Science Access Student Turns into Maths Whiz at UKZN

Science Access Student Turns into Maths Whiz at UKZN
Mr Ntokozo Khuzwayo graduated summa cum laude with an Honours degree in Mathematics.

Mr Ntokozo Khuzwayo has reason to celebrate – not only did he graduate summa cum laude with an Honours degree in Mathematics, he was presented with the Hanno Rund Mathematics Award for the Best Honours Project in Pure Mathematics during the annual College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science awards ceremony.

Khuzwayo may at first appear reserved, but he blossoms when it comes to solving mathematical problems. ‘I attended Phindulimi High School where Higher Education seemed unreachable,’ said Khuzwayo. ‘But I had a dream of becoming a UKZN graduate because of its reputation for academic excellence. I realised my love for mathematics relatively late in life but since then, I have never looked back.’

Khuzwayo started at UKZN in the Science Access programme which equipped him with the necessary academic skills to tackle his undergraduate studies in Applied Mathematics, Mathematics and Statistics. Owing to this excellent foundation, an abundance of God-given talent, and determination and hard work, he emerged from his honours degree at the top of his class.

Khuzwayo has now registered for an MSc research degree in Pure Mathematics – the only South African student on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus to do so. 

Khuzwayo said his parents and grandmother were his pillars of strength during difficult times. When asked what advice he had for his fellow students, he said: ‘Live today as if there is no tomorrow.’ 

Words: Ntokozo Dladla 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi

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Mathematics Centred Degrees for Sudanese Couple

Mathematics Centred Degrees for Sudanese Couple
Husband and wife graduates, Dr Osman Noreldin (right) and Ms Amna Ibrahim.

Husband and wife duo, Osman Noreldin and Amna Ibrahim, have graduated with their PhD and Master’s degrees respectively in Applied Mathematics.

The husband and wife team are from Sudan where they met while completing their undergraduate degrees in Mathematics at Al-Neelain University. Noreldin went on to complete his Master’s in Applied Mathematics at the University of Khartoum, following which he was selected to undertake a fully funded, intensive one-year Master’s programme in Mathematical Science at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Ghana.

While at AIMS, Noreldin was informed about scholarship opportunities at universities in South Africa. After investigating UKZN and realising its status as a top research institution with staff who are leaders in mathematics, he elected to pursue his PhD studies there.

Noreldin enrolled at the University to undertake a PhD under the supervision of Professor Precious Sibanda on the topic of thermal convective instability in rotating fluids, and his wife followed him, registering for her Master’s degree in Mathematical Biology supervised by Dr Hermane Mambili-Mamboundou.

Noreldin and Ibrahim were faced with the task of balancing family life with their studies. They welcomed their first child, Muaid, while still involved in their research and with Noreldin still lecturing in an ad hoc position in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS). While balancing childcare responsibilities and research was a challenge, the couple said they embraced it with determination.

Being far from family has been a challenge, but Noreldin and Ibrahim said the local Sudanese community were like family to them, and thanked their own families for supporting them from afar. They also thanked their friends at UKZN for their support, and gave special mention to support staff in the SMSCS, including Ms Christel Barnard, Ms Bev Bonhomme and Ms Zibuyile Shangase for their assistance.

Sibanda introduced Noreldin to the concept of fluid dynamics, and opened his view to fields including mathematical modelling, in which he plans to continue with postdoctoral research with Sibanda. He will also expand knowledge in the field through the supervision of postgraduate students, while Ibrahim will continue to a PhD in Mathematical Biology.

The duo are passionate about their fields and plan to pursue careers in teaching and research.

‘I believe that mathematics is something Africa really needs,’ said Noreldin, ‘so we try to do our best and give whatever we learn from our research back to our people in Africa and the world in general.’

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Itumeleng Masa

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Tick-Borne Diseases Under the Mathematical Microscope

Tick-Borne Diseases Under the Mathematical Microscope
Dr Milliward Maliyoni received a PhD in Applied Mathematics.

Research, using stochastic epidemic models, into the role of wildlife in the distribution of tick-borne pathogens provided the foundation for
Dr Milliward Maliyoni’s PhD in Applied Mathematics which he received from UKZN.

Tick-borne diseases have serious health and economic consequences, causing several diseases to humans, livestock, as well as domestic and wild animals worldwide.

Using stochastic epidemic models, Maliyoni explored the dynamics of tick-transmitted pathogens and a tick-borne disease, human monocytic ehrlichiosis, with respect to disease extinction and persistence. He was interested in establishing the impact of randomness inherent in host-tick interactions on tick-borne disease (TBD) dynamics, especially since the dynamics of all biological systems are influenced by stochastic forces which are often not considered in mathematical models of disease transmission dynamics.

‘These interactions are extremely important because they inform the interventions that are crucial in mitigating the impact of TBDs, providing more information about the ticks’ complex biology,’ said Maliyoni.

‘TBD outbreaks are on the rise around the world, posing a threat to public health and economies. Because the transmission cycle of TBDs are complex, involving vertebrate hosts and ticks that interact in constantly changing settings, they are difficult diseases to control. This makes understanding the complex interaction between ticks and their hosts important for developing and implementing prevention and control measures.’

Maliyoni’s work provided important insights into TBD dynamics and highlighted specific areas requiring attention for effective control efforts. Contrary to his initial opinion that eliminating tick populations would be the solution to preventing TBD, he found that tick hosts play an important role in functioning as reservoirs for the disease. He recommended, therefore, that intervention strategies aimed at mitigating or eliminating TBDs focus on the infected host population, rather than the infected ticks.

He found that controlling or prohibiting host movement between patches, particularly during a disease outbreak, increases the probability of disease extinction and that prevention and control can be aided by screening of infected hosts in protected wildlife reserves and farms before they migrate to other areas.

These findings will be beneficial to livestock or deer farmers, wildlife or game park managers, veterinary officials and more in their planning or development of intervention strategies to prevent, control or eliminate TBDs.

Maliyoni recommended that the application of stochastic epidemic models in TBD studies be applied to further research in this area. He also indicated that the findings and models formulated in his study could provide useful information about stochastic models and TBDs to researchers in mathematical biology, epidemiology, public health, biology, conservation biology, veterinary science, ecology and more.

He plans to continue with his research, and is now a lecturer in Mathematics at the University of Malawi. Born and schooled in Malawi, he completed his undergraduate studies at the country’s Mzuzu University and his Master’s in Mathematical Modelling at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

The shift from his field of deterministic modelling to stochastic modelling for his PhD was a challenging one, but Maliyoni said the encouragement of his supervisor, Dr Faraimunashe Chirove, inspired him to work hard and achieve his PhD, while attendance at a workshop also helped him hone his skills.

During his studies, Maliyoni received second prize for his poster presentation at the Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium in 2016.

Maliyoni thanked God for guidance and protection during his studies, and also his supervisors Chirove, Professor Kesh Govinder and Professor Holly Gaff for their support. He acknowledged UKZN and the University of Malawi for financial assistance, and thanked his wife, Grace Maliyoni, for her invaluable support.

He also thanked his parents Halex and Annie Maliyoni, his siblings, in-laws, workmates and friends for their unconditional support.

Maliyoni encouraged current and prospective PhD hopefuls to work hard and apply focus, determination, endurance, independence and commitment to achieve their degrees.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi

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Woolly-Necked Storks – To Feed or Not to Feed, That is the Question!

Woolly-Necked Storks – To Feed or Not to Feed, That is the Question!
Dr Vuyisile Thabethe (right) with her supervisor, Professor Colleen Downs.

Dr Vuyisile Thabethe graduated with a PhD from the School of Life Sciences following her research on a familiar urban species in South Africa: the African woolly-necked stork (Ciconia microscelis).

Thabethe investigated aspects of their ecology in an anthropogenic changing landscape in KwaZulu-Natal, ie a landscape caused by the influence of human beings on nature.

The large wading bird belongs to the Ciconia family, is indigenous to Africa, and is typically highly sensitive to human disturbance. In the 1980s, it was considered one of the rarest storks in South Africa and listed on the Red Data List for Endangered Species.

The stork however made a comeback after the animals began colonising urban environments, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, and their numbers grew and they moved off the endangered red list all the way down to being a species of least concern in 2004. Their range has expanded dramatically, indicating that they are successfully breeding in urban areas.

Despite this remarkable discovery and persistence in an urbanised environment, Thabethe indicated that no ecological research had been conducted on this species in South Africa.

‘Given the ongoing anthropogenic land-use change and the scarcity of data on urban birds in Africa, it is of high importance to understand how this species persists and uses resources in urbanised environments,’ she said.

Thabethe investigated the foraging opportunities that could have contributed to the storks’ successful urban colonisation, and discovered that a significant number of residents deliberately feed the birds daily throughout the year, with many providing inappropriate food such as meat and bread. She also found that the birds displayed relatively tame behaviour, with some feeding from hand and others going inside homes to find food. Their utilisation and exploitation of anthropogenic food is a novel behaviour.

The species is popular with feeders and non-feeders alike in KwaZulu-Natal, and an appreciation of their presence motivated many urban dwellers to feed the animals in order to enjoy close sightings.

‘This hints at the value of garden feeding of wild animals in providing an accessible experience of wildlife to a human population increasingly disconnected from nature,’ said Thabethe.

She was particularly interested in how they had adapted to human proximity during their nesting season, and discovered that they had successfully established breeding sites in suburban areas rather than simply sourcing food from humans and returning to nest in natural or rural habitats. The introduction of exotic tree species into gardens of private residences also played a role in the establishment of breeding sites in suburban areas that were previously unsuitable for breeding.

Thabethe investigated what type of food the birds provided to their nestlings, and found that they nourished them with both natural, foraged food and anthropogenic food.

Her work demonstrated that these storks have the behavioural flexibility to take advantage of anthropogenic resources in suburban landscapes through habitat selection and tolerance of human proximity.

‘The recovery of the African woolly-necked storks in South Africa is a truly successful conservation story,’ said Thabethe. ‘Their expansion into human-dominated landscapes offers us a remarkable opportunity for studying a species in a post-recovery state as well as its potential to actually become overabundant in some areas.’

Thabethe hopes that her work will contribute to closing the gaps in the quest to obtain a global perspective on urban ecology.

The passionate biologist, who is from Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal, is continuing with postdoctoral research at UKZN. During her studies at the University, she received a scholarship enabling her to participate in the 10-day Darwin Scholarship Programme in the United Kingdom, and also attended several local and international conferences.

Thabethe thanked her supervisor, Professor Colleen Downs, for providing the opportunity to take on this project and her encouragement and guidance; her family and friends for their support and prayers; as well as those who assisted with her fieldwork and the study. She paid tribute to her husband, Mbuso Khambule, for his unwavering support and encouragement.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi 

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BMI of Ethiopian Children Subject of Statistical Study

BMI of Ethiopian Children Subject of Statistical Study
Mr Ashenafi Yirga presented statistical models to study the Body Mass Index of young Ethiopian children.

Maternal and child malnutrition are underlying causes for more than 3.5 million deaths annually worldwide, with some 35% of the global disease burden manifesting in children under five-years-old. In Ethiopia, it is a major public health problem with long and short-term consequences for the health status of the people and the country’s economy.

‘Such a heavy burden requires an understanding of the nutritional status of the people and associated factors, especially children under the age of five,’ said cum laude statistician, Mr Ashenafi Yirga.

Yirga’s MSc thesis used statistical models to study the Body Mass Index (BMI) of children under the age of five in his home country of Ethiopia and to estimate the effects of the risks related to their nutritional status. He also identified associated socio-economic and demographic factors.

‘The nutritional status and/or weight status of under-five children are a great concern,’ said Yirga. ‘This is because the early years of life are very important for future growth and development. The children are the future citizens of the country – we have a responsibility as parents to formulate and shape their present conditions in the best viable way.’

Yirga explained that BMI was the most frequently used measure for assessing children’s nutritional status and/or weight status. It is also related to health risks and could be a good indicator of the health status of individuals.

‘Identifying factors that affect the BMI of under-five children is very important for possible intervention activities,’ he said. ‘It can also assist policy makers to know and understand the areas that need considerable attention to enhance the planning and evaluation of health policies to prevent a child’s death and to determine a child’s health, diet and growth.’

Two papers have resulted from Yirga’s MSc findings, one published in the Open Public Health Journal and the other accepted for publication in the African Health Sciences Journal.

Ashenafi is focused, hardworking and has immense qualities as an independent researcher, say his supervisors Professor Henry Mwambi and Dr Sileshe Melesse. ‘His passion is for state-of-the-art statistical computing.’

Yirga, who did his undergraduate Statistics degree at Addis Ababa University, was attracted to UKZN for his honours degree because of its reputation as a leading research-led institution. He is currently registered for a PhD at the University and his future plans are to continue his career in the field of Biostatistics and/or Public health.

He paid tribute to his supervisors for their mentorship and professional input and Dr Dawit Ayele for his ‘robust contribution towards the successful completion of my MSc. It was a great privilege and honour to work and study under their guidance,’ said Yirga. 

He also thanked Mr Getachew Zenebe, Mr Addis Habtamu and his sister, Ms Tigist Argaw, for their encouragement and acknowledged the financial support received from the DELTAS SSACAB Africa Initiative.

‘Most of all, I would like to thank God Almighty for giving me the strength, knowledge, ability and opportunity to undertake my MSc study and to persevere and complete it satisfactorily,’ he said.

Words: Sally Frost 

Photograph: Pumla Dlamini

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Antidiabetic and Toxicological Properties of Medicinal Plants Focus of Biochemist’s PhD

Antidiabetic and Toxicological Properties of Medicinal Plants Focus of Biochemist’s PhD
From left: Dr Ochuko Erukainure in the lab with his supervisor, Professor Shahidul Islam; and waiting for the conferral of his PhD degree.

Dr Ochuko Erukainure has earned a PhD in Biochemistry for research conducted on the antidiabetic and toxicological properties of some South African medicinal plants used in the treatment of diabetes and the complications involved. 

It is predicted that his research will contribute significantly to the development of novel antidiabetic drugs.

‘Ochuko has conducted several research projects on the efficacy and toxicity of common medicinal plants used in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, currently one of the leading global public health problems,’ said his supervisor, Professor Shahidul Islam of UKZN’s School of Life Sciences. ‘His thesis was judged one of the most productive PhDs by the examiners as it resulted in 11 publications in Q1 and Q2 rated international peer-reviewed journals. He also presented some of his research findings at both local and international conferences.’

Apart from publications from his PhD thesis, Erukainure has published more than 100 articles in international peer-reviewed journals over the past 10 years.

‘These attributes demonstrate Ochuko’s contribution to science in South Africa and globally,’ said Islam. ‘During his academic study and research, he acquired a great deal of knowledge and equipped himself with very useful skills and techniques that have made him worthy of being an expert in his field of research.’

‘Now that I am done with my PhD, I intend having a few postgraduate experiences before building on my research career,’ said Erukainure. ‘I also intend to mentor young and aspiring scientists.’

A Nigerian national, Erukainure was attracted to study at UKZN because of its research reputation and particularly the work done by his supervisor Professor Islam in the field of type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Erukainure expressed appreciation for the assistance, patience and care he received from his ‘darling wife, Isoken, and beautiful daughter, Zoe’, during his studies. He thanked Islam for his ‘doggedness and encouragement’ whilst supervising him, and also Professor G N Elemo of the Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi (FIIRO), Lagos, Nigeria; Professor M Z Zaruwa of the Department of Biochemistry, Adamawa State University, Mubi, Nigeria; and Dr B Doonan of the New York Medical College and New York Academy of Science (NYAS) in the United States.

He also thanked his parents, Elder and Mrs VO Erukainure, for their prayers and support.

Words: Sally Frost 

Photograph: Supplied and Abhi Indrarajan

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Dream Comes True for Cum Laude Honours Degree Graduate

Dream Comes True for <em>Cum Laude</em> Honours Degree Graduate
Ms Nomzamo Msomi graduated cum laude with her Chemistry Honours degree.

Ms Nomzamo Msomi always wanted to be a student and earn a degree from UKZN, even during her years as a learner at Silver Heights Secondary School in Durban.

Her dream was realised when she graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in Chemistry during a ceremony on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.

Msomi is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Chemistry and hopes to continue on to do doctoral research in her chosen field of study.

‘I fell in love with research especially since one gets to concentrate more on one project and gain practical skills in the world of chemistry,’ she said.

Msomi’s honour’s project focused on natural product research in which she isolated compounds from one plant (Hilliardiela aristata), identified the compounds and then tested them for possible antimalarial activity.

‘I truly believe there are possibilities to eradicate diseases by providing new compounds from nature, from plants that can be used as medicinal drugs,’ said Msomi.

The gutsy young graduate draws her inspiration from her mother who encouraged her to be the best she could possibly be and motivated her to excel in all aspects of life.

‘When I think about it I am still shocked by how much I have achieved so far,’ said Msomi. ‘I want others to know you can achieve anything you want to when you put in the work.’

Words: Ntokozo Dladla 

Photograph: Supplied and Itumeleng Masa

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Chemistry Honours Cum Laude Graduate Hoping for Career in Pharmaceutical Research

Chemistry Honours <em>Cum Laude</em> Graduate Hoping for Career in Pharmaceutical Research
Cum laude Chemistry Honours graduate, Mr Shabaaz Abdullah.

‘Hard work is always rewarded and doesn’t go unnoticed,’ says cum laude Chemistry Honours graduate, Mr Shabaaz Abdullah.

Abdullah’s father, Ebrahim, instilled that ‘core life principle’ in him and now, almost like a prophecy, the words have become reality.

Pietermaritzburg born and bred Abdullah has excelled in Chemistry, although he originally registered for a Bachelor of Commerce degree before switching to the Sciences. Despite some discouragement from people along the journey, ‘the only person I needed to impress was myself,’ he said. Now his studies in Chemistry and Chemical Technology have paid off – big time!

Abdullah attributed much of his success to the encouragement and support provided by his parents, Ebrahim and Fahmida, as well as academic staff in the School of Chemistry and Physics at UKZN.

Abdullah is now studying towards a Master’s degree in Chemistry, investigating the use of radioactive compounds to target cancer cells. The combination of synthetic and applied chemistry as an innovative approach in the fight against cancer is what initially attracted Shabaaz to his current research and he is excited about the possible real-world applications it may have, hoping his studies lead him towards a career in pharmaceutical research.

With a cum laude honours degree to build on, he has made excellent progress towards achieving his goals.

Words: Pumla Dlamini

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi

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Fern Study Harvests Cum Laude Degree

Fern Study Harvests <em>Cum Laude</em> Degree
A study on ferns earned Mr Kwanele Mkhize an MSc in Biology cum laude.

Mr Kwanele Mkhize’s friends and colleagues describe him as an ambitious, goal-driven person – qualities that assisted him complete his studies and receive an MSc degree in Biology cum laude from UKZN’s School of Life Sciences.

Mkhize, who said the accomplishment was reward for his hard work and dedication, credited his late father for instilling an excellent work ethic in him and acting as his greatest role model. 

Mkhize has always enjoyed the Life Sciences and excelled while exploring a variety of related subjects in his undergraduate studies.

He says the variety of biological fields offered, together with the fact that UKZN is one of the top-ranked universities in the country, influenced him to study on the Pietermaritzburg campus.

Mkhize’s MSc studies focused on the Discipline of Botany and more specifically, lower plants. His thesis, supervised by Professor Richard Beckett, was titled: Roles of ROS Scavenging Enzymes and ABA in Desiccation Tolerance in Ferns.

The work investigated drought tolerance mechanisms in lower plants – specifically ferns – that could be transferred to higher plants – such as crops – to improve drought stress tolerance.

‘Drought stress is one of the major issues affecting crop productivity,’ said Mkhize. ‘My research was an opportunity to make a useful contribution not only to science, but also to the community at large.’

Mkhize says he appreciates the opportunities education has given him. ‘My accomplishments are proof that if you pursue what you love, are goal-driven and associate yourself with like-minded people, you can achieve anything you put your mind to.’

Said Mkhize: ‘If your social circle doesn’t inspire you than it is not a circle but a prison you need to free yourself from. For in order to be the best you need to learn from the best, do what the best do and be where the best are.’

Mkhize has his sights set on a PhD degree which he wants to complete in record time. 

Words: Pumla Dlamini 

Photograph: Supplied and Gugu Mqadi

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Skincare and Beauty Researched for Doctoral Thesis

Skincare and Beauty Researched for Doctoral Thesis
Dr Vuyisile Thibane graduated with a PhD in Ethnobotany from UKZN.

Dr Vuyisile Thibane graduated with a PhD in Ethnobotany after conducting an ethnopharmacological study on plants used for skincare and beauty by some Xhosa communities.

Thibane, from the small town of Botshabelo in the Free State, explained that his project was aimed at promoting the use of natural products formulated from indigenous South African plants in support of bio-entrepreneurship and job creation in the rural areas of South Africa.

Before enrolling at UKZN, Thibane completed his undergraduate degree in Microbial Biotechnology and his Honours and Master’s degrees in Biotechnology at the University of the Free State. He registered to undertake his PhD research through the Research Centre for Plant Growth and Development (RCPGD) at UKZN’s School of Life Sciences while hosted at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) – Vegetable, Ornamental and Plants (VOP) in the agro-processing of medicinal plants unit.

Focusing on the indigenous use of medicinal plants, Thibane set out to research unexplored South African medicinal plants with potential for commercialisation in the health and beauty sector.

‘A number of products in the South African market have been flagged to have undesirable side effects with prolonged usage, however, if safer alternatives are not introduced into the market, consumers are more likely to continue with what is being offered in the market,’ he said.

A possible solution to this challenge, says Thibane, is the development of skincare and beauty products formulated from natural products. He recommended strict adherence to safety and quality control by individuals involved in skincare and beauty formulations, adding that scientific councils such as the ARC as well as research institutions involved in product development were key role players in ensuring consumer safety.

He has presented the findings of his research project at both local and international conferences, and has had two articles published in international, peer-reviewed journals.

Thibane said that he tackled the challenges of taking on a PhD by constantly engaging his mentors and brainstorming possible solutions early. ‘Never allow challenges to aggregate as they can become too complex and difficult to solve,’ he said.

Thibane is now a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of South Africa (UNISA), working on natural product research. He hopes to develop as a young researcher, and plans to serve one day as a commercialisation and natural product research specialist.

He honoured God for giving him the wisdom to complete his PhD journey, and acknowledged the support of his wife, his family and friends. He expressed heartfelt gratitude to his supervisors, Professor Johannes van Staden, Professor Jeff Finnie and Dr Ashwell Ndhlala for their unwavering support, while also acknowledging colleagues at the RCPGD and ARC-VOP for their endless support.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi

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Adversity Builds Determination – MSc Graduate

Adversity Builds Determination – MSc Graduate
Ms Nombuso Majola graduated with an MSc degree in Physics.

‘An expert in anything was once a beginner.’ These words by American actress Helen Hayes were inspirational for Ms Nombuso Majola who graduated with a Master of Science in Physics.

Majola, of UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus, said she was motivated to help solve some of South Africa’s challenges through scientific intervention.

Her MSc research, supervised by Professor Naven Chetty, Dr Angela Dudley and Professor Andrew Forbes, focused on the digital control of light. She investigated the use of a beam-shaping system made up of a spatial light modulator, digital holograms and various other optics, to re-shape laser light to produce a beam with properties suited for a particular application. Furthermore, Majola used different techniques to study the properties and behaviour of the beams produced.

‘Laser beam shaping creates a uniform light distribution ideal for laser surgery,’ explained Majola. ‘Laser material processing applications are produced thus preventing laser induced damage.’

Majola said she was grateful to her Intshisekelo High School teachers as well as Mr Idris Pando of GEM School Wear in Durban who assisted her to become a university student. ‘Education has opened so many doors for me,’ she said.

‘Graduation is an amazing moment of standing victorious and celebrating a great accomplishment. It is the reward for all the hard work and triumph over all financial obstacles.’

‘Nombuso is a very determined young lady who has overcome severe adversity,’ said Chetty. ‘Having passed through the Science augmented programme herself as a student, she is now teaching on it.’

Majola, who is working at UKZN’s Centre for Academic Success in Science and Engineering (CASSE), hopes to register for a PhD in Physics.

Words: Ntokozo Dladla 

Photograph: Supplied

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Snakes are Hissss Passion

Snakes are Hissss Passion
Mr Warren Schmidt, pictured with his family (left) and with a common mole snake, received an MSc degree summa cum laude for research into snake population declines and conservation.

Mr Warren Schmidt, author of Reptiles & Amphibians of Southern Africa, has enjoyed a lifelong interest in reptiles and amphibians which led to him receiving an MSc degree summa cum laude in Ecological Sciences.

His thesis, supervised by Professor Colleen Downs, investigated snake population declines and conservation and provided a global synthesis and perspectives from Southern Africa based on long-term field observations. 

‘I have spent many mornings searching for lizards and snakes while tripping over birders trying to catch their early worms,’ joked Schmidt. ‘I avoid generating peculiar looks of disbelief by pretending to be one of the many birders rather than a singular herper (or snake fancier)!’

Schmidt is particularly interested in the impact of anthropogenic changing land use, especially urban development, on reptiles. 

Schmidt has worked as a curator of reptiles at the Transvaal Snake Park and farm manager at Kwena Gardens Crocodile Sanctuary, as well as a photographer, writer and photojournalist. 

He registered for his MSc at UKZN as a GR7 candidate – a mature candidate deemed to have obtained a prior level of competence adequate for postgraduate studies. His sterling results indicate he was more than up to the challenge!

Words: Sally Frost

Photographs: Andile Andries Ndlovu and Supplied

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First Black SA Woman to Graduate with a PhD in Statistics at UKZN

First Black SA Woman to Graduate with a PhD in Statistics at UKZN
Dr Nonhlanhla Yende-Zuma celebrates the feat of being the first Black South African woman to graduate with a PhD in Statistics at UKZN.

Dr Nonhlanhla Yende-Zuma has become the first Black South African woman to graduate with a PhD in Statistics at UKZN.

Her PhD, titled: Adjusting the Effect of Integrating Antiretroviral Therapy and Tuberculosis Treatment on Mortality for Non-Compliance: An Instrumental Variables Analysis Using a Time-varying Exposure, was supervised by Professor Henry Mwambi of UKZN and Professor Stijn Vansteelandt of Ghent University in Belgium.

Yende-Zuma is currently Head Biostatistician at the world-renowned Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), where she has accumulated vast experience in analysing clinical trials data and design of such studies.

‘In her PhD, Nonhlanhla focused on the very important public health problem of when best to start treatment for HIV patients co-infected with TB,’ explained Mwambi. ‘To deal with treatment non-compliance in the CAPRISA SAPiT trial, her work advanced instrumental variables theory to time-varying exposures and time-to-event outcomes.’

This novel extension has led to original research articles in the prestigious journal Epidemiology, and the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Yende-Zuma is already an alumnus of UKZN, having received her BSc, BScHons and MSc degrees from the University. ‘The enthusiasm shown by the UKZN Statistics department, and especially Professor Mwambi towards biostatistics, motivated me to continue partnering with them for my PhD,’ she said.

Yende-Zuma’s research contributes new knowledge to biostatistics literature and is relevant because it expresses what the treatment effect would be under perfect compliance, which appeals to patients and clinicians who are interested in the benefits of initiating and complying with the treatment that patients received.

‘I have been working in clinical trials research for the past 11 years and I realised there is a gap in the way we analyse clinical trials,’ she said. ‘The analytical aspect that resonates with patients and clinicians was still missing.’

Yende-Zuma said that since biostatistics (and statistics in general) was a scarce skill in South Africa, she planned to mentor as many young biostatisticians as possible, especially young women. ‘I would like to encourage young women to dream big and work hard,’ she said. ‘There are no limitations to what you can achieve if you believe in yourself and work hard.’

Yende-Zuma thanked a number of people for their support and encouragement, including Professor Mwambi for his excellent supervision; CAPRISA for the employment and continuous mentoring they offered; and her uncle ‘who planted the seed to study further and encouraged me to do well in high school even though I was at a school in a rural area with very limited resources.’

‘At a young age, I acquired the strength to motivate myself and that has kept me going and has pushed me to achieve more than what I ever dreamt of,’ said Yende-Zuma, who in her spare time likes to read books, watch comedy movies and read to her seven-year-old daughter.

Words: Sally Frost 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi

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Doctoral Thesis Examines Effects of Eco-Estates on the Eco-System

Doctoral Thesis Examines Effects of Eco-Estates on the Eco-System
Dr Jarryd Alexander was awarded a PhD for research done on the effects of eco-estates on the eco-system.

Dr Jarryd Alexander graduated with a PhD in the School of Life Sciences – with the support of the Durban Research Action Partnership (D’RAP) – after investigating the effects that eco-estates (a relatively new form of urban greening) developed on sugarcane land have on the functional diversity of amphibians, birds, mammals, reptiles and connectivity along the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) North Coast.

Originally from Johannesburg where he completed his undergraduate, honours, and master’s degrees at the University of the Witwatersrand, Alexander’s interest in and passion for the environment led him to this research. He prioritises making contributions to conserving nature, especially in the biodiverse and green region of KZN.

He explained that in the context of expanding urban populations and agricultural development, and a drive to maintain our natural habitats, eco-estates have been mushrooming along the prime KZN coastline. These developments promise to protect and preserve natural flora and fauna and minimise pollution and other negative environmental impacts of human habitation. However, there has been no research on whether eco-estates are improving or negatively affecting the KZN environment and its species.

‘It is fundamentally important that we better understand the influence these estates have on the environment so we are able to manage these correctly to benefit the environment and the species occurring in the region,’ said Alexander.

Alexander’s research revealed that sugarcane agriculture is not entirely negatively influencing functional diversity in KZN.

‘As with eco-estates, if these developments and land transformation types are developed and managed correctly, they are capable of improving local species and functional diversity,’ he said.

‘Ultimately these land transformation types are better for the environment than historical urbanisation. If people maintain, protect and increase natural habitats - even small patches, corridors, or large trees - it can help improve environmental health.’

Alexander said he hoped his research contributed to improving the development and management of existing and future urban and agricultural practices, making them greener and more environmentally beneficial.

He credited the assistance of his ‘highly esteemed, specialised and supportive supervisors’ Professor Colleen Downs and Drs David and Yvette Ehlers Smith, for making the process of achieving his PhD a smooth one. He also credited his family, especially his father Shane, mother Tracy and brother Trent, for their invaluable support, and thanked UKZN and D’RAP for funding support.

Alexander is exploring future possibilities that include undertaking postdoctoral research in nature and conservation or entering a career involving environmental management.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi

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Mammals in Durban Forests Subject of PhD

Mammals in Durban Forests Subject of PhD
Dr Manqoba Zungu pictured at Graduation and in an urban forest area in Durban.

Investigating the presence and persistence of mammals in urban forest fragments in the eThekwini Municipality Area (EMA) is what Dr Manqoba Zungu of the School of Life Sciences did in research for his PhD which forms part of the Durban Research Action Partnership (D’RAP).

Zungu explained that the biodiverse yet urbanised EMA, populated by 3.5 million people and comprising high rates of poverty, fell within a region undergoing rapid landscape changes informed by various factors.

He was motivated to undertake the research after seeing high levels of landscape change in KwaZulu-Natal in all three major forest types in South Africa that support a rich forest mammal assemblage. According to Zungu, an average of 1.2% of natural habitat has been lost in KwaZulu-Natal annually since 1994.

He set out to establish how wildlife adapt and persist in this human dominated landscape in order to guide conservation action, and examined how anthropogenic disturbance affected the persistence abilities of forest mammals in an urban-forest mosaic in the EMA, home to a third of the province’s human population. This was to fill a research gap on forest mammal communities in metropolitan areas in South Africa and determine the conservation importance of forest fragments in urban areas by assessing the occurrence of forest-dependent mammals.

Zungu used remotely triggered camera trapping to survey elusive species constricted by metropolitan area infrastructure. Mammals are one of the most threatened taxa globally, particularly forest dependent mammals who have specific food and habitat requirements under threat from habitat loss and fragmentation.

He recommended making the response to landscape change a research priority, and hoped his research would inform integration of biodiversity conservation into urban planning, resulting in the city of Durban becoming more ecologically sustainable.

‘Assessing biodiversity patterns in highly urbanised landscapes can provide crucial information towards the management of these areas, guiding habitat conservation measures and raising public awareness,’ said Zungu.

Zungu was surprised to discover that forest fragments still harbour significant mammalian diversity despite the high levels of urban development in the area, suggesting that management efforts aimed at protecting the remaining natural habitat from further loss are urgently needed.

His work also described species-specific responses to habitat disturbances, suggesting that landscape management approaches should consider habitat requirements of multiple species.

‘In the planning phase of future development projects, ecologists, town planners, land managers, conservationists and other relevant stakeholders should take the whole landscape structure into account, including the urban matrix, to ensure the conservation of rich native mammalian assemblages,’ he said.

Zungu, who completed his undergraduate, honours and master’s studies at UKZN, won awards for presenting this research at several D’RAP symposia and is continuing with postdoctoral research. He has published several papers from his research in journals and presented his work at symposia and conferences. He received several awards during the course of his studies and hopes to pursue a career in ecology and wildlife conservation.

He thanked his supervisors, Professor Colleen Downs, Dr Tharmalingam Ramesh and Dr Riddhika Kalle, for their support in his studies, and his mentor Mr Seth Hakizimana as well as his friends, particularly Tholinhlanhla Mzimela, Ntaki Senoge and Nkanyiso Sithole. He also thanked his family and current and previous members of Downs’ research laboratory, especially Vuyisile Thabethe, Mfundo Maseko and Moses Chibesa.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi and Supplied

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Mathematician’s Inspirational Story

Mathematician’s Inspirational Story
UKZN lecturer Dr Sicelo Goqo graduated with a PhD in Applied Mathematics.

PhD graduate, Dr Sicelo Goqo hopes his story will inspire young school-leavers to study Mathematics and follow it as a career.

‘I was raised by a single parent in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal,’ said Goqo. ‘I lost my mother at the tender age of three but that never stopped me from dreaming about improving my quality of life.’ 

Goqo’s philosophy is always to work hard to achieve goals. ‘Life is short so we should make the most out of every tough situation,’ he advised.

‘My love for Mathematics began in Grade 8. I was inspired by a fellow student who was very good at the subject and always wondered what he did that was different from others. I found out it was simply hard work.’

Goqo attributes his early success in school to his Mathematics and Physics teachers, Mr Zwane and Mr Hlubi of Osizweni High School where, as the only learner who took higher-grade Mathematics in his matric class, he was able to achieve an A-grade in the subject.

Goqo pursued undergraduate studies, majoring in Mathematics on the Mafikeng campus of North-West University. His hard work was rewarded with a bursary from the South African Nuclear Human Asset Research Programme (SANHARP) that allowed him to complete his Honours and MSc degrees in Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town.

‘These areas allow me many opportunities to indulge in my passion for devising new and improved techniques to solve complex differential equations that model various natural phenomena,’ he said.

Goqo’s PhD thesis, supervised by Professor Precious Sibanda, Professor Sandile Motsa and Dr Sabyasachi Mondal, was titled: Spectral Quasilinearization Methods for Boundary Layer and Cavity Flow Problems.

‘The thesis presents computational simulations of mathematical models that arise in the study of fluid flows,’ explained Sibanda. ‘The emphasis is both on explaining the physical phenomena described by the transport equations and in evaluating the accuracy and convergence rates of four new and recent spectral quasilinearization methods for solving differential equations.

‘The coupled nonlinear boundary layer and cavity flow equations are solved numerically with collocation applied independently in space and time.’

Over the years, Goqo’s love for Mathematics and teaching has inspired him to provide extra revision classes on Saturdays for his first-year students. He is also the South African Tertiary Mathematics Olympiad (SATMO) team leader on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus.

Goqo is grateful to his supervisors and international collaborators. ‘To be successful in this journey one needs mentors. Professor Sibanda always encouraged me to work hard and explore and discover myself in the research field,’ he said.

Goqo also attributes his success to his supportive family, colleagues and friends, and especially his father. His academic journey would not have been possible without assistance from sponsors including SANHARP, NRF Thuthuka, Teaching Development Grant (TDG) and the University Capacity Development Programme (UCDP).

‘The generosity of these sponsors gave me an opportunity to travel, present my research in different parts of the world, undertake research collaborations and attend conferences in countries such as the USA, India, Italy, Tunisia, Botswana and Swaziland,’ he said.

During his PhD studies, Goqo had the opportunity to co-supervise four MSc students with Sibanda. Moving forward, he aims to strengthen his research career and international collaborations.

He had the following words of advice for aspirant students: ‘Always work beyond the scope that is given.’

Words: Sally Frost 

Photograph: Gugu Mqadi

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