PhD Research Secures Future of Namibian Mining Town

PhD Research Secures Future of Namibian Mining Town
Geologist and PhD graduate, Dr Lynette Kirkpatrick.

The PhD work of geologist Dr Lynette Kirkpatrick has secured the future of the land operations of Namibia De Beers diamond company Namdeb... and with it the future of the small mining town of Oranjemund.

Kirkpatrick’s optimistic outlook for Namdeb – the primary employer in Oranjemund – has had a positive impact on the long-term feasibility of the small mining town.

Kirkpatrick, who matriculated at Fish Hoek High in Cape Town, spent her school holidays on the west coast of South Africa and Namibia which later influenced her choice of degree and ultimately, her honours project, which focused on seismic data analysis from the coast of southern Namibia.

After graduating with an Honours degree in Geology from the University of Cape Town, Kirkpatrick joined De Beers Marine Pty Ltd working in the marine survey, geophysical research and development department which provided the ideal mix of technical research and development work and practical geophysical experience, well suited to her career aspirations.

She worked for the De Beers Group in the marine exploration and mining industry for the next 14 years.

In 2017 Kirkpatrick started a PhD at UKZN. ‘I chose UKZN because of the strength of the Marine Geology programme and, in particular, the expertise of my supervisor, Prof Andrew Green,’ she said.

Kirkpatrick’s research has had a positive impact in Oranjemund – and Namibia – because her doctoral work produced data that underpins an exploration strategy, supporting the extension of the life of the mine – the primary employer in the town.

Namdeb Diamond Corporation, a joint venture between the De Beers Group and the Namibian government, mines an onshore diamond placer deposit at Oranjemund.

Kirkpatrick’s doctoral research involved integrating various new geophysical datasets with historical mining data to develop a geological model for the nearshore environment and ultimately produced an exploration strategy for the offshore extension of the mine. 

Kirkpatrick has extensive marine diamond exploration experience which has given her unique skills and insights into the geology, geophysics and economics of the placer mining industry. ‘I have had the privilege to work with brand new exploration datasets and develop geological models from first principles,’ she said. ‘Putting this work into a PhD and thus a more global context was a natural extension of my work and interests.’

Her supervisor, Dr Andrew Green was full of praise: ‘Lynette worked full time, did her PhD thesis in three years – from an upgrade from an MSc, had a baby while caring for her two other little ones, published all her work with great distinction in the top journals of our field, and pretty much saved the mining town of Oranjemund from economic collapse because her work single-handedly helped extend the mine’s life by another 10 years. She is a remarkable person, truly one of the most intelligent and dedicated I have met.’

Kirkpatrick plans to continue to work for the Namdeb Diamond Corporation Pty Ltd as Senior Geophysicist in Offshore Resource Development.

She described studying towards a PhD as stretching, stimulating and an immensely rewarding experience.

The mother-of-three enjoys outdoors activities including trail running, hiking and camping.

Words: Samantha Ngcongo 

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Germ Dangers from Pit Latrines Investigated by Microbiology PhD Graduate

Germ Dangers from Pit Latrines Investigated by Microbiology PhD Graduate
Dr Lorika Beukes who obtained her PhD in Microbiology.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria emanating from pit latrines in KwaZulu-Natal was the subject of research undertaken by Dr Lorika Beukes for her PhD in Microbiology.

Beukes, a principal microscopy technician at UKZN’s Microscopy and Microanalysis Unit (MMU), was awarded her doctorate during the University’s virtual Graduation ceremony.

Her research uncovered the presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria present in pit latrine faecal sludge and the presence of bacterial contamination on household surfaces after manual pit latrine emptying in a peri-urban community.

Beukes was interested in this research because of the growing global threat of antimicrobial resistance.

Working in a community in eThekwini, she detected multi-drug resistant (MDR) bacteria present in pit latrine faecal sludge, and determined the level of microbial contamination on household surfaces and municipal workers’ skin before and after manual pit latrine emptying.

‘In South Africa there is a lack of data on the screening and emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria from pit latrines and the potential health risks for those emptying them,’ said Beukes. ‘This research has generated data required to verify the potential risks involved with pit latrine biosolids produced in poor communities.’

Beukes discovered an increase in microbial contamination on household surfaces and municipal workers’ skin after pit emptying, and said this revealed the vital need to educate both municipal workers and household members about personal hygiene, emphasising thorough handwashing and the correct use of personal protective equipment.

This finding is particularly salient in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

‘There is still a clear lack of knowledge and/or poor attitudes toward proper hygiene, and therefore, despite the improvement of sanitation facilities, there is no guarantee that these systems will be used correctly,’ said Beukes.

This is particularly of concern in a country with high rates of HIV and tuberculosis infection, where diarrheal diseases are still among the top 10 leading causes of child deaths. Additionally, Beukes noted that the bacteria found in pit latrine faecal sludge were highly resistant to critical, last resort antibiotics, possibly indicating overuse or misuse of antibiotics and a gap in knowledge about the proper use of these life-saving medicines.

This study, the first of its kind in this locale, will form a baseline for similar research in the future. The data generated will enable the implementation of safer handling procedures of materials harbouring MDR pathogens, and create awareness about the need for proper personal hygiene and sanitation.

Beukes has presented her findings at local and international conferences, and has published her research in international peer-reviewed journals.

She completed all her qualifications at UKZN, being drawn to the Discipline of Microbiology while completing her Bachelor of Science in Biomolecular Technology. During her undergraduate studies, she volunteered at Umgeni Water’s microbiology laboratory, further fuelling her natural love of the sciences. She said that UKZN, home to many internationally recognised microbiology experts, provided excellent grounding for her research.

Beukes has worked at the MMU for six years, and pursuing her research while working has strengthened both her academic and technical expertise. She gained teaching experience during her studies through demonstrating, tutoring, and serving as a teaching assistant.

‘I use my experience to train students and commercial clients on the best way forward for analysing their research samples, and collaborate with local and international peers on various projects that require microscopy analysis,’ she said.

Beukes thanked God for her success, and also her family and friends for their support, saying she is the first member of her family to be awarded a PhD. She dedicated her success to her extended family, and thanked her supervisor Professor Stefan Schmidt for his constant guidance and expert advice, and her laboratory mates and colleagues at the MMU, particularly Ms Ntombozuko Matyumza.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Military Man Earns Cum Laude Master’s Degree

Military Man Earns <em>Cum Laude</em> Master’s Degree
Cum laude graduate, Mr Ntuthuko Zungu during his military service.

Mr Ntuthuko Zungu graduated with a Master’s degree cum laude in Biochemistry after an unconventional academic journey, which included two years of service in the South African National Defence Force’s SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) branch through its Military Skills Development System (MSDS).

Zungu’s parents funded his first year at UKZN but lacking funds for further study, he and his friends began exploring alternative funding mechanisms. Casting a wider net led them to the MSDS programme, which brought with it funding for further studies as well as the possibility of future employment.

Zungu met the acceptance requirements of being in possession of a tertiary qualification (or matric certificate), falling within the specified age range, and passing the psychometric and health/fitness assessments.

The two-year programme began with six months of basic military training. Trainees either pursue studies during their service, or are appointed as active force members. Given a choice of studying medicine or joining the SAMHS 7 Medical Battalion Group, which concerned chemical biological radiation defence, Zungu opted for the latter.

His two years in the SAMHS involved a regime that included physical training, attending classes and other duties depending on where his group was assigned.

‘It was a wonderful experience filled with a lot of valuable lessons and memories as well as invaluable networking across the country,’ said Zungu. ‘I enjoyed being introduced to the different languages and cultural practices in South Africa, the lack of divisions I observed, and mostly travelling to different parts of the country.’

His service enabled Zungu to continue on to his honours studies through sponsorship from the MSDS programme, and he remains a reserve member of the 6 Medical Battalion Group. He later received the GV Quicke Book Prize for Best Honours Biochemistry student. His masters project dealt with legume research – he investigated soil nutrition in grassland and savanna ecosystems that affects plant-microbe symbiosis, nitrogen nutrition and the growth of peas (Pisum sativum L).

‘What interested me most about this research was elucidating plant survival strategies under nutrient stressed conditions, and the potential impact that similar research could have on sustainable and healthy food systems,’ said Zungu.

Having completed his masters with distinction, Zungu is now pursuing PhD research on the topic of the effects of drought, soil nutrient deficiency and plant-microbe symbiosis on crop legumes. He aspires to a career in academia or research and development.

Also putting his skills to use in assisting others, Zungu is an active member of a non-governmental organisation Umthamo Wezinkanyezi, which focuses on youth development and upliftment.

The high achiever advised other students who aim to do well but face financial challenges to plan and consider alternatives, and to be inquisitive.

‘Different paths can lead to the same destination, and you can obtain transferable skills along the way, which could make you stand out from people who may possess the same qualification as you,’ he said.

Zungu credited his family and friends, and his supervisors Dr Anathi Magadlela, Dr Thandeka Khoza, and Dr Raymond Hewer, for their support during his studies.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Three Times a UKZN Graduate!

Three Times a UKZN Graduate!
UKZN master’s graduate, Ms Pumla Dlamini in the field.

“Perseverance pays off” is a maxim Miss Pumla Vanessa Dlamini can proudly claim as being relevant in her life.

Dlamini recently graduated with a Master’s degree in Ecological Sciences, her third degree from UKZN having previously obtained BSc and BSc Honours degrees from the University.

She says UKZN’s top ranking in research is the reason she has loyally stayed committed to her alma mater.

Dlamini’s masters dissertation was on the assessment of the current ecological integrity of the uMngeni River in KwaZulu-Natal, using fish community structures and attributes of the Labeobarbus natalensis (Castelnau, 1861) populations. She was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs and Dr Gordon O’Brien.

Dlamini assessed fish communities at various sites along the uMngeni River as well as the state of KZN yellowfish (Labeobarbus natalensis) populations in major dams on the river. The results of her study are relevant as they highlight the importance of the sustainable management and development of conservation plans for the uMngeni, which are needed as the river is of great socio-economic importance, providing water to two of the largest urban areas in KZN, the uMgungundlovu and eThekwini municipalities.

‘Rivers, such as the uMngeni River, are the main source of water for human communities and provide people with numerous ecosystem services, therefore the protection of the water resources is of upmost importance,’ she said.

Dlamini decided to explore this area of research when she discovered the Aquatic Ecosystem Research (AER) lab at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus during her honours year, and learned that one of its focus areas was water conservation. As she was already doing Ecology this sparked her interest, especially the concentration on the important, delicate balance between conserving freshwater ecosystems while maintaining sustainable water resources for human consumption… and she joined the lab for her masters research. 

Dlamini attributes her successful university career to the support of her family and friends, especially what they did to keep her motivated through the difficult times. The love and support she received from her grandmother – who sadly passed away during her studies – was also of great help in inspiring her to complete her degree.

Dlamini is currently working as an NRF intern for the Public Relations and Career Development Office of UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science. In the near future she hopes to be able to apply the skills and knowledge she has gained from both her studies and time as an intern in the conservation and research fields. 

When she has spare time, Dlamini enjoys spending it with friends and watching movies, especially horror movies!!!!

Words: Nicole Chidzawo 

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Cum Laude Agricultural Economics Research Examines Impact of Climate Change on Maize

<em>Cum Laude</em> Agricultural Economics Research Examines Impact of Climate Change on Maize
MScAgric graduate, Mr Tatenda Magodora.

Investigating the effects of climate change on maize production in South Africa earned Mr Tatenda Magodora a cum laude MScAgric degree in Agricultural Economics.

Magodora said growing up in the rural Gutu district in Zimbabwe, he became interested in conducting research on this topic as in his own hometown there was not extensive knowledge about the effects of climate change and about how certain agricultural activities, such as the application of synthetic fertilisers, contributed to the change.

Magodora completed his BSc and BSc Honours in Economics degrees at the University of Zimbabwe, followed by a BSc Honours in Agricultural Economics at the University of Fort Hare (UFH). Acquiring knowledge about climate change and agriculture during his undergraduate BSc degree in Economics, he developed an interest in exploring the scientific evidence of the impact of agriculture on the acceleration of climate change.

‘The effects are really devastating, and I knew that doing this work was the only way I would be able to communicate with farmers who do not have this knowledge,’ said Magodora.

By conducting a causality analysis, Magodora delved into the physio-economic impacts of climate change on maize production, assessing the linkages between climate change and maize production in the country. To do this, he conducted his analysis using Meta-analysis and the Ricardian model, and applied Granger analysis and variance decomposition.

Based on his research results, Magodora says maize revenues are expected to fall by around 38% in the next 40 to 60 years owing to the effects of climate change, so there should be increased focus on developing mitigation strategies. In the study period of 1980 to 2016, Magodora noted that rainfall had remained constant without affecting maize production, but pointed out that forecasts indicate there would be a significant impact of rainfall fluctuations on maize production.

Magodora’s results led to recommendations that maize farmers adopt sustainable farming practices such as minimum tillage, use of organic fertilisers, increased planting of drought-resistant maize varieties, and balanced fertilisation and biochar amendments at a faster rate in order to increase maize yields sustainably, while reducing the human ecological footprint on climate change. He added that the agricultural sector should be recognised as one of the sectors to be targeted by carbon emission reduction systems.

Magodora’s parents died when he was young so he was brought up by his grandparents, Mrs Angela Magodora and the now late Mr Lysias Magodora, who he said gave him all the support they could. He thanked his uncle, Mr Jeremiah Magodora, and aunt, Mrs Dorothy Chiweshe, for their financial support during his first degree, and his cousin Mr William Maguraushe for assisting him in coming to South Africa to study at Fort Hare, where he was exposed to scholarship opportunities and accessed funding from the National Research Foundation.

Magodora thanked his supervisor Professor Lloyd Baiyengunhi and fellow postgraduate students in agriculture for their support, and also his former supervisor at UFH, Professor Abbyssinia Mushunje, and his friend Ms Kudzanai Marembo, for their encouragement.

Magodora plans to do a PhD, aiming for a career as a researcher.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Body Image and Weight Loss Practices Feature in Master’s Research

Body Image and Weight Loss Practices Feature in Master’s Research
Wellness Specialist, Mr Zethembiso Lubisi who graduated with his MSc in Dietetics.

The fact that obesity plagues more women than men stirred UKZN graduate Mr Zethembiso Lubisi’s creative juices and he decided to do research into finding possible intervention strategies for the “fatty” problem.

Lubisi completed his MSc in Dietetics in one year after examining the body mass index (BMI), body image and possible factors related to weight loss practices of women undergraduate students on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus.

He was interested in establishing the impact of the issue in the current digital age, which is characterised by an apparent obsession with thinner body sizes resulting in saturation marketing of weight loss practices. He also investigated the growing trend of normalising large body sizes.

The BMI, nutritional knowledge, physical activity, and dietary choices of the research participants were examined to determine what influenced their weight loss practices.

Assessing 316 participants whose average age was 21, Lubisi found that body image perception and the level of body image satisfaction experienced by female students were the most important determinants of whether they engaged in weight loss practices.

Almost half of the participants had a normal BMI, with just over 4% classified as being underweight. Most participants were moderately physically active, had reasonable general knowledge of nutrition, and had attempted to lose weight using methods such as adjusting food portion sizes, exercising, and making positive dietary adjustments, although some had combined healthy practices with unhealthy ones such as the use of weight loss products and skipping meals. Students with good nutritional knowledge perceived themselves to have a thinner body size than those with poor nutritional knowledge.

Around 70% of participants perceived their weight or BMI to be within a healthy range, however more than half had tried to lose weight, and most participants indicated a desire to be thinner than they were. Most students who tried to lose weight had a higher BMI and higher body image dissatisfaction, but students with larger body sizes also made realistic, attainable choices when selecting the body size they wanted.

Since just under half of participants had a BMI within a range considered healthy, Lubisi highlighted that many participants were not aware of their actual BMI and nutritional status but perceived themselves as normal, perceptions not informed by measurements.

‘Students should ensure their idea of their health status is well-informed and not based on an assumption that because they appear “normal”, everything is fine,’ said Lubisi, citing a higher BMI as being a possible indicator of the risk of non-communicable diseases.

‘People should measure their BMI and weight regularly to inform adjustments to diet and physical activity, or to identify underlying causes for weight gain, and should also measure things like cholesterol and blood glucose. A normal BMI is the result of a sustained healthy lifestyle.’

Lubisi’s passion for nutrition was sparked in his final year while based at a public health institution, where he saw the important role nutrition plays in addressing public health challenges, such as the increase in non-communicable diseases including diabetes, hypertension and some cancers.

‘We have a role in addressing those, especially their prevention, but also their treatment and management,’ said Lubisi.

Lubisi currently freelances as a wellness specialist, screening people’s health status and advising them accordingly. He hopes to work in the public sector, a space he finds fulfilling, and believes his master’s degree has equipped him to identify opportunities or gaps in knowledge that he could fill to contribute to the profession. He is currently seeking full-time employment but hopes later to continue with further research and study.

Lubisi attributed his success primarily to his parents, who have provided financial, emotional and spiritual support. He thanked his supervisor, Professor Suna Kassier, for her encouragement, guidance and approachability that brought out the best in him, and credited his co-supervisor, Dr Blessing Mkhwanazi, and staff in UKZN’s Discipline of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, for providing a positive and supportive working environment where he was able to be a part of teaching and learning activities.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Use of and Willingness to Pay for Organic Fertilisers by Potato Farmers Investigated

Use of and Willingness to Pay for Organic Fertilisers by Potato Farmers Investigated
Mr Bhekani Zondo who graduated cum laude with an MScAgric degree in Agricultural Economics.

Mr Bhekani Zondo is a cum laude graduate after completing an MScAgric degree in Agricultural Economics for research into the adoption of and willingness to pay for organic fertilisers by smallholder potato farmers in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

Supported by Potatoes South Africa (PSA) and supervised by Professor Lloyd Baiyegunhi, Zondo interviewed 189 farmers, analysing data the collected using applied econometric techniques. Zondo’s goal was to discover what factors influence the adoption and use intensity of organic fertiliser or manure by smallholder potato farmers, and to assess their willingness to pay (WTP) premium prices for organic fertilisers.

‘Through my undergraduate studies in agricultural economics at UKZN, I learned that smallholder farmers can contribute to South Africa’s food security, however, they face numerous challenges that inhibit their productivity potential and make it difficult for them to participate in the modern economy,’ said Zondo.

These challenges include deteriorating soil fertility, necessitating the adoption of fertility enhancing practices, and the use of fertilisers. The price of inorganic or chemical fertilisers and their negative environmental and health consequences are often problematic, and research recommends the adoption of sustainable, cost-effective agricultural technologies such as organic fertilisers.

Zondo looked for economic links between socioeconomic factors, fertiliser adoption, and farmers’ WTP in order to inform policy interventions and institutional innovations oriented towards these techniques.

He found that organic fertiliser was the most popular soil nutrient ameliorant among the farmers surveyed, who confirmed they would be willing to pay more for organic fertiliser to enhance productivity. This further justified the commercialisation of organic fertilisers to facilitate the availability of the products.

Zondo’s study recommended improved access to extension services to enhance technical information dissemination and knowledge of organic fertiliser usage, and the development of policies that institute security of land tenure among smallholder farmers. His findings also support the development of appropriate options for farmers with small livestock holdings to produce organic fertilisers.

Programmes that encourage this production and the subsequent increase in use of organic fertilisers would, Zondo said, encourage farmers to keep more livestock numbers, create jobs and improve smallholder farmer income, contributing to poverty alleviation and enhanced food security.

Growing up in the rural uMzumbe area on KwaZulu-Natal’s south coast where his community was highly dependent on smallholder agriculture, also inspired Zondo’s interest in this research. He hopes his familiarity with the economic aspects of agriculture will contribute to his goal of one day being a successful commercial farmer.

Zondo faced challenges on his academic journey, including the unemployment of both his parents, and the long distances he had to travel to school and back home, where he also looked after cattle.

‘This gave me the sense of purpose to persevere, be disciplined and work hard in order to obtain good results,’ said Zondo. ‘Through education, I can change the situation back at home; I knew that I was the hope of the family.’

Zondo now works as a commercial development and business banking intern at the Land and Agricultural Development Bank of South Africa, and plans to register for his PhD next year to further develop his research skills.

He thanked Potatoes SA for funding his master’s degree, and his family for their support and belief in him. He also thanked his sister, Ms Nontobeko Zondo, for supporting the family when she began working, as well as Baiyegunhi for encouraging him to further his studies plus his encouragement, guidance, constructive criticism, patience, continual support and direction. 

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Biochemistry Honours Graduate is on Malaria Trail

Biochemistry Honours Graduate is on Malaria Trail
Honours in Biochemistry graduate, Mr Tim Kirkman.

Research into malaria is an investigative field Honours in Biochemistry graduate Mr Tim Kirkman will follow in his studies for a master’s degree.

Kirkman attended St Charles College in Pietermaritzburg, which he credits for his excellent education and for introducing him to the natural world through hikes and informal lessons on nature.

A keen hockey player, he developed an interest in medical sciences when he became involved in sports physiotherapy and also while on a work experience at Grey’s Hospital during a school holiday to gain insight into various medical professions.

He initially planned to study physiotherapy but instead found himself accepted into UKZN’s Life and Environmental Sciences BSc stream, starting out in biological sciences. A meeting with Professor Dean Goldring during his first year about options for his degree and beyond, and subsequent time spent in Goldring’s laboratory during a winter vacation, exposed Kirkman to the scope of biochemistry, which encompasses aspects of disciplines such as microbiology, chemistry and genetics.

Kirkman developed an interest in laboratory work, and taking a module introducing biochemistry and microbiology led to a change in degree focus to these disciplines. Exploring the application of biochemistry in real-world cases in his third year, particularly in the causes and treatment of disease, cemented his passion for the field.

One of only 10 Biochemistry honours students in Pietermaritzburg, Kirkman pursued the course to gain the experience necessary to pursue a scientific career.

He describes his honours as a fantastic, yet challenging year, requiring students to adjust to longer lectures and practicals and fuller days as well as higher expectations from staff. The change also required better time management and a proactive approach.

Kirkman’s project, under the supervision of Goldring, concerned the characterisation of a new type of protein stain on nitrocellulose membranes for qualitative and quantitative analysis. This gave him insight into the applications of biochemistry, and he credits Goldring’s laboratory for exposing him and his classmates to a holistic view of the scientific world through activities such as their journal reading club.

Kirkman, now enrolled for masters studies under Goldring’s supervision, says he is keen to join a field in which he can make a difference, and so works under the umbrella of Goldring’s malaria research.

The research involves the characterisation of new protein targets for rapid diagnostic tests, which would enable greater access to affordable diagnostic testing, particularly in rural areas. While there are currently rapid diagnostic tests in use, these test for specific proteins that are not always present in the sampled malaria strain. Developing new tests to target different proteins will expand the pool of tests available and ensure greater accuracy and reliability.

After completing his master’s, Kirkman hopes to study further, or perhaps enter the medical research field to work on things like vaccine development.

While a student, Kirkman played hockey for UKZN in Durban as well as for the senior KwaZulu-Natal side and was part of the South African U21 squad. He is also involved in leadership and music at his church.

Kirkman acknowledged his father, Professor Kevin Kirkman, and the rest of his family for their support. He thanked Goldring and other academic staff who have lectured and mentored him, saying that he felt a sense of belonging in the discipline thanks to the staff’s approachability and willingness to help.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Graduate Breeds Parasitic Weed Resistance in Sorghum Genotypes

Graduate Breeds Parasitic Weed Resistance in Sorghum Genotypes
MSc in Plant Breeding summa cum laude graduate, Mr Athenkosi Makebe.

Mr Athenkosi Makebe has graduated with his MSc in Plant Breeding summa cum laude after breeding sorghum resistant to the parasitic weed Striga (known as witchweed) and for compatibility with a Striga biocontrol agent.

Makebe’s research, supervised by Professor Hussein Shimelis, involved the advancement of elite sorghum genotypes developed for Striga resistance and compatibility to the fungal biocontrol agent: Fusarium oxysporum strigae (FOS). He evaluated the genotypes for genetic diversity using simple sequence repeat (SSR) markers, characterised by the agronomic performance of elite sorghum from the greenhouse and field, and assessed nutritional qualities of the genotypes, including compositions of protein, amino acids, zinc and iron.

Makebe was inspired to pursue research in plant breeding and on this topic specifically, after observing how infestations of weeds affected subsistence farmers’ livelihoods in the villages where he grew up. Learning that humans can manipulate plant genetics to combat challenges such as parasitic weeds, Makebe set out to become a plant breeder with special emphasis on the protection of farmers’ livelihoods through his work.

The results of his research were interesting because of the high nutritional qualities identified in the elite sorghum genotypes he studied, especially the high lysine, an amino acid which is mostly deficient in cereals. The genotypes he worked with had desirable agronomic traits, Striga resistance, FOS compatibility and beneficial nutritional qualities, making them useful genetic resources for cultivar development and large-scale production and commercialisation.

Two papers from Makebe’s dissertation are under review for publication in highly accredited journals, while he recently presented his research at the South African Plant Breeders Association Conference in Pretoria.

Makebe has received a bursary from the South African Cultivar and Technology Agency to do his PhD at UKZN under the supervision of Shimelis. This will contribute to his career development as a plant breeder.

Makebe thanked Shimelis for this special study opportunity, and his guidance and encouragement throughout the research. He also thanked his postdoctoral researcher Dr Admire Shayanowako for his unreserved support, immeasurable guidance and valuable suggestions during the study, as well as his family and close friends for their support.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

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Biogas Slurry for Improved Soil Productivity Underpins Soil Science PhD

Biogas Slurry for Improved Soil Productivity Underpins Soil Science PhD
Young researcher, Dr Thandile Mdlambuzi received his PhD from UKZN.

The fertiliser value of biogas slurry for maize and dry bean production and its effects on soil quality and carbon dioxide emissions was the subject of research by Dr Thandile Mdlambuzi of the Agricultural Research Council’s (ARC) Infruitec-Nietvoorbij Institute in Stellenbosch, who received his PhD in Soil Science from UKZN.

Supervised by UKZN’s Professor Pardon Muchaonyerwa and Professor Mitsuru Tsubo of Tottori University in Japan, Mdlambuzi conducted his research at an ARC experimental site in Pretoria, planting maize and dry bean for three seasons, and collecting data concerning dry matter yield, grain yield and soil nutrient reserves after harvest, as well as carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Having always been curious about the mechanisms behind crop growth, Mdlambuzi completed his undergraduate degree in soil science at the University of Fort Hare (UFH). His research was spurred when he noticed while smallholder farmers apply little to no chemical fertilisers to their crops because of the cost involved, South Africa has a major problem with waste management, particularly of organic waste.

‘I began considering the use of organic waste as a source of fertiliser, especially as I was concerned about the low levels of crop production by smallholder farmers, affected by the low use of chemical fertilisers and declining soil fertility,’ he said.

Mdlambuzi noted that the application of organic waste to soil provides plants with essential nutrients, supporting plant growth and the build-up of soil reserves, with organic fertiliser improvement of dry matter and nutrient uptake depending on the crop and the number of seasons of application.

Mdlambuzi found that application of biogas slurry to maize resulted in lower dry matter and higher uptake of nutrients, but in dry bean, biogas slurry increased dry matter and the uptake of nutrients.

‘Application of biogas slurry alone does not necessarily benefit the crop, especially dry bean grain yield, but co-application with chemical fertiliser has numerous benefits that could help smallholder farmers by reducing costs of synthetic chemical fertilisers,’ said Mdlambuzi. ‘However, there is a possibility of increased CO2 emissions from the use of biogas slurry in soils.’

He said fresh cattle manure could be used to produce biogas slurry, and had the same or even better nutrient value than chemical fertiliser.

Mdlambuzi, from a village in Qumbu in the Eastern Cape, enrolled at UKZN for his BSc Honours and continued to complete his master’s and PhD degrees at the University owing to its strength in agriculture and excellent research facilities.

He credits his strong support system of friends, family and mentors for providing the mental, physical, spiritual and emotional support needed to pursue his studies. He overcame the destruction of his trials and experiments by monkeys and guinea fowl one season by sleeping alongside his experiments to guard them the following season – his perseverance driven by a desire to inspire children from rural areas like his own that they could succeed.

Mdlambuzi completed his PhD under the ARC’s Professional Development Programme, initially working at their Institute of Soil, Water and Climate in Pretoria as a junior researcher, before moving to Infruitec-Nietvoorbij where he works on soil water management for production of table and wine grapes.

Mdlambuzi is driven to grow as a young researcher and a reliable leader. Human capacity development is close to his heart and he hopes to provide farmers with training and support improved livelihoods.

‘I aim to help South Africa continue making agriculture the foundation of a better livelihood for our ever-growing human population.’

He thanked supervisors Muchaonyerwa and Tsubo for their contributions to his research, and also his family and friends for their support.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Detecting and Mapping Drought and Its Human Impacts Earn Geographer a PhD

Detecting and Mapping Drought and Its Human Impacts Earn Geographer a PhD
Husband and wife, Drs Romano and Shenelle Lottering who both lecture in the Discipline of Geography at UKZN. Shenelle obtained her PhD on Friday.

Dr Shenelle Lottering has graduated with a PhD in Geography for her thesis which investigates the socio-economic and environmental impacts of drought on small-scale farmers in uMsinga.

The research also tested the Temperature Vegetation Water Stress Index tool to detect and map drought occurrence, a novel piece of research for southern Africa.

Lottering, who lectures part-time in UKZN’s Discipline of Geography in Pietermaritzburg, worked with the Farmer Support Group at UKZN to collect data from small-scale farmers and key informants using questionnaires, interviews and participatory rural appraisal research methods, to bridge the gap between human geography and spatial science.

Lottering discovered that despite the significant impact of drought on small-scale farmers and their livelihoods, the individuals displayed great resilience through numerous coping mechanisms. These, she found, are the product of indigenous knowledge systems developed over generations, which help communities adapt to drought and prove essential to their survival, considering their limited resources and minimal government assistance.

‘This is important for human geography as the implications of climate change are usually focused on the environmental aspects rather than the social implications caused by drought, particularly for marginalised rural communities predominantly involved in subsistence agriculture,’ said Lottering.

Lottering highlighted the importance of establishing partnerships between non-governmental organisations and governments to ensure that communities receive effective support during periods of drought through the development of appropriate policy interventions for drought management. While most adaptive strategies are reactive, effective drought management would require the adoption of a proactive approach developed in advance.

‘This can be achieved through the availability of early warning systems to all stakeholders involved in drought management, which will provide decision-makers with the relevant information regarding the onset and severity of drought in a given area,’ she said.

Lottering added that indigenous knowledge should be harnessed for drought adaption in the context of research and policy intervention.

Lottering, who completed all her degrees at UKZN before becoming a part-time lecturer more than three years ago, enjoyed Geography at high school, and developed a passion for human geography during her undergraduate and honours studies. Her interest in rural development and working with marginalised communities, combined with the challenges of climate change, led her to consider how people residing in rural areas, particularly small-scale farmers, cope with climate-related natural hazards.

Lottering is passionate about teaching and research, and plans to pursue an academic career. The mother of three sons says completing her PhD was a balancing act, motivating her to discover an organisation to support mothers in academia, who encourage women that – despite the unique challenges they face – it is possible to be a wife, a mother and still achieve their career aspirations. Lottering herself struck this balance through strict time management, motivation and discipline.

In the final year of her PhD studies, Lottering had to deal with the death of her father, whose unwavering support, she said, had motivated her to complete her research as a tribute to him.

Lottering acknowledged the vital support of her masters and PhD supervisors Dr Sumaiya Desai and Professor Paramu Mafongoya, saying Desai taught her what it takes to be a good researcher and equipped her with the skills she needed, while Mafongoya provided important motivation and taught her to employ independent, critical thinking.

Lottering also thanked her husband, fellow lecturer in Geography Dr Romano Lottering, for being her biggest support system and pillar of strength.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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PhD Study Examines Use of Human Wastewater to Grow Crops

PhD Study Examines Use of Human Wastewater to Grow Crops
PhD in Horticultural Science graduate, Dr Shirly Magwaza.

Evaluating the feasibility of using human excreta-derived materials as nutrient sources for the hydroponic production of horticultural crops provided the subject matter for the thesis Dr Shirly Magwaza presented UKZN for her PhD in Horticultural Science.

Using Nitrified Urine Concentrate (NUC), a human urine-based fertiliser and effluent from domestic wastewater, as the nutrient source, Magwaza grew tomato plants in a hydroponic system at the Pollution Research Group’s (PRG) Newlands-Mashu research site in Durban. Her research was supervised by Dr Alfred Odindo and Dr Asanda Mditshwa.

Magwaza identified challenges to food production including water scarcity, nutrient-depleted soils, pollution, and a growing urban population. Because of the threats to environmental and public health arising from the insufficient provision of sanitation and wastewater disposal facilities, she adopted an integrated approach that offers sustainable management of waste disposal in a manner that could protect the environment and benefit society by allowing nutrient reuse and recovery for food production.

She demonstrated that the use of NUC as a main source of nutrients was not sufficient to produce an economic yield of tomatoes, with the low supply of calcium being a major limiting factor as it contributed to blossom end rot in tomatoes. Magwaza found that using wastewater effluents as a sole nutrient supply is also not sufficient for tomato plants grown in a hydroponic system, evident in the low concentration of essential nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and zinc in the wastewater. However, the addition of a commercial hydroponic fertiliser mix, CHFM, to anaerobic baffled reactor effluent resulted in increased plant growth, economic yield, nutritional quality and postharvest performance of hydroponically grown tomatoes.

Magwaza has published five papers in the following high impact journals: Science of the Total EnvironmentAgricultural Water ManagementActa Horticulturae, and Agronomy.

Magwaza suggested that there should be more focus on developing accurate cultivation practices to enhance the efficiency of using human excreta derived materials as nutrient sources for hydroponically grown tomatoes.

Magwaza completed her diploma in plant production at the former Lowveld College of Agriculture, now the University of Mpumalanga, her BSc at North-West University in Mafikeng, followed by a master’s degree at UKZN.

With her PhD now completed, she will continue with postdoctoral research at UKZN under Mditshwa’s supervision.

The pursuit of a PhD came with its own challenges for Magwaza, a mother of two children aged six and nine, as she had to juggle the responsibilities of being a wife, mother and student. During the final two years of her PhD studies, she also lectured at the University of Zululand, which put increased demand on her time and focus and necessitated that she work on weekends, and occasionally take her children along on data collection trips.

Magwaza credited her supervisors for their guidance, patience and encouragement, and her husband, Professor Lembe Magwaza, for his support and encouragement in enabling her to pursue her PhD studies.

She thanked the PRG for their technical support and experimental space, and made special mention of students in UKZN’s Agricultural Plant Sciences who supported and assisted her, identifying Mr Sabelo Shezi, Mr Sizwe Mthembu, Mr Sisanda Mthembu and Mr Sisekelo Sihlongonyane. She also thanked her friend and colleague, Ms Slindile Mkhabela, for her moral support.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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The Answers Lie in the Soil… and the Water

The Answers Lie in the Soil… and the Water
Ms Robyn Horan who graduated with a Master of Science in Hydrology.

Ms Robyn Horan graduated with her Master of Science in Hydrology for research that used a climate derived water balance as an alternative to a complex soils routine within hydrological modelling – an important new method for areas where complex soils data are not freely available.

Horan’s research involved using climate data from the Cathedral Peak and Two Streams catchments to determine the amount of soil water the roots of vegetation had access to.

‘The modelling of soil water is extremely important as the soil determines the partitioning of water for the use by vegetation, to release as river flow and to percolate as groundwater,’ said Horan.

‘Where complex soils data is not accessible, hydrological modelling of soil water and catchments is challenging, however, climate data that includes rainfall, evaporation and river flow are more readily available.

This root zone storage concept was not widely researched, and Horan was inspired to attempt it under South African conditions. The concept was successful across different climate zones and vegetation, performing particularly well under forestry, closely reflecting the original published studies and better reflecting the observed soil water than traditional methods. This provided a more dynamic, robust and accurate conceptualisation of the soil water within the root-zone.

This could reduce the uncertainty in hydrological modelling in regions where soils and rooting characteristics are unknown, and assist in better estimation of forestry water use in South Africa, with significance for water resource management and water use policy and law.

The daughter of Hydrology lecturer Mr Mark Horan, Horan spent much of her childhood on campus, fascinated by the hydrology posters and catchment maps in the corridors of the Rabie Saunders Building, where her goal was to be a student. With an affinity for the natural environment, Horan began her academic career in engineering, before switching to the hydrology she so enjoyed.

Horan says her many valuable experiences as part of the UKZN Sports Executive, Chairperson of the UKZN Rowing and Tennis Clubs and a member of hockey, tennis, rowing and touch rugby teams, equipped her with essential life skills of leadership, resilience, team work, time management and determination.

‘UKZN provides so much more than education; by taking opportunities to get involved in different aspects of student life, UKZN can provide everything one needs to build all-round character, which is so vital in the workplace,’ she said.

After completing her Honours and looking for international experience, Horan submitted her CV to the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) and was delighted to be offered a position as a water resources hydrologist, which she has held for the past two years while completing her masters part-time. She currently works with large-scale hydrological and land-surface models, focusing on the effect of humans on the hydrological cycle in India and Brazil.

Horan said doing her master's developed her analytical skills, self-discipline and patience.

‘UKZN provided me with all I need to pursue an international career in Hydrology,’ said Horan. ‘Academically, I received a world-class education, practical experience and skills that are of a level not expected of a graduate internationally.’

Horan gave credit to her parents and her supervisor, Dr Michele Toucher, for their continuous support, and paid a special tribute to her father for the role he played throughout her life but especially during her time at UKZN.

Horan plans to start PhD studies after publishing some of her current research.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Master’s Project Enhances Maize Improvement

Master’s Project Enhances Maize Improvement
Mr Malven Mushayi whose research investigated methods of widening the genetic base of the tropical maize germplasm.

Mr Malven Mushayi, a Senior Research Associate at Seed Co Ltd in Zimbabwe, has graduated with his MSc in Plant Breeding after investigating methods of widening the genetic base of the tropical maize germplasm to enhance maize improvement in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), completing his thesis in one year.

The low maize yield experienced in SSA hinders food security and economic development in a region dependent on maize production. Mushayi sought to develop high yielding hybrid cultivars to withstand current and future production constraints in tropical and sub-tropical environments, after systematic crosses with temperate maize germplasm. Hybrids developed between tropical and temperate maize germplasm had not been widely studied to improve tropical maize germplasm.

The narrow genetic base of tropical maize germplasm, caused by continuous directional selection by breeders, creates genetic “bottle-necks” which undermine breeding progress and limit achievable genetic gains. This can be circumvented by introgressing genes from temperate sources into the adapted tropical maize genetic base. Mushayi assessed genetic diversity levels and population structure among tropical and temperate maize germplasm lines to select unique genotypes. He determined heritability, genetic gains, and association between grain yield and yield components in maize hybrids derived from tropical and temperate maize inbred lines to devise a suitable breeding strategy. He also assessed grain yield stability and adaptability of these hybrids in five production sites in South Africa and Zimbabwe.

‘Development of hybrid cultivars with improved resistance or tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses is of interest to ensure sustainable maize production amidst the climate change induced stresses experienced in SSA,’ said Mushayi.

Mushayi observed significant genetic distance between tropical and temperate maize germplasm lines, a key prerequisite for breeding. He demonstrated the utility of tropical and temperate maize germplasm in developing high yielding hybrids for specific maize production environments. He observed significant genetic variation and higher genetic gains, suggesting that the new tropical temperate derived maize hybrids have commercial value for breeding and the market place in Africa.

His experimental hybrids, which showed variable performance and yield stability, were selected for genetic advancement and commercialisation in the region. This could enhance future plant breeding progress and the attainment of high genetic gains, providing a guide on cultivar development and deployment to specific environments in South Africa and Zimbabwe and helping breeders to select ideal test locations to optimise genotype performance and efficiently use limited testing resources.

Mushayi recommended that plant breeders fully exploit the genetic diversity that exists between tropical and temperate maize germplasm to aid development of productive parental lines to use in developing productive hybrids for tropical and sub-tropical environments.

His research formed part of a larger Seed Co Ltd effort to introgress exotic genes into adapted local maize germplasm, enabling him to utilise Seed Co Ltd resources and establish field trials early and effectively.

Mushayi has been at Seed Co Ltd for more than 10 years. Pursuing his master’s research supported his work there, and equipped him with the skills, technical expertise, confidence and network he said will advance his plant breeding career.

By structuring his work, working hard, applying his plant breeding experience, and adhering to a strict research plan, Mushayi completed his master’s in one year. He credited the support and professional guidance of his supervisors at UKZN and Seed Co, Professor Hussein Shimelis and Professor John Derera, for making this possible. He thanked Seed Co Ltd for the financial support of his research, and thanked Dr Admire Shayanowako and Dr Isack Mathew at UKZN for their assistance.

Mushayi thanked Mrs Rowelda Donelly, Ms Marsha Manjoo and Ms Lyndre Anderson from UKZN for their administrative support, as well as the research staff at various sites used in the study for their technical assistance. Finally, he expressed gratitude to his wife, Beaullah Ruvimbo Magwenya, and child Mazvita, his parents, sisters, brothers, relatives and friends for their constant encouragement and support. He thanked God for giving him the ability, knowledge, strength and opportunity to undertake this study and perseverance to complete it.

Having completed his master’s, Mushayi looks forward to pursuing his PhD in the area of plant breeding to broaden his understanding of the field and enhancing the technical expertise and skills needed to run breeding programmes efficiently.

Words: Christine Cuénod 

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Response of Grasslands to Global Change Examined in Cum Laude Master’s Research

Response of Grasslands to Global Change Examined in <em>Cum Laude</em> Master’s Research
Cum laude graduate, Mr Stuart Demmer.

Grassland ecosystem stability was the topic of research undertaken by Mr Stuart Demmer which culminated in him being awarded a cum laude Master’s degree in Grassland Science.

Supervised by Professor Kevin Kirkman and Dr Michelle Tedder, Demmer compiled a global systematic map to understand better how grasslands are responding to stressors such as shifting rainfall patterns, increased temperatures, impacts from human activity, and biodiversity loss.

‘Many of our conservation and agricultural areas comprise grasslands which play a major role in supplying ecosystem services such as water purification and habitats for beneficial insects, including pollinators,’ said Demmer. ‘It’s important for us to think about the way in which stressors dramatically change how grasslands function as these ecosystems have far-reaching impacts.’

Demmer reviewed evidence from about 200 review articles detailing how different stressors interact with one another to influence various aspects of grassland functioning. To complement this analysis of trends in the literature, Demmer then examined how grassland stability changes following nutrient enrichment – a major side effect of intensive agriculture – across factors such as geography, climate, land use management and biodiversity to improve understanding of which grasslands are most sensitive to these factors.

Demmer found his work with large datasets interesting, particularly given his access to data from UKZN’s Ukulinga Research Farm long-term rangeland trials which have taken place over the past 70 years and more. Some experiments running at the site are part of international research networks, with the same trial being replicated in grasslands on other continents. He noted that no two grasslands responded in the same way, with some stressors being beneficial to grasslands in one location and detrimental to those in another. Demmer said he gained an entire new skillset through analysing these kinds of data.

While an undergraduate student, Demmer received a Malegapuru William Makgoba Scholarship, a College Deputy Vice-Chancellor’s Scholarship and the 50th Anniversary Award, while – during masters’ studies – he received a Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, an award he was humbled and privileged to receive. He said he was motivated by the opportunity to do research work and chose grassland science as rangeland ecosystems provided insights which could be applied to many different domains.

Demmer now hopes to find employment in the agricultural sector where he believes he can apply ecological knowledge to improve the environmental and economic sustainability of agriculture in South Africa.

Demmer thanked his fiancée, Ms Carmen Ortmann, for her continuous support and encouragement during his studies as well as Kirkman and Tedder for instilling in him a passion for research and understanding of the natural world.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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