Blight disease in Uganda. Late Blight is one of the most infamous diseases in agriculture, causing the Irish potato famine. 

The potato crop - which is grown by about 300 000 smallholder households - is important in Uganda. The country is the ninth largest producer of the vegetable crop in Africa, with an annual production of 774 600 tons harvested from about 106 000 hectares. It is both a staple food and a major source of household income; with many women and children involved in field production activities. 

Thanks to this cutting-edge research, Namugga, who works as a Senior Research Officer and the Crops Research and Development Programme Leader at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), is now the first potato breeder in the country. ‘This research gave me the opportunity to conduct hands-on breeding,’ said Namugga. ‘My practical breeding skills were enhanced, my professional network grew, and my research exposed to me to experienced professors and instructors who taught me a lot,’ she added. 

Her research was made possible by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), at whose conference in Mali Namugga first encountered the ACCI through its graduates. She was in the process of conducting her Master’s at Makerere University, funded by AGRA, when she began investigating pursuing her PhD degree with the ACCI. She said that the programme’s first-year of intensive coursework helped prepare her for the subsequent three years of practical research in Uganda. 

Her selected high-yielding, early-maturing and resistant potato genotype families are now being bulked for further evaluation and selection for release as varieties in Uganda. 

Namugga expressed her appreciation to her supervisors, Dr Julia Sibiya and Professor Rob Melis, for their technical support and continuous advice. She also thanked her in-country supervisor, Dr Alex Barekye. She said she is indebted to AGRA for the scholarship provided through the ACCI, without which she would not have been able to conduct her research. She also expressed gratitude to Professor Mark Laing of the ACCI and the entire ACCI staff for their facilitation and logistical support. She also credited fellow students and friends for making her research a success.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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PhD Tackles Natural Resource Conservation for Sustainable Water Supply

PhD Tackles Natural Resource Conservation for Sustainable Water Supply
Dr Surabhi Srivastava with her husband Professor Viranjay Srivastava and children Vivan and Rayan.

Dr Catherine Hughes graduated with her PhD in Hydrology after using validated hydrological modelling to demonstrate the possibility of deriving sustainable water supply from a catchment - for human and ecosystem use - if natural resource assets are conserved and rehabilitated. 

These natural resources include grasslands, wetlands and rivers, which deliver vital ecosystem services to society and are referred to as “ecological infrastructure”. 

Hughes investigated different forms of human-induced degradation affecting the delivery of ecosystem services. She focused on the uMngeni catchment, exploring the potential hydrological benefits of either conservation or rehabilitation of ecological infrastructure. Her thesis also touched on wider issues associated with globalisation and urbanisation in the catchment, and their impact on water delivery. She emphasised the need for stakeholders to work together towards optimal investment decision-making with regard to ecological infrastructure projects, saying these can protect people from water-related risk and help to ensure food and water security. 

‘It is increasingly necessary for the full value of water, and its contribution to human life, livelihoods and business, to be recognised by society. A sustainable supply of clean water is regulated by ecosystems, and healthy ecosystems facilitate the delivery of those benefits,’ said Hughes. 

Hughes is the daughter of Dr George Hughes, a University of Natal alumnus and world-renowned expert on sea turtles who was CEO of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Her father inspired her love of nature, teaching her a deep respect for the natural world and its people. She received her Master’s in Conservation Biology at the University of Cape Town, proceeding to work in conservation and research-related fieldwork and then as an environmental scientist, travelling to several African countries as a hydrological and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) consultant. She has been the a programme manager for the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s (EWT) Threatened Grassland Species Programme for two years, implementing conservation action for priority grassland species in South Africa through an ecosystems approach. She is about to return to consulting with an international company, specifically in mine water management. 

She expressed gratitude to Mr Myles Mander and her co-supervisor, Professor Roland Schulze, for sparking her interest in ecosystem services and hydrology. She thanked her supervisor, Professor Graham Jewitt, for his patience and guidance, as well as staff at the Centre for Water Resources Research for their moral and technical support. She gave special thanks to the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership research team; especially Gary de Winnaar, Duncan Hay, Sanele Ngubane, Sesethu Matta and Hlengiwe Ndlovu, and expressed her gratitude to her friends, mother, Lee, father, George and brother, Mitchell.

Video Link: https://www.beautifulnews.co.za/stories/catherine-hughes

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Excellent Reputation Attracts Master’s Graduate to UKZN

Excellent Reputation Attracts Master’s Graduate to UKZN
Mr Shaheen Thakur who graduated with his Master’s in Geography.

Mr Shaheen Thakur, a student from the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES), graduated with an MSc in Geography. 

His decision to study at UKZN was largely based on the academic excellence that the University is recognised for. ‘I learned about UKZN’s popularity as a high-quality institution that provides experienced, qualified and high level of academics, research and facilities for its students. Therefore UKZN was my first choice,’ said Thakur who completed both his undergraduate and Honours degrees in Geography and Environmental Management at UKZN, and most recently, an MSc degree in Geography. 

‘These degrees have influenced my career path towards becoming a researcher in the field of human geography, urban and rural development, as well as environmental planning in South Africa,’ he said. 

His research focused on the green economy and enviropreneurship as well as the role environmental non-government organisations (ENGOs) have in promoting sustainable household solid waste management and recycling practices within impoverished South African peri-urban communities. 

‘My research achieved this by critically assessing the influence and sustainability of an ENGO community-based recycling intervention on household solid waste management and recycling practices in three peri-urban communities in Pietermaritzburg,’ he said. 

His passion for human geography and understanding urban-rural development dynamics led to him being awarded a National Research Foundation (NRF) scholarship. 

His research has contributed in bringing to revealing that the integration of green economy approaches in ENGO led community-based interventions in South Africa and Africa requires further development and application in order to be successful. 

While studying for his MSc was challenging, Thakur still managed to overcome these obstacles and achieve academic success. ‘One has to possess passion, resilience and self-worth in order to obtain a Master’s degree. Always remember that you are doing this for yourself, so invest in yourself and break your limits in order to reap the benefits like a true academic soldier,’ said Thakur. 

He is currently pursuing his PhD in Geography and is involved with the eThekwini Municipality.

‘My future plans are to complete my PhD, apply for a post-doctoral position at UKZN and become a lecturer or research scientist in the field of Geography and Environmental management,’ said Thakur.

His parents are proud of their son’s achievement. 

Words: Zolile Duma 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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PhD Graduate Improving Ugandan Rice Production

PhD Graduate Improving Ugandan Rice Production
Dr Mary Teddy Asio who graduated with a PhD which aimed to improve rice production.

Dr Mary Teddy Asio has graduated with her PhD through the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI), having worked on a genetic study of upland rice varieties in Uganda to identify those that are resistant to Striga hermonthica. 

Asio’s research involved a genetic analysis of upland rice for grain yield and some agronomic traits under Striga hermonthica infestation in Uganda. It aimed to improve production through breeding for genotypes resistant to Striga hermonthica, a species of parasitic witch weed which damages and eventually kills cereal crops by attaching to the plant’s roots and commandeering its nutrient and water supply. Invasion of this parasite can cause losses of up to 100 percent. 

Rice is a major food and cash crop grown in many districts of Uganda. The Ugandan government has identified cultivation of this crop as a major intervention in the fight against food insecurity and poverty as it improves income for rural households. Cultivation increased after the introduction of New Rice for Africa (NERICA) varieties that are high yielding and resistant to many biotic and abiotic stresses, with upland rice preferred as it requires less irrigation which is expensive for subsistence farmers and poses fewer cultural, health and environmental concerns. 

Asio assessed the genetic diversity of upland rice, determined variability and genetic relationships of various attributes of grain yield of upland rice, determined gene action responsible for yield and other traits, tested the effect of genotype x environment (GE) interaction on yield of upland rice and identified genotypes with stable high grain yield under Striga infestation. She successfully identified a number of stable and Striga resistant genotypes recommended for further evaluation and release to farmers to improve productivity and food and income security. 

Asio works for the Ministry of East African Community Affairs in Uganda where she coordinates agriculture and food security affairs to ensure that Ugandan farmers benefit from the East African integration pillars. 

Dr Richard Edema, a lecturer at her alma mater, Makerere University, encouraged her to pursue her PhD at a world-class institution to further her skills in her sector, thus recommending the ACCI which is funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Asio was accepted into the ACCI PhD programme, but attaining this achievement was not without its challenges. 

A year into her research, her husband passed away, leaving her a single parent solely responsible for supporting her family while also working toward her PhD. 

Asio said the journey towards completing her PhD contributed significantly to developing her analytical skills in her scientific research. She thanked Edema and Dr Danson Jeddidah for linking her to the ACCI, the ACCI and UKZN for providing an excellent learning environment, her supervisors, Professor Pangirayi Tongoona, Professor John Derera and Dr Julia Sibiya for their guidance along every step of the way, as well as ACCI lecturers for their input and for enriching her plant breeding skills.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Supplied 


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PhD Graduate’s Doctoral Studies Dedicated to Late Son

PhD Graduate’s Doctoral Studies Dedicated to Late Son
UKZN academic, Dr Patricia Govender, graduates with her PhD in Chemistry, with the support of her family. Insert: Her late son, Mr Teshan Govender.

Although faced with personal challenges throughout her postgraduate studies, Dr Patricia Govender still managed to graduate with her PhD from the School of Chemistry and Physics. 

While pursuing her Baccalaureus Procurationis (BProc) degree with the intent of becoming a Patent Attorney, her son, Teshan Govender, was diagnosed with Duchene Muscular Dystrophy; a terminal genetic disorder. Despite her challenging circumstances, she pursued her Honours and a Master’s degrees in Analytical Chemistry whilst taking care of Teshan. In March 2012, she registered for her PhD in Medicinal Chemistry. Two months into her PhD studies, Teshan passed away on Mother’s Day (13 May 2012). 

A devastated Govender deregistered from her studies. However, after much heartache and struggle with the loss of her son, she courageously re-registered for her PhD in 2015; compelled to conduct research that would contribute to the development of drugs to treat bacterial infection, cancer, malaria and ultimately save lives.

Govender’s PhD study involved the synthesis and biological activity of quinoline derivatives. Hybrid molecules were engineered by combining two bioactive pharmacophores through reactive sites on the quinoline scaffold. Their structures were determined using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy. The compounds showed interesting antibacterial activity and could be the basis for lead antibiotics. ‘The PhD project afforded me the opportunity to develop different expertise and explore a new research interest. The development of new antibacterials locally will make these drugs cost effective and affordable for the majority of South Africans and possibly avoid importing more expensive drugs from abroad. If developed into effective antibiotics, these drugs will also help boost South Africa’s economy by possibly developing small drug manufacturing plants in South Africa, creating jobs and helping alleviate poverty,’ said Govender. 

Currently lecturing in the School of Chemistry and Physics, Govender is grateful to her supervisor Professor Neil Koorbanally for his expertise and guidance during her PhD studies. She acknowledged Chemistry Discipline staff for their constant support during Teshan’s illness and subsequent passing on. She thanked her parents, siblings, husband, son Sherwyn Chester as well as extended family for the love and support shown to her throughout her studies, emotional struggles as a result of her son’s passing as well as successes. 

‘Patricia was an extremely focused and dedicated student who did extremely well amidst some very trying times in her personal life and juggling both a teaching load and PhD project,’ said Govender’s supervisor, Professor Neil Koorbanally who is the Academic Leader in the School of Chemistry and Physics. ‘Her PhD is a reward for all the hard work she invested in the laboratory. I am proud of her accomplishments,’ he added. 

Words: Leena Rajpal 

Photographs: Rajesh Jantilal and Supplied 


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Master’s Graduate Helping Meet Soybean Demand Through Breeding

Master’s Graduate Helping Meet Soybean Demand Through Breeding
Ms Mwila Chibanda graduates with her Master’s in Plant Breeding.

Ms Mwila Chibanda graduated with her Master’s through the Improved Master’s in Cultivar Development in Africa (IMCDA) programme at UKZN, which is funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

The programme combines research with internships and sees students spending between 6 and 12 months as interns at a seed company, national breeding programme or Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centre where they carry out their research projects. This experience aids graduates in finding employment or PhD funding.

Chibanda, who hails from Zambia, conducted her research at SeedCo Limited where she is now a Research Associate. In the context of increasing demand for meat protein and high-protein animal feed, she explored the soybean crop, an important source of protein in animal feed manufacture. Soybean’s nitrogen-fixing capabilities are also valuable in African rotational farming systems. The market for soybean in Zambia, a top soybean producer, is rapidly increasing. However, the increase in tonnage arises from increasing hectarage rather than yield, with Zambian yield being lower than average.

Chibanda wanted to explore how to improve yield to increase profitability for farmers. She investigated cultivar lines in Zambia that had not been measured for genetic gains and assessed how much more productive and stable they are compared to earlier lines. She assessed genotype x environmental (GxE) interactions for grain yield, identified stable genotypes across 16 sites in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe, determined the genetic gains achieved in breeding for grain yield over 12 years, and determined the secondary traits that directly or indirectly affect yield in soybean cultivars. She found that GxE interaction was highly significant in terms of grain yield in the sites under study, and demonstrated that no significant genetic gains were achieved in breeding for high yield and stability of these lines in the soybean-breeding programme between 1996 and 2007. This led to a change of breeding strategy for the programme under evaluation, changing focus from disease tolerance to genetic yield gains.

Chibanda said her internship at SeedCo expanded her appreciation of the breeding process leading to the development of a variety, thanks to the mentorship from Mr Jacob Tichagwa and Dr Hapson Mushoriwa.

She thanked AGRA for funding her research, Dr Julia Sibiya, Professor John Derera and staff at UKZN for their mentorship and encouragement, as well as SeedCo, especially Mushoriwa, Tchagwa and Mr Herbert Masole, for the mentorship and resources provided. She credited their teams in Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe for enabling her to monitor trials and collect data. She also thanked her parents for caring for her son during her Master’s studies.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal



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Perseverance Key to Success

Perseverance Key to Success
Mr Wesley Evans who graduated with a Master’s in Ecological Sciences.

Mr Wesley Evans was ecstatic to graduate with his Master’s degree. Growing up, he always dreamt of one day becoming a doctor and he is now one step closer to living his dream after graduating with his Master’s in Ecological Sciences. 

His Master’s study aimed to provide better management of rivers leading to cleaner drinking water and more fish for eating. It was a part of the River Eco-status Monitoring Programme (REMP) which is a Department of Water and Sanitation initiative that aims to assess the state of the rivers in order to better manage them. In his research, he looked at freshwater fish population health in 32 KwaZulu-Natal rivers, with a focus on the wellbeing of the KZN yellow fish. Due to the nature of his research, Evans was forced to spend more time in the field than in the office to focus on his write-up during his second year of study. This led him to extend his Master’s degree by one year. During his time, he was teaching English in Vietnam. 

Evans is currently employed as a technician at UKZN where he assists with conducting research on various projects. 

Academic success however did not come easy for the Pietermaritzburg Ecologist who began his academic journey by studying towards a Bachelor of Science in Genetics degree. During his third year, he would realise that the real-world applications of genetics were not his passion. 

‘You should do more,’ he said whilst speaking on what keeps him motivated. 

Words: Ntokozo Dladla 

Photograph: Supplied


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Six JAAS UKZN Co-Supervised Students Graduate

Six JAAS UKZN Co-Supervised Students Graduate
JAAS collegues celebrate graduations of PhD students, Dr Shu Yao (top left) and Dr Yingliang Yu (bottom right).

Six Chinese students graduated with their PhDs from UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES).

Their studies fell under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between UKZN and the Jiangsu Academy of Agricultural Sciences (JAAS) in China. Following several visits and the signing of a five-year MoU in 2014, academics at UKZN and JAAS began the supervision of nine PhD students from China in disciplines such as microbiology, biochemistry and crop science. The MoU encourages co-operation between staff and students for study and research purposes that include staff and graduate exchanges, collaborative research and exchange of information. A Steering Committee meets annually to evaluate the progress of the agreement. Plans are also in place for the implementation of a joint postdoctoral programme.

Professor Jun Huang, JAAS Vice-President, attended the ceremony together with eight colleagues.

‘We are pleased that this research partnership has been mutually beneficial to both institutions over the years, resulting in joint research publications and supervision of students,’ said Professor Ademola Olaniran, Dean and Head of the School of Life Sciences. ‘I commend the students for their dedication, diligence and commitment that has resulted in the production of high quality work worthy of PhD degrees,’ said Olaniran.

Supervised by Dr Paul Mokoena and Olaniran at UKZN, Fang Ji’s study concerned Fusarium toxin contamination of cereal grains in Jiangsu Province, China. Fungal contamination of grain crops poses a serious threat to food security, and warm, humid climatic regions in South Africa and China provide conditions suitable for plant epidemics such as Fusarium head blight and other fungal grain plant diseases. Consumption of mycotoxin-contaminated food and feed threatens human and animal health, even being linked to oesophageal cancer.

Yao Shu’s study, which was supervised by Professor Bala Pillay at UKZN, investigated the breeding of japonica super rice varieties in Jiangsu Province, China. This forms part of a large breeding programme undertaken by the Nanjing Branch of the Chinese National Center for Rice Improvement at JAAS. The aim of the breeding programme is to obtain high yields with concomitant improvement in quality and taste. One aim behind the collaboration is to promote rice production in South Africa, reducing the country’s reliance on imports of two million tons each year. Trials investigating how to irrigate the crop have produced promising results.

Wu Yuziconducted her research on Mycoplasmal pneumonia of swine (MPS) caused by Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae. This chronic and contagious respiratory disease with high infectivity and morbidity is widespread in intensive pig farms worldwide, restricts the development of livestock breeding and results in huge economic losses. Without early detection and treatment of outbreaks, large herds are culled to prevent disease transmission. Dr Hafizah Chenia at UKZN and Professor Hongbo Shao at JAAS supervised this research.

Wang Guangfei, supervised by Dr Roshini Govinden and Dr Hafizah Chenia at UKZN, investigated the influence of straw biochar with different properties for controlling Phytophthora blight of pepper. This involved investigating its soil biochemical properties and disease control effect, its effect on microbial populations, microbial community structure, proportion of antagonists and average antagonistic ability of microorganisms, as well as enriched biocontrol microorganisms. The study provided a framework and theoretical basis for biochar selection and application for the control of Phytophthora blight of pepper, which has a huge impact in China, the world's largest producer of pepper. Pepper is a growing market in South Africa.

Hongduo Bao’s study, supervised by Professor Stefan Schmidt and Olaniran, concerned bacteriophages (viruses that use bacterial cells to replicate). She investigated whether bacteriophages could be employed like ‘probiotics to improve the health of animals to contribute to agriculture. Her PhD highlighted that bacteriophages have potential as ‘probiotics’ and could reduce antibiotic use in agriculture.

Yingliang Yu’s research was supervised by Dr Alfred Odindo and Professor Bala Pillay at UKZN, and investigated whether biochar made from wheat-straw residue can be used as an amendment to improve the soil’s capacity to retain nitrogen (N) and thus reduce N losses through leaching. This is due to intensive vegetable production systems in developed regions in China relying heavily on external fertiliser application, with excessive N application compared to conventional crops, resulting in considerable environmental degradation and pollution. In South Africa municipalities face significant challenges in providing sanitation facilities to growing urban populations, also involving environmental degradation and pollution. Biochar, which can be produced from human waste, is attracting attention due to its capacity to increase crop yields by ameliorating the soil environment and regulating nutrient processes.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photographs: Rajesh Jantilal


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Breaking Down Bacteria with Master’s Graduate

Breaking Down Bacteria with Master’s Graduate
Ms Carrie Jacobs graduates with her Master’s with her family by her side.

Ms Carrie Jacobs began her academic career in the Medical Sciences where she obtained her undergraduate degree in Anatomy. 

‘I have always been interested in human diseases, and so Anatomy gave me a feel for how the human body is structured and how it works,’ she said. 

She then joined the School of Life Sciences to pursue her Honours degree in Microbiology. The human pathogenic bacterium: Pseudomonas Aeruginosa, was the focus of her work and later shaped her Master’s research. 

Bacteria causes damage to the body because they “talk” to each other using chemical signals, and therefore, can work together. Jacobs looked at how to stop Pseudomonas Aeruginosa by making it “think” that it was alone and could not do any damage. ‘We did this by taking other bacteria from sea sponges and using all the chemicals that they make to see if any of them would have this effect on Pseudomonas. Our results were very promising,’ said Jacobs. 

She believes that her research plays an important role in how antibiotics are developed in the future. ‘Antibiotics are becoming less and less effective and any research on alternative forms of treatment will prove very important in the future,’ she added. 

Jacobs admits that her Master’s journey has been difficult but fulfilling. ‘A Master’s is a taxing process. It really requires your full dedication if you want to put out quality research. Having said that, it was truly rewarding and I grew a lot as a person,’ she said. 

Academic success is not a new phenomenon to Jacobs. She achieved both her undergraduate and Honours degrees summa cum laude. After achieving an 84% mark for her Master’s, she has ended of her studies on a high note. She attributes all of her success to God who is a constant source of strength for her. She also gives thanks to her supervisors and lecturers, Dr Hafizah Chenia, Professor Ademola Olaniran and Dr Roshini Govinden for their mentorship and support. She also acknowledges the National Research Foundation (NRF) and UKZN for providing funding opportunities for her. ‘I was entirely self-funded and so financial support in the form of scholarships really got me through my degrees,’ she said. 

Jacobs is currently in doing an internship at the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA). Looking to the future, she is considering doing a PhD or a pursuing career in programme management.

Words: Sashlin Girraj
Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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PhD Sets Graduate on Course to Solving Water Pollution Problems

PhD Sets Graduate on Course to Solving Water Pollution Problems
Dr Kayode Olowe graduates with his PhD in Civil Engineering.

Dr Kayode Olowe graduated with a PhD in Civil Engineering for his research in solute transport, water distribution system analysis and mathematical water quality modelling and monitoring. 

Having seen the water pollution problems facing Africa as a whole, Olowe’s research delved into the development and application of a mathematical model for predicting the concentration of nutrients such as Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate in surface water.

Based on this study, Olowe was able to develop a new water quality model that is useful in predicting the concentration of nutrients in rivers with a particular focus on the uMgeni River. ‘The developed model will be useful for government agencies in charge of river quality monitoring to have a better understanding of the level of nutrient pollution in the river. The model outputs will provide information for decision making and take active measures against nutrient pollution said Olowe. 

He holds a Bachelor Engineering and Master’s in Civil Engineering from the universities of Ado-Ekiti and Ibadan in Nigeria. He conducted his PhD studies at UKZN because of the institution’s reputation for academic excellence and outstanding research output.His PhD sets him on course to achieving his future goals of being an independent scientist and acquiring new techniques to enhance his developed model to solve water pollution problems in South Africa and his home country of Nigeria. 

‘I want to become an expert in my chosen area and be able to impart knowledge to different people. Furthermore, I want to be able to work with intellectual people who share a common interest with me,’ he said. 

He attributes his success to his supervisor, Dr Muthukrishna Vellaisamy Kumarasamy, for his immense wealth of experience and constructive feedback throughout his research work, the Water Research Commission (WRC), the JW Nelson Endowment Fund for providing funding support for his studies as well as his parents. 

‘Never give up on your dream,’ he advised students, ‘Nothing is impossible. Believe in yourself and work hard’. 

Words: Christian Ishimwe 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Graduate Achieves PhD in Record Time with Acclaimed Results

Graduate Achieves PhD in Record Time with Acclaimed Results
Dr Oluwabamise Adeleye graduates with his PhD in Physics.

Dr Oluwabamise Adeleye graduated with a PhD in Physics after investigating radiation dose and cancer risk estimates from tuberculosis (TB) infections imaging. 

Adeleye completed his PhD in three years, and two international examiners passed his work with no corrections. He has published two papers from his study, with additional papers in progress. He presented on this work at the 17th Asia-Oceania Congress of Medical Physics in India in 2017. 

His research was concerned with exploring the correlations between cancer risk and radiation exposure in patients with tuberculosis (TB) since patients infected with the disease are assessed using Computed Tomography (CT) and the integrated Positron Emission Tomography (PET)/CT imaging techniques are generally considered as high-dose modalities. Using different scanners, Adeleye investigated this correlation and recommended that practitioners explore how to reduce exposure through optimised scanner protocols based on individual scanners used. 

Adeleye was interested in this line of research after realising the gap in published information about adherence to technical recommendations or guidelines in optimising scanning protocols for individual patients based on individual scanners. In an environment with increasing demand for these diagnostic regimens due to the prevalence of HIV infection and related opportunistic diseases such as TB, Adeleye recognised the need for further research that advocates for careful selection of parameters in imaging protocols to ensure optimised dose prescription and minimum radiation exposure. 

Adeleye completed his undergraduate degree in Applied Physics at Ekiti State University, Nigeria, and his Master’s degree in Radiation and Health Physics at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He chose to pursue his PhD at UKZN thanks to the University’s reputation for being a friendly environment conducive to producing excellent research. 

His hunger for knowledge is, he says, still not satisfied. He plans to continue with postdoctoral research and then pursue a career in academia or biomedical physics. He is also passionate about working to help other students achieve their potential. 

He said his supervisor, Professor Naven Chetty, deserved special thanks for his assistance and mentorship. He also thanked his parents for their continued encouragement, support and prayers. 

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal 


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Master’s Graduate Offers Food for Thought Through Research

Master’s Graduate Offers Food for Thought Through Research
Ms Joan Akob graduated with her MSc in Dietetics.

With two graduations in the bag, Cameroonian beauty queen, Ms Joan Akob, has no plans of slowing down.

 With a Master’s degree in Dietetics now added to her long enviable list of accolades, she has high aspirations; now firmly setting her sights set on pursuing a PhD. 

She is currently doing her first-year community service, after which she plans to open her own dietetics practice either as a clinical or corporate dietician. Once she has secured practical work experience, a PhD it is!

‘I intend to give back to my nation, Africa and if possible, and the wider world through the knowledge I have gained,’ she said. Akob’s Master’s study therefore focused on the contribution of caregiver-related factors to the underlying causes of malnutrition in selected children’s homes in Pietermaritzburg and Hillcrest, KwaZulu-Natal. The results revealed an absence of important food groups high in micronutrients in the selected children’s diets, including vitamin A rich fruits, organ meats and fish.

The study also revealed that proliferation in children’s homes is putting a strain on their ability to sufficiently provide for all the basic needs of the children under their care, hence support from the government is necessary. She believes that registered children’s homes should be eligible for resources such as financial support, social grants, subsidised food costs and subsidised school fees and that government should also increase efforts in building more children’s homes to accommodate the increasing number of orphaned and vulnerable children in South Africa. 

Akob’s passion for children, specifically orphan-care, has seen her spending many years volunteering in various children’s homes. Her desire to see these children impacted positively is what motivated her to pursue her master’s research in dietetics.

When asked why she chose UKZN as the university to pursue her studies, here’s what Joan had to say, ‘UKZN is amongst the top research universities in Africa and as a Cameroonian national, it was crucial that I chose to study in an institution that welcomed a wide range of international students. The Human Nutrition and Dietetics Department also has all the resources required to kick off and excel in a career in dietetics,’ she said. 

She thanked her supervisors, Dr Suna Kassier and Professor Frederick Veldaman, for challenging her to always do her best as well as their unwavering support.

Words: Swastika Maney 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Ensuring Earth’s Sustainability Through Research

Ensuring Earth’s Sustainability Through Research
Mr Abdulaziz Yakubu graduates with his Master’s in Physics.

Mr Abdul Aziz Yakubu has always been aware of the effects of climate change and its effects on the earth and its inhabitants. 

Motivated by the fact that climate change poses a serious threat to the survival of humanity, Yakubu decided to base his Physics Master’s research on the activities of climate change, specifically in relation to cloud formation and rainfall due to their importance in the sustainability of human. His study was focused on the effect of atmospheric pollution in the event of low rainfall and water shortages in South Africa. 

‘The fact that my research afforded me a chance to search for answers to some of the challenges faced by humankind is what motivated me to pursue this topic,’ he said.

He possesses a BSc Honours (Physics) and National Diploma (ND) in Electrical/Electronic Engineering. He worked in academia and industry for several years before deciding to pursue a Master’s degree which was primarily fuelled by his passion for terrestrial and space weather. 

When asked why he chose to pursue his Master’s degree at UKZN, he said, ‘I chose UKZN because of its reputation within the field of research globally. UKZN also offered me the opportunity to study in an institution full of cultural and ethnic diversity and inculcated within me a mind-set of feeling at home while enjoying the conducive and stable learning environment with the hope of being inspired to greatness’. 

Yakubu is happy that his research for his Master’s degree is socially responsible and will ultimately make an impact in society since it will serve as an important tool for government, policy makers, institutions and other stakeholders in addressing some of the most important challenges faced by humanity such as extreme weather condition, food and water scarcity, poor health conditions as well as environmental degradation. 

He is presently preparing for his PhD studies and is gearing up towards becoming a renowned atmospheric and space weather scientist in the near future. Through his research, he also hopes to make contributions to policies that will keep Earth habitable.

Words: Swastika Maney 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Passion for Solving Scientific Puzzles Earns Mdluli a Master’s Degree

Passion for Solving Scientific Puzzles Earns Mdluli a Master’s Degree
Ms Sibusiswangaye Mdluli graduates with her Master’s in Plant Breeding.

‘Do what you have to do in order to do what you want to do’. 

These are the words that motivate Ms Sibusiswangaye Mdluli who graduated with a Master’s degree in Plant breeding. 

‘I chose UKZN because it is one of the best tertiary institutions in the country, particularly in terms of quality and the quantity of research output. When I read about the African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI), I knew this was the place for me to find my feet within the vast field of agriculture whilst still being able to make a difference,’ she said. 

Mdluli sees her graduation as a reminder that anything is possible as long you keep the right company. She is grateful to her supervisor, Professor Hussein Shimelis, the Plant Breeding discipline as well as her family and friends. ‘It (Master’s degree) is an achievement for all these people,’ she said. 

Her research focused on screening for drought tolerant bread wheat genotypes using morpho-physiological traits, drought tolerance indices as well as simple sequence repeat molecular marker technology. Since water scarcity is a harsh reality, her research could not only benefit farmers; industries such as millers also stand to profit. 

‘I enjoy making sense of scientific puzzles,’ she said whole speaking about her decision to study plant breeding. ‘Plant breeding is one big puzzle. Some puzzle pieces are in plant biochemistry, others in plant physiology, plant genetics and the like. Within this field, one has more creative liberty,’ she said. 

Mdluli is currently working as a research assistant for a PhD student and her plans are to begin her own PhD journey in 2019. 

She looks forward to her future and hopes to serve as an inspiration to young women by showing them that nothing is impossible, no matter your background. 

Words: Ntokozo Dladla 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Dr Kannigadu Aims to Smash Patriarchy Through Education

Dr Kannigadu Aims to Smash Patriarchy Through Education
Dr Christina Kannigadu achieved her PhD in Chemistry.

Having completed her Master’s degree in Chemistry at UKZN in 2015, Dr Christina Kannigadu felt like there was something missing; an inclination which would lead her to applying for and studying towards her PhD. 

‘My area of expertise was in medicinal chemistry. After my Master’s degree, I felt like I there was something missing. I wanted to create a novel study and test myself to produce an even better body of research. This inspired me to register for my PhD so I could then gain a more extensive knowledge on drug design and pharmacology,’ said Kannigadu. 

Ms Kannigadu’s research focused on synthesising a bioactive molecule referred to as Curcumin which is a principle component in turmeric; a widely used culinary spice. She made three classes of this compound that then underwent antibacterial, anticancer and antimalarial testing. 

Growing up in Phoenix, north of Durban, which is place gradually overcoming its many psychosocial issues, Kannigadu felt she was being governed by systems of patriarchy that stereotype women. Furthermore, with science still extremely a male-dominated field, Ms Kannigadu wanted to pursue her PhD so as to rise above the unheard voices of women who live in the shadows of oppression. 

‘Doing a PhD meant that I could be guided into the light so I could be empowered enough to create my own path and destiny for myself and emerging leaders,’ she said. 

Her research has shed light on the importance drug design plays in combating various diseases which have no cures. ‘Medicinal chemistry is a field of research that creates technologies and medicines that combats these deadly diseases. This gives hope to many people who suffer with chronic illnesses,’ said Kannigadu. 

She recalls her own negative mindset as her biggest obstacle in her academic journey, but adds that this was always nullified by her extremely supportive supervisor, Prof Neill Koorbanally, as well as her research group. ‘I have watched Christina grow from an undergraduate student to a remarkable, accomplished chemist and scientist over the last few years. She has worked extremely hard over the years to obtain her PhD. I am sure she will make an impact in Organic Chemistry in the near future,’ said Koorbanally. 

Having been raised by a single mother of four in an environment where the capabilities of women are limited to bearing children and taking care of their households, Kannigadu recalls how her mother always pushed for her to further her studies despite her (mother’s) economic struggles. 

‘I will always take pride in the fact that I am the first educated woman in my family as well as in knowing that closeminded gender stereotypes will never besmirch and hinder my succeeding generations,’ said Kannigadu. 

She is currently pursuing a postdoctorate in nano-medicinal chemistry at UKZN. She hopes to work for a leading pharmaceutical company and in the coming years, impart her wisdom onto younger generations.

Words: Zolile Duma 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Wamisho: First NASSP Master’s Graduate

Wamisho: First NASSP Master’s Graduate
Mr Adila Wamisho obtained his Master’s in Physics.

Since he was a young boy growing up in the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Mr Adila Wamisho has always been passionate about Maths and Physics. 

This interest would later lead him towards his undergraduate studies at Dilla University in Ethiopia where he would hone his passion for Physics. 

‘After working for a year as a high school Physics and Maths teacher, I enrolled at Addis Ababa University graduate studies to study Physics at master level. Then, I worked for a few years as a lecturer for Mizan-Tepi University in Ethiopia,’ he said. 

While working as a lecturer at Mizan-Tepi University, Wamisho would be led to apply for studies in Space Physics at UKZN through National Astrophysics and Space Science (NASSP). ‘I joined UKZN as I knew it would help develop me in the area of Space Physics research. Through taking this opportunity, I became the first NASSP UKZN Master’s student,’ said Wamisho. 

His research focused on the effect of geometric storms. Space weather is concerned with the condition of the sun which affects near-Earth environment and space technological equipment. The sun emits electromagnetic waves and magnetises electrically charged particles continuously. Occasionally, there are large eruptions in the sun which intensify what it usually emits. When the emission is large, it causes a disturbance called a geomagnetic storm. That means the Earth’s magnetic field (which is the shield of harmful waves and particles coming from the sun) will be disturbed and cannot protect near-earth space well. 

‘My study was on the effect of these disturbances in the Ionosphere. I used satellites data such as OMNIWeb, POES and GOES and South African ionosonde as well as magnetometer data to see how the Ionosphere over the South African region was affected in the time of intense geomagnetic storms,’ said Wamisho, who feels that Space Physics is an integral part of the development and transformation of Africa as a whole. ‘Space science in general has plenty of implications in society because our day-to day-life is more dependent on space technology. For instance, the condition in the sun dictates how well our telecommunication and power grids are,’ he said. 

Wamisho plans to pursue his PhD at UKZN in partnership with HartRAO where he will study the effects of geomagnetic storms on satellite drags using Satellite Laser Raging (SLR) further under the supervision of Professor S Venkataraman (UKZN) and Dr R Botha (HartRAO).

Words: Zolile Duma 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Cutting Edge Atmospheric Research Earns Ncipha a PhD

Cutting Edge Atmospheric Research Earns Ncipha a PhD
PhD graduate, Dr Gerald Xolile Ncipha with his family.

Dr Gerald Xolile Ncipha from the School of Chemistry and Physics (SCP), graduated with his PhD in Chemistry at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. 

Ncipha grew up at Daveyton, a township in Ekurhuleni Municipality in Johannesburg. He studied his undergraduate degree BSc in Chemistry at Wits University before pursuing his Honours in Meteorology at the University of Pretoria, thereafter, his Master’s in Air Pollution Meteorology at Wits University. 

‘I came to UKZN because I wanted my PhD study to be supervised by Professor Venkataraman Sivakumar as he is one of the leading experts in remote sensing in South Africa. I also came to UKZN as the university is one of the leading universities in the country,’ said Ncipha. 

Having been awarded a bursary from the South African Weather Services (SAWS) for his BSc Honours degree studies in Atmospheric Sciences, Ncipha underwent a study tour to learn about the scientific activities at SAWS. Here, Ncipha was reassured of his career and academic path. 

‘The tour to the SAWS office in the Free State province impressed me. I decided, at that moment, that this is what I want to do. As I worked with aircrafts doing aerial surveys of air pollution in a large spatial scale. I learned that satellites also do these measurements at a global scale. I decided to get some training in analysing satellite data through a PhD study which capacitated me with skills to do large spatial scale studies,’ he said. 

Ncipha’s research involved establishing a 3-dimensional distribution of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) over South Africa and Southwest Indian Ocean islands and to determine the concentration changes of this gas at the surface of the study regions over the study period. 

‘My research also demonstrated the role of meteorology and long-range air transport on the atmospheric distribution of CO2 at the study regions,’ said Ncipha. Having realised the lack of knowledge that exists in South Africa about its atmospheric loading as well as the limited amount of atmospheric stations in the country with long-term atmospheric records of CO2, Ncipha knew that this was an important topic to research. 

‘It has long been accepted that climate change has devastating consequences to society. Carbon dioxide is one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for the warming climate change. In order to mitigate or reverse climate change, there is a need to reduce CO2 emissions and its presence in the atmosphere space.The interventions by governments to achieve this need to be monitored by measuring CO2 in the atmosphere. My study has provided, for the first time, information on atmospheric CO2 over South Africa,’ he said. 

Through his work, Ncipha was accepted in the global initiative of Group of Earth Observations (GEO) on Carbon and Greenhouse Gases which aims to co-ordinate international activities on carbon monitoring and analysis. 

‘My future plan is to extend my analysis using recent satellite data to determine CO2 distribution over the Southern African region and estimate CO2 emissions using satellite data and inverse modeling,’ said Ncipha.

Words: Zolile Duma 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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PhD in Chemical Engineering for Dr Atsile Ocwelwang

PhD in Chemical Engineering for Dr Atsile Ocwelwang
Chemical Engineering PhD graduate, Dr Atsile Ocwelwang.

Using education as a key to transforming the circumstances of her life is what motivated PhD graduate in Chemical Engineering Dr Atsile Ocwelwang to work hard. 

For her PhD thesis, Ocwelwang investigated the effect of laser and ultrasound radiation pre-treatment techniques on the high crystalline structure cellulose in dissolving wood pulp and the effect of the pre-treatment on the reactivity of this biopolymer. She said dissolving wood pulp (DWP) produced from wood in chemical processing, comprises of more than 90% pure cellulose. This type of pulp is mainly utilised for the production of various cellulose derivatives such as viscose rayon (used in the clothing industry), cellophane and other domestic products. Production of these valuable products is achieved by dissolution of DWP in chemical solvents such as sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and toxic carbon disulphide (CS2). 

She said the main goal of her study was to use physical techniques as a pre-treatment in order to reduce the number of toxic chemicals used to dissolve the recalcitrant cellulose polymer. 

She joined UKZN - and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Biorefinery Industry Development Facility (BIDF) under the supervision of Professor Bruce Sithole - as the University has a strong research culture and is ranked one of the best in the country. 

Ocwelwang is passionate about environmental remediation and green chemistry projects seeking to develop techniques that can reduce the number of toxic chemicals used in various processing methods; hence her belief that her thesis has a positive impact on society. 

Currently working as a Research Associate at the National Nuclear Regulator’s Centre for Nuclear Safety and Security (NNR - CNSS), she plans to couple her scientific competence and passion for research to develop and succeed in her current and future positions. 

‘Moreover, I intend to go back to schools in my community to motivate and encourage the youth to pursue education especially in the field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) as a tool to changing their lives for the better,’ she said. 

She is grateful to the DST, NRF and the University for funding her PhD studies. 

Words: Manqoba Hadebe 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal 


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Solving Traffic Congestion Problems Caused by Rainfall

Solving Traffic Congestion Problems Caused by Rainfall
PhD graduate, Dr Stephen Olukayode Ibijola, is capped by Professor Bala Pillay.

Dr Stephen Olukayode Ibijola is ecstatic to graduate from UKZN with a PhD that looked into congestion problems on highway intersections as well as drivers’ behaviour during rainfall. 

Traffic circles or roundabouts are priority intersections in South Africa with a unique yield rule. The fixed features and yield rule do not change relative to rainfall. However, vehicular flow and driver behaviour are often affected by ambient conditions such as rainfall. 

Consequently, the study investigated the influence of rainfall on the quality of service delivery at multi-lane roundabouts and their implications on headway. ‘Based on the hypothesis that rainfall, irrespective of intensity, has adverse effects on the quality of service delivery and time headway at roundabouts, an impact study was carried out in Durban. Entry, circulating traffic flow and rainfall data were collected at four selected sites. Over two million traffic volume data was collected during the August to February rainy season. Empirical data was collected continuously for six weeks on each selected roundabout. Rain data was collected from surface rain gauge stations,’ said Ibijola. 

The study concluded that rainfall has an adverse effect on the Functional Quality Service (FQS), and that heavy rainfall has the most significant impact on FQS at roundabouts. 

Ibijola, who completed his BSc at the University of Benin, Nigeria, said he decided to do his PhD studies at UKZN because of its status of being rated among the best transportation engineering institution in Africa. 

After being employed at the Ekiti State Ministry of Works and Transportation's Civil Engineering Department, he was involved in highway, construction and supervision which prompted him to complete a Master’s degree in the field of Transport Engineering at the Federal University of Technology Akure. 

He plans to “stand out” in the field of Transportation Engineering by providing a long-lasting solution to highway and traffic problems in the near future.

Words: Manqoba Hadebe 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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El Niño Inspired MSc Graduate to Breed Maize for Drought Tolerance

El Niño Inspired MSc Graduate to Breed Maize for Drought Tolerance
Ms Lucia Ndlala graduates with her Master’s in Plant Breeding.

Ms Lucia Ndlala has graduated with her Master’s through the Improved Master’s in Cultivar Development in Africa (IMCDA) at UKZN which is funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

This programme is unique in its combination of research and internships, enabling students to spend between six and 12 months as interns at a seed company, national breeding programmes or Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centres where they carry out their research projects. This experience proves valuable in aiding graduates to find employment or PhD funding.

Ndlala conducted her research on maize, a staple crop throughout the world produced as a source of carbohydrates and nutrients. In a changing environment and climate, breeders are tackling a number of biotic, abiotic and socio-economic stresses that limit maize productivity and working to make it more adaptive.

‘Young breeders need to focus on new techniques and technology to improve seed quality and crop productivity to produce optimum yields for farmers and contribute to food security,’ said Ndlala.

Ndlala conducted her research at the Agricultural Research Council’s Grain Crops division (ARC-GC) where she is about to start her PhD research. Her research focused on combatting the effects of drought, low nitrogen levels and optimum yield. She evaluated 50 maize genotypes from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Zimbabwe to see which proved to be tolerant and stable under multiple stresses. She was inspired to pursue this research after South Africa suffered devastating effects of the El Niño drought in the 2015-2017 planting season which affected farmers’ ability to export produce. She was interested in discovering which traits were responsible for grain yield and how to improve them without compromising grain quality and productivity.

Meeting the objectives of her study, Ndlala identified genotypes recommended for further evaluation for coming planting seasons under multi-environment trials to assess their adaptability to climate change and other stress conditions. She hopes this research will positively influence crop production and adaptation through new technologies to lessen the blows of climate change-induced events.

She said the process of completing her Master’s taught her patience and forward planning. She also learned to prioritise working with integrity, teamwork and diligence to produce high quality, reputable work.

She said she valued the opportunity to meet and learn from other breeders. Her hard work has paid off in the form of funding towards her PhD studies at the same institute where she conducted her internship and research. She looks forward to being able to apply the same standards to her PhD work and use her experience to forge a career as an up-and-coming plant breeder.

Ndlala thanked AGRA, especially Dr Rufaro Madakadze, for making her studies possible, and thanked her supervisor, Dr Julia Sibiya for her close supervision, guidance, constructive criticism and support. She also thanked her mentor at ARC-GC, Dr Kingston Mashingaidze, for investing his time in teaching her about the maize breeding programme.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Graduate Learns PhD Journey Not One-Size-Fits-All

Graduate Learns PhD Journey Not One-Size-Fits-All
Dr Virginia Ebhota who graduated with her PhD in Electronic Engineering.

Studying towards a Doctorate is a demanding and challenging task and every doctoral student and graduate has a story to tell in this regard. 

As such, Dr Virginia Ebhota who graduated with a PhD in Electronic Engineering, has her fair share of stories to tell about her “overwhelming moments” whilst on her doctoral journey which resulted in her not moving at the pace she had initially anticipated.

‘It became like a marathon as it required my intense focus on different topics at the same time to ensure I really get to do something am very passionate about. In honesty, it is easy to feel so unmotivated at a different point through this journey,’ she said. 

Her research work dealt with utilised Artificial Neural Network in modelling a telecommunication system by developing a novel hybrid adaptive neural network predictor for an enhanced signal power prediction in microcellular outdoor environments. ‘The research drive is to find an efficient predictive model for adaptive prediction of large-scale signal power or equivalent signal propagation loss with minimal error in any microcellular radio propagation environment,’ said Ebhota.

She believes her research will increase the evolution of different mobile broadband (MBB) wireless systems such as HSPA, WiMAX and LTE as well as upsurge demand of multimedia services by mobile phone users everywhere and anytime. Her research findings were published in various Department of Higher Education and Training accredited journals and IEEE International Conference. 

Ebhota plans to continue exploring the field of artificial neural network in modelling different communication networks. She urged aspiring PhD students to always remember why they choose their path and always strive to keep moving forward. 

She considers her supervisor, Professor Viranjay M Srivastava, as her role model because of his genuine support, encouragement and always being able to bring out the best in his students. 

‘Dr Ebhota is a sincere researcher. I congratulate her on this achievement and a life’s milestone of successfully completing her Doctorate. I am now confident about her saying that she is an independent researcher and can do better for her career and research community,’ said Srivastava. 

Words: Manqoba Hadebe 

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Breeding Groundnuts for Prosperity in Malawi

Breeding Groundnuts for Prosperity in Malawi
Master’s in Plant Breeding graduate, Mr Masoud Sultan.

Mr Masoud Sultan graduated with his Master’s in Plant Breeding through the Improved Master’s in Cultivar Development in Africa (IMCDA) programme at UKZN which is funded by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

This programme - which combines research with internships - enabled students to spend between six and 12 months as interns at a seed company, national breeding programme or Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Centre where they carry out their research projects. This experience aids graduates in finding employment or PhD funding.

Sultan conducted his research during his internship at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Malawi. He now works in his home country of Tanzania as an Agricultural Research Officer at the Tanzania Agriculture Research Institute (TARI). He co-ordinates all groundnut research activities and collaborates with researchers on other crops.

His Master’s research was concerned with increasing groundnut (Arachis hypogaea L,) productivity through improving traits that will make it more resilient to drought stress. Groundnut is a key food and income crop for smallholder farmers in Malawi. It boosts dietary diversity and food security in a country dependent on a maize-heavy diet, providing a source of fats and proteins. It also fixes nitrogen to improve soil quality and its by-products are used for animal feed.

Despite its importance, groundnut is not highly productive due to factors such as drought and variable rainfall. Farmers’ yield is around 53 percent lower than realisable yields obtained at research stations. Sultan worked to close this gap by developing groundnut varieties enhanced with tolerance to drought stress to improve the livelihoods of farmers for whom irrigation is not feasible. He evaluated 25 genotypes from ICRISAT; identifying a number of drought tolerant groundnut genotypes which he hopes will contribute to the yield improvement in drought prone areas of Malawi and sub-Saharan Africa.

The process of attaining his Master’s has broadened his academic and research experience, access to modern breeding facilities and knowledge enabled improvement of his research and communication. Working with ICRISAT in Malawi strengthened his research network, experience and access to resources.

He believes this programme is contributing to training breeders who can contribute to solving problems of food security in Africa. ‘Breeding experience acquired from the programme is the cornerstone of my future breeding career,’ he said.

He thanked AGRA for the financial support of his research, and expressed gratitude to Dr Julia Sibiya and Dr Alfred Odindo for their supervision and guidance. He also thanked Dr Patrick Okori and Dr Samuel Njoroge at ICRISAT for advice and support. He credited Professor Hussein Shimelis and Dr Learnmore Mwadzingeni for their input, and Dr Cousin Musvosvi and Ms Kary Smithers for their support and assistance. He also thanked administrators in the IMCDA for their contributions, ICRISAT scientists and administrators for their advice and support as well as his family, siblings and friends for their continued encouragement and support.

He gave his best wishes to other members of the 2016 IMCDA cohort.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Supplied 


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