Honing in on Hippos

Honing in on Hippos
Dr Camille Fritsch and South African National Parks Veterinary Wildlife Services staff fit a radio tracker onto a hippo.

The common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) is one of Africa’s most iconic mammalian species. Hippos play an important and understudied role as ecosystem engineers in their environment, both on land and in water.

Newly-capped Dr Camille Fritsch gained a PhD in Ecological Sciences for his study on aspects of the behavioural ecology of the common hippopotamus, and their consequences in managed systems in South Africa. He was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs.

‘Camille used novel drone technology and radiotracking to obtain ecological and behavioural data on hippos,’ explained Downs. ‘Understanding the environmental requirements and drivers of hippos’ space use is important for their conservation, especially with climate change and loss of habitat.’

Fritsch chose UKZN for his PhD because he was very interested in the work Downs was doing. Hailing from the USA, he also saw it as ‘a terrific opportunity to conduct research in KwaZulu-Natal, one of the global biodiversity and conservation management hotspots of the world.’

He explained that, ‘Hippos are an iconic species across Africa and are unique ecological engineers in both the aquatic and terrestrial environments. Global hippo populations are understudied and decreasing because of a combination of anthropogenic and climate change-induced threats including changes in patterns of rainfall and water run-off, landscape change from an increasing human population in Africa, poor freshwater resources management and illegal hunting, among other factors.

‘The goal of my research was to quantify aspects of hippo behaviour and ecology in response to seasonal and annual environmental changes, to improve the future management of hippo populations in the context of fenced protected areas with finite resources, and to manage sources of conflict between hippos and humans in the developing world.’

Fritsch grew up in California, dreaming about becoming a wildlife biologist in South Africa and doing amazing research on, and interacting with, iconic animals like hippos.

‘This research area provided me with the opportunity to do challenging and rewarding work while contributing to improving conservation efforts of a species that I have cared deeply about since my childhood,’ he said.

His research is significant because hippos, wildlife and natural environments across Africa are generally understudied. ‘My research will contribute to our understanding of the hippos and the systems in which they exist to improve conservation efforts in light of human and climate-induced environmental change.’

Fritsch plans to continue his research on hippos whilst sharing the importance of wildlife conservation with people around the world.

He was quick to acknowledge his support network: ‘The most important people in my journey have been my best friend and fiancée, Kelly, my supportive family at home in California, including my brother Emilien, mom Beatrice, and dad Jean-Georges, and of course my inspiring supervisor Professor Colleen Downs.’

Not surprisingly, when not tracking hippos, Fritsch loves to explore the outdoors with friends and family and to play sport.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied


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Mother and Daughter Own the Graduation Stage Together

Mother and Daughter Own the Graduation Stage Together
Mother and daughter, Dr Dumile Gumede and Ms Lindelwa Msweli.

It’s a family affair for Dr Dumile Gumede, née Mkhwanazi, and Ms Lindelwa Msweli as the mother and daughter celebrate their PhD in Health Promotion and MSc in Ecological Sciences, respectively.

The journey to her PhD has been long for Gumede. Originally from Mtubatuba she enrolled at the then University of Natal in 1994 to study a BSc on a student loan. However, academic exclusion and falling pregnant with Msweli led her to drop out.

Gumede did not let academic exclusion and the associated stigma prevent her from pursuing her dreams, and she re-enrolled four years later as a part-time student in Community and Development Studies at the University’s Open Learning Network while caring for her daughter and paying off her student loan.

Gumede found work with the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI) as a field worker in Mtubatuba and through this and the mentorship of the AHRI’s Dr Kobus Herbst, her interest in the field of health was sparked. During her studies, she was awarded a fellowship to attend a two-month summer school on survey research techniques at the University of Michigan - a life-changing experience for Gumede, who was the only undergraduate student selected for the fellowship.

Completing her degree and her selection for an overseas fellowship provided a sense of fulfilment for Gumede, and shaped her relationship with her daughter and how she guided her.

Gumede spent several years with the AHRI before moving on to other organisations to bolster her experience, working with government, non-governmental organisations and the private sector. She completed her master’s through UKZN. Realising that research was the best fit for her, she ended up as a lecturer at the Durban University of Technology’s (DUT) Centre for General Education.

‘I enjoy seeing the younger generation critically interrogating who they are and thinking deeply about themselves and what they want to be. My own journey shaped my teaching philosophy and commitment to assisting students to achieve academic success,’ said Gumede.

Gumede’s early experiences came full circle with her PhD as she worked with the AHRI for her doctoral research. Under the supervision of Professor Anna Meyer-Weitz, she investigated inter-generational family relationships between grandparents and their adolescent grandchildren in a rural community in KwaZulu-Natal where HIV prevention interventions were implemented.

Gumede has applied for a postdoctoral research grant to investigate how first-year experiences shape the self-care practices of DUT students from grandparent families in the COVID-19 era. 

Family support was vital to Gumede, who is mother to Msweli and her two siblings, with Msweli providing some insight into the University system as a full-time student. Strong mentorship was important in her journey, and she thanked Professor Janet Seeley at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and her husband and Msweli’s father Dr Siphiwe Gumede, an acting senior director at Mangosuthu University of Technology’s Teaching and Learning Development Centre, for their invaluable support and guidance. He is also a doctoral graduate of UKZN, having completed his PhD six years ago.

Inspired by her father’s career and by growing up in Mtubatuba near the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, studies in the natural sciences were always Msweli’s goal.

While she initially considered studying in Cape Town, Msweli was accepted in Life and Environmental Sciences at UKZN and with her mother based there at the time, she found herself studying in Pietermaritzburg.

Despite excelling at high school, the university environment was a challenge for Msweli and she had to step up her efforts. After completing her degree, and encouraged by her mother, she took up an opportunity to assist postgraduate students in the laboratory of Professor Colleen Downs, South African Research Chair in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

After a semester as a research assistant, an opportunity arose to pursue honours studies funded by Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Invasion Biology. Her honours research became a pilot study for what she went on to research for her master’s degree: the effects of indigenous and exotic Southern African ungulates on seed dispersal and germination of alien invasive fruiting plants, supervised by Downs.

This work filled a gap in knowledge of dispersal of invasive alien plants by southern African ungulates. From her research, she published a book chapter with Downs and Dr Christophe Baltzinger of the Research Unit Forest Ecosystems in France.

Mentorship was as important to Msweli’s career as it was to her mother’s, with Downs filling a similar role to that Herbst played for Gumede, and she also thanked co-supervisor Dr Manqoba Zungu for his guidance and support.

Msweli is progressing to PhD studies in UKZN’s Centre for Functional Biodiversity on the urban ecology of rock hyrax in urban areas in KwaZulu-Natal.

She said that graduating with her mother is a blessing from God.

‘Everything I am is because of my family; they are a gift from God and no one knows me as well as they do,’ said Msweli. ‘My mother taught me to be a go-getter and to identify opportunities, and instilled a strong work ethic and resilience.’

Both Gumede and Msweli experienced loss on their way to their degrees; Gumede’s father died shortly before she completed her undergraduate studies, and Msweli’s grandmother passed away while she was an honours student. Both women attributed their achievements to the influence of these late family members. A spiritual family, they said their prayers and encouragement of one another have also shaped their success.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied


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Double the Doctorates for Shivambu Duo

Double the Doctorates for Shivambu Duo
Husband and wife doctoral duo, Cavin and Ndivhuwo Shivambu.

Spring Graduation at UKZN is twice the celebration for the Shivambu family as husband and wife team Drs Tinyiko Cavin Shivambu and Ndivhuwo Shivambu receive their PhDs in Zoology.

Both were supervised by South African Research Chair in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape, Professor Colleen Downs. Cavin’s research concerned the highly invasive rose-ringed parakeets in the eThekwini metropolitan area and how they could be managed, while Ndivhuwo looked into the invasion risks posed by the pet trade in non-native mammals and what could be done to mitigate these, with Dr Sandi Willows-Munro co-supervising her work.

They are both from Limpopo Province, where Ndivhuwo attended Maligana Wilson Secondary School and Cavin attended Ramauba Secondary School. The couple met while studying botany and zoology at the University of Venda (UNIVEN), where they went on to complete their Honours in Zoology.

Both received funding from the Department of Science and Innovation - National Research Foundation Centre for Invasion Biology (CIB) to pursue master’s studies in Zoology at the University of Pretoria.

‘Postgraduate life came with its challenges, but we enjoyed the experience, and studying science in particular,’ they said.

After meeting Downs at a CIB general meeting and drawn to UKZN by its ranking amongst the top institutions in terms of its science, teaching and innovation, they decided to enrol for PhD studies in Downs’ lab where they were keen to focus on biological invasions.

‘Biological invasions occur when introduced species colonise new geographic regions, reproduce rapidly, establish, and cause either environmental or socio-economic impacts which can be reversible or irreversible,’ explained the Shivambus.

Cavin said that the rose-ringed parakeet has established feral populations by way of pet trade escapees and intentional releases in South Africa. He used a combination of applied ecology and socio-ecological management to propose appropriate and relevant management solutions.

‘I found that the population of this species is increasing in eThekwini municipality and it competes with native bird species for food and nests,’ he said.

‘Since parakeets are sought after as charismatic invasive species and are kept as pets, my study recommends the introduction of environmental education and engagement with community members so that informed decisions can be made to control them without causing conflict,’ added Cavin.

Ndivhuwo’s research assessed the potential impacts of non-native small mammals in the South African pet trade. Her study found that the widespread trade in exotic small mammals includes many pets regarded as invasive species that could threaten important agricultural crops, biodiversity, and human well-being through disease transmission, and cause infrastructural damage. Furthermore, about 46% of the species are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, including most of the primate species that are sold at higher prices.

‘Given the potential impacts associated with the pet trade, the study recommended that the public, the pet industry, researchers and policy developers should engage in discussions on the development of policies and regulations, and appropriate decision-making and management strategies to prevent future invasions and the decline of native species through the pet trade,’ she said.

During their PhD journey, Ndivhuwo and Cavin authored and co-authored three book chapters and 12 papers, of which three each came from their PhDs. Both are aiming for careers in academia or at research institutions, and they are investigating opportunities for postdoctoral research.

They thanked their families for their support and dedicated their PhDs to their mothers, who encouraged them to study further.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Star Formation Fascinates Cum Laude Astronomer

Star Formation Fascinates <em>Cum Laude</em> Astronomer
Cum laude MSc graduate, Mr Moinudeen Mohamed.

When one focuses on the stars, a cum laude pass is somewhat fitting.

This is what astronomer Mr Moinudeen Mohamed earned for his MSc in Applied Mathematics that determined the star formation rate of a fat galaxy cluster. Using observations from MeerKAT (the largest and most sensitive radio telescope in the southern hemisphere until the SKA comes into being in 2024), he focused on “El Gordo” (the fat one), a distant cluster of galaxies which represent a massive collision of gas, galaxies and dark matter in the distant Universe.

‘The light from El Gordo has taken about seven billion years to reach us,’ commented his supervisor, Professor Matt Hilton.

Mohamed’s research aimed to determine if merging galaxy clusters affect the star formation rate as well as to improve understanding of star formation rates in clusters.

‘Currently there are a few mechanisms which have been proposed regarding the suppression of star formations in galaxies; however, the dominant mode is yet to be identified,’ said Mohamed.

‘Moin’s study was a big task and very computationally intensive,’ said Hilton. ‘He did a great job on it. He then used the MeerKAT data to study star formation activity in the cluster member galaxies.’

‘I hope that my past, current and future research will play a part in discovering more about our Universe and shed some light on dark matter and dark energy,’ commented Mohamed. ‘The fact that everything we know is part of the observable Universe, which accounts for just 4%, is depressing.’

Mohamed has been awarded a PhD scholarship from the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and is now investigating the impact of active galactic nuclei and star formation on a large sample of galaxy clusters using other MeerKAT data.

Mohamed did not originally start out in Astronomy, but swapped over after completing two years of Chemical Engineering, when UKZN introduced an Astronomy major. ‘I was interested, joined the programme and stayed with UKZN throughout due to the support I received from the world-class research team and the opportunities at UKZN,’ he said.

On his change in career path, Mohamed had the following to say: ‘Do not pursue something if it makes you unhappy. Leaving engineering to study astronomy was definitely the correct decision as it put me on a path I could never have imagined. It’s never too late to change.’

Mohamed paid special tribute to his mother for helping him get to where he is today. ‘Without a doubt my mum takes the top spot. My dad passed away when I was just seven. My mum took on both roles and still continues even though I am now 27. With her unwavering support, I honestly feel I can do anything.

‘Unfortunately, I can never do enough to pay her back - thanks Mum!’

Words: Sally Frost

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Study Examines the Impact of Solar Technology on Rural Households

Study Examines the Impact of Solar Technology on Rural Households
Ms Deanntha Kanniah graduated with a Master’s in Environmental Science cum laude.

Ms Deanntha Kanniah graduated with a Master's in Environmental Science cum laude.

After completing her secondary education at Queensburgh Girls High, Kanniah knew that she would follow in the footsteps of her family who are UKZN alumni. Motivated by her passion for conservation and the motto, ‘Leave the world a better place than you found it,’ she registered for a BSc in Environmental Science.

Her Bachelor of Science Honours project examined the attitudes and perceptions of middle-income households (non-adopters) to solar PV systems in eThekwini Municipality. This inspired her to pursue a career within the energy industry.

Kanniah’s master’s research was titled: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Solar Technology Impacts on Rural Households: Experiences from the Global South. It examined whether research undertaken in the context of developing countries over a 20-year period has led to improved energy access and if it is a reflection of changing energy narratives.

The study also explored how solar technologies impact livelihood outcomes. This involved an extensive review of the literature in this field.

The study identified the types of solar technologies installed and the influence of major international events on solar energy research.

Kanniah found that there has been increased awareness of the impacts of climate change as well as calls to transition towards cleaner sources of energy. South Africa has the added challenge of trying to eliminate energy poverty in low-income and rural communities.

The study concluded that there is insufficient evidence on solar technologies’ impact on the livelihoods and energy needs of rural households due to the different methods used to quantify such impact. It recommends increased investment by governments, industry and research organisations in research on solar energy technologies in the Global South, the use of multidisciplinary and mixed method approaches for impact assessment, and sharing of experiences of solar energy technologies. Finally, the study highlighted the need for increased operation and maintenance of solar energy technologies provided to rural households.

The highlight of Kanniah’s master’s journey was representing South Africa as one of two student delegates at the 2019 International Student Energy Summit in London, where she presented on the state of the energy industry in South Africa.

She thanked her supervisor Dr Suveshnee Munien who ‘is so passionate and incredibly knowledgeable about the projects she works on that you can’t help but also be enthusiastic.’ She also thanked her family for their support. Munien commented: ‘Deanntha has shown tremendous growth as a postgraduate student and emerging researcher and has the potential to make valuable contributions to the field.’

Kanniah is currently a policy assistant intern at the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) where she works primarily on the portfolio of the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies. She hopes to establish a career within the renewable energy industry and is looking at possible PhD opportunities. 

Words: Leena Rajpal

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From PhD Straight to Parenthood for Ecological Sciences Graduate

From PhD Straight to Parenthood for Ecological Sciences Graduate
Dr Islamiat Abidemi Raji with her son Rehoboth and her husband Mr Johnson Abidemi Adebayo.

Achieving the title of Dr is a childhood dream come true for Islamiat Abidemi Raji as she graduates with her PhD in Ecological Sciences. This is not the only new title she acquired - two days after submitting her thesis, Raji gave birth to her first child.

Raji successfully completed her research within three years. Her study, which investigated the effects of land-use change on the distribution and use of Ficus (fig tree) species by frugivores in the urban mosaic landscape of Durban, was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs.

Originally from Nigeria, Raji received her Master’s in Conservation Biology from the A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute at the University of Jos after completing her undergraduate degree in Forestry and Wildlife Management at the University of Ilorin, where she was the first and only female student in her class and the top graduating student in her department.

Having encountered research from UKZN during her master’s studies, Raji put UKZN at the top of her list of universities to apply to for PhD studies, and was accepted. She gave up her job to travel to South Africa, arriving alone to begin her fieldwork in 2019 before her husband Mr Johnson Abidemi Adebayo joined her.

Completing her PhD was a challenging experience - Raji faced a language barrier as she interacted with isiZulu speakers during her fieldwork, had her fieldwork disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and worked throughout her pregnancy to complete her thesis before her son, Rehoboth, arrived. She said undertaking PhD studies in a new country taught her humility, patience and resilience, and left her feeling fulfilled.

‘This is what I really wanted to do, so I set out with a positive mind-set and was able to maximise every opportunity that came my way.’

During her studies, she was able to travel to three countries outside South Africa to attend training, workshops and conferences, and meet and collaborate with other researchers.

The highlight for Raji was the supervision she received from Downs, who was committed to her progress. She enjoyed the diversity of Downs’ laboratory, with people from different fields of expertise and background working together.

‘Research naturally opens one up to different opinions and new ideas, and studying biodiversity is always intriguing,’ she said. ‘This study improved my curiosity and fostered my ability to think and rethink, giving me a new perspective on life.’

Raji’s research involved looking at fig trees, of which there are about 124 species in Africa, which provide food to more than 1 200 vertebrate species, often available during times of food scarcity. It enhanced understanding of the role of birds, bats and other mammals in seed dispersal, germination, and the effect of land-use changes on fig-frugivore interactions along forest-urban gradients.

Raji has already achieved one publication with others under review. She hopes to contribute to improved conservation and management strategies for these keystone species, particularly in Africa as changing land use and population growth threaten the habitat and survival of these trees and the animals that they depend on and vice versa. Ficus trees can contribute to urban greening as part of habitat corridors that enhance landscape connectivity and help degraded landscapes to recover.

Raji is exploring postdoctoral opportunities, aiming at a career in academia.

She expressed profound gratitude to Downs for her support and guidance throughout her studies, calling her a surrogate mother. She thanked Downs’ other postgraduate students for their support, and Professors Idowu Adeoye, Kim R McConkey and Phoebe Barnard for their mentorship and input. She also thanked the National Research Foundation and The World Academy of Sciences for funding her research.

She paid special tribute to her husband, who is also pursuing his PhD through UKZN in Agricultural Extension and Rural Resource Management, for his belief in her, support, time, assistance with fieldwork, lending an ear, advice and contributions. She also expressed gratitude to her parents, parents-in-law, and friends for their prayers, encouragement and belief.

A spiritual person, Raji said that conducting this research also gave her a deeper appreciation of God. She attributed her success to Jesus Christ, saying she drew strength, life and godliness from her faith throughout her research, finding inspiration in the scripture of Romans 8.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Top Achiever Bags Another Cum Laude

Top Achiever Bags Another <em>Cum Laude</em>
Mr Shabaaz Abdullah graduated with an MSc in Chemistry cum laude.

The COVID-19 pandemic had many of us feeling down, but Mr Shabaaz Abdullah used his down time to take a break from his laboratory work and focus on research.

His efforts paid off as he was awarded his Master of Science in Chemistry cum laude. His research project was titled: Imaging and Therapy of Cancer and other Diseases using Radioisotopes of Rhenium and Technetium.

Abdullah always wanted to study at UKZN, where he completed his BSc in Chemistry and Chemical Technology, followed by a Bachelor of Science Honours in Chemistry, which was also awarded cum laude.

His master’s study focused on designing and formulating anti-cancer pharmaceuticals using the metal rhenium and organic moeties that were found to be potent against cervical and breast cancer cell lines.

The research will assist in developing easy-to-use radiopharmaceuticals that can be monitored using gamma-imagery that does not expose cancer patients to high doses of radiation. ‘These radiopharmaceuticals are intended to be both therapeutic and diagnostic (otherwise known as theranostic),’ said Abdullah.

His research project was funded by the Nuclear Technologies in Medicine and Biosciences Initiative (NTeMBI), which is managed by the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) and supported by the Department of Science and Innovation.

Abdullah enjoyed his academic journey and learned that chemical reactions are subject to trial and error; thus much effort goes into developing, optimising, analysing, characterisation and elucidation of the final product.

He was also involved in supporting and developing young scientists, which taught him patience, meticulousness and leadership.

As a part of his studies Abdullah completed the Necsa Induction and Radiation Worker training courses as well as the subsequent examination. He received promising feedback from the NTeMBI stakeholders and during his second research visit, will conduct radiolabelling studies which can be advanced to in vivo radiopharmaceutical studies.

Abdullah is thankful to his parents for teaching him how fruitful it is to work with one’s hands. He thanked his supervisors, Professor Irvin Booysen for his guidance and assistance and the Booysen Research Group for their friendship, support and the experience; and Professor Matthew Akerman for his advice.

Booysen said Abdullah is an analytical thinker who conducted his research activities enthusiastically.

Moving forward, Abdullah aims to work in the chemical industry, which is his greatest passion. He aspires to open his own business one day to handle the safe logistics of all forms of refined chemicals.

Words: Ntokozo Dladla

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Statistical Analysis of School Attendance Rates Subject of Cum Laude MSc

Statistical Analysis of School Attendance Rates Subject of <em>Cum Laude</em> MSc
Mr Thabang Chabalala earned his MSc in Statistics cum laude.

Mr Thabang Chabalala was ecstatic when he learnt that he had earned his MSc in Statistics cum laude. His thesis focused on the statistical analysis of school attendance rates among South African learners under the age of 20.

‘The lecturers in the Statistics Department motivated me to do my master’s at UKZN,’ said Chabalala. ‘They are so dedicated, which made me want to learn more from them and also improve my knowledge in an area that I am comfortable with. I wanted to grab as much information as possible.

‘My research aimed to determine the factors that affected education attendance in learners under the age of 20 who have not obtained matric. I noticed that there were learners who were not attending educational institutions, even though the government has assisted with a number of initiatives and interventions.

‘This made me wonder if there are factors chasing learners out of school. What new factors are causing them to leave?’

The statistical data used in the study was obtained from a generalised household survey, which included many factors that are linked to education attendance.

‘The results showed that, indeed, there are variables which are significantly associated with school attendance,’ said Chabalala. ‘After application of the statistical model which accounted for autocorrelation, the western part of the country showed lower school attendance than the eastern side. This means that further interventions are needed for that part of the country.’

Chabalala’s research will assist the government in navigating those provinces which need more interventions. ‘It will help educators and policy makers discover ways of dealing with different issues that push learners away,’ he said.

A number of people have played an important role in Chabalala’s life and his studies at large. He expressed his gratitude to his supervisors, Ms Danielle Roberts and Professor Temesgen Zewotir. ‘They were crucial to my studies and I will forever be grateful for their dedication and commitment in making my studies a success.’

‘Thabang was a pleasure to supervise,’ said Roberts. ‘His passion for Statistics poured into his work. No matter what obstacles he encountered, he always faced them with optimism and a bright smile, which will be missed in our Department. Thabang has a bright future ahead of him and I look forward to seeing him excel.’

Chabalala thanked his wife and family for their support and acknowledged financial assistance from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the South African Statistical Association (SASA).

Moving forward, he hopes to find employment in the banking industry. ‘There are multiple issues in this industry such as security breaches, changing business models and customer retention. I aim to use my Statistics training to help banks discover new ways of communicating information to clients, whether in a rural or urban area. It won’t be an easy task since there are protocols to be followed, but with time and opportunities, I believe a difference can be made.’

With a Master’s degree in Statistics under his belt with distinction, the future looks bright for Chabalala.

Words: Sally Frost

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Multi-disciplinary Researcher Makes Inroads into Artificial Intelligence

Multi-disciplinary Researcher Makes Inroads into Artificial Intelligence
Mr Mohale Molefe graduated with a Master of Science in Engineering summa cum laude.

‘At the time, my BSc degree in Mechanical Engineering from UKZN was the most significant milestone in my life,’ exclaims Mr Mohale Molefe. ‘You can only imagine what I must be feeling now to be graduating with a master’s degree. My family is so excited.’

‘Studying for my Master’s degree in Computer Engineering at UKZN has been an exciting and nerve-wrecking experience,’ he added, ‘but with support, advice and the hands-on approach of my supervisor, Professor Jules Raymond Tapamo, changing from one engineering discipline to the other felt seamless and manageable.’

Completing an undergraduate degree in a different discipline to his master’s degree has made Molefe’s skills set more varied and diverse. ‘Modules such as Programming, Robotics, Mechatronics and Control Systems made it easy for me to continue my postgraduate studies in Computer Engineering as I was already familiar with some of the modules and concepts,’ he said.

His multidisciplinary knowledge also opened up employment opportunities. Molefe is employed by Transnet Freight Rail, where his main focus is to introduce Artificial Intelligence techniques for safe and reliable transportation of freight.

Molefe’s MSc research applied image processing and machine learning techniques for automated detection and classification of rail welding defects. Conventionally, railway industries have used radiography testing methods to inspect possible defects that could have occurred during the welding procedure. However, this is a long, costly and subjective process as it relies on human expertise. Molefe’s research looked at how the principles of image processing and machine learning algorithms can be utilised to automate such investigations.

‘Throughout history, railway transportation has played a vital role in transporting heavy freight and passengers at a lower cost than other transportation modes,’ explained Molefe. ‘Furthermore, it plays a significant role in developing the country’s economy and enabling the growth of other sectors such as mining and agriculture.

‘Therefore, it remains a crucial task for all railway maintenance personnel to ensure safe and reliable train transportation. Railroad failures such as rail breaks are directly linked to train derailments and cause the loss of lives and revenue. Most rail breaks have been traced to welding defects which were not detected owing to human error.’

Molefe’s study proposes an automated method that enables rail welding defects to be investigated in a fast, reliable and objective manner.

Molefe is currently pursuing a PhD in Graph Theory and Graph Representation Learning at UKZN under the supervision of Tapamo. This is a new and emerging field within the domain of Machine Learning. His study aims to design a model to classify different road types for realistic cities from the road network graph dataset. This would assist road users in planning their road trips by avoiding congested routes and routes with many intersections. Such a model can also be integrated into interactive maps to provide road users with useful traffic information.

The world really is an oyster for this old school rap music lover.

Words: Swastika Maney

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“Love at First Sight” for Mechatronic Engineer

“Love at First Sight” for Mechatronic Engineer
Mechatronic Engineer Ms Ingrid Botha.

“It was love at first sight!” Sounds like a line from a typical Hollywood romance. But on meeting Ingrid Botha, one realises there is nothing “typical” about her. The love she is describing is for soft robotics.

Botha obtained her BSc in Mechanical Engineering from UKZN in 2019 and during her undergraduate years realised that mechanical engineering is a vast field of study.

‘Once I completed my undergraduate degree, I was overwhelmed by the number of directions it could take me in. I realised that further experience in a specific field of study would cultivate greater confidence in myself as a professional. I thus chose to pursue a Master’s degree in Mechatronic Engineering,’ shared Botha.

Through her research, Botha was introduced to the field of soft robotics. The rest, as the adage goes, was history.

Her master’s research focused on an integrated low-cost reading device to provide quality education to the visually impaired. A portable device was required to transcribe printed text to braille in real-time. The design consisted of three major subsystems: the optical character recognition (OCR) software, which was required to transcribe the scanned text into measurable voltage outputs; the dielectric elastomer actuators (DEAs) that form the tactile braille display mounted on the user’s index finger; and the electronic control circuit that combined the OCR software and actuators into a single device.

At the outset Botha intended to integrate mechatronic engineering as a means to create a more accessible environment for visually impaired individuals in smart factories and Industry 4.0. However, soon after commencing her research, she realised that in order to improve employment statistics, the major challenge of accessible education had to be tackled first. Her research was fuelled by the alarming statistic that of the 22 schools dedicated to the blind and visually impaired in South Africa, 17 do not have access to braille textbooks for the CAPS syllabus. She thus focused on how mechatronic technology could be implemented to improve current employment statistics and visually impaired people’s quality of life.

The device was required to transcribe printed characters into a refreshable braille display in real-time, therefore allowing visually impaired individuals access to books, journals and newspapers without assistance or the need to wait for the production of a braille-embossed printed copy.

Botha’s passion for the subject fuelled her research and helped her mark out a clear career path that she would follow after graduation. ‘Completing my research and dissertation under COVID-19 conditions certainly introduced its own set of challenges,’ said Botha. ‘However, this unique situation also made me realise what can be accomplished using the decidedly under-utilised resources that the Internet and online networking can provide.’

Her decision to continue her postgraduate studies at UKZN was influenced by the supportive atmosphere cultivated by the lecturers and staff in the School of Engineering.

Botha is currently pursuing a PhD in Mechanical Engineering at UKZN focusing on 4D-printing.

She thanked her parents and sisters for their support and love, ‘even on those days when I wasn’t very lovable.’ She also expressed her gratitude to her supervisors Professor Glen Bright and Mr James Collins, for their unwavering support and motivation. ‘And thanks to Quiver, for teaching me courage,’ she said.

Words: Swastika Maney

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Triumphing Against the Odds for an MSc in Physics

Triumphing Against the Odds for an MSc in Physics
Mr Musawenkosi Buthelezi.

A commitment to bettering his life earned Mr Musawenkosi Doctor Buthelezi his Master’s in Physics for his research on the effect of Argon and Helium-Neon (He-Ne) lasers on melanin machinery in pigments, which could be significant for aspects of medicine such as the treatment of cancer cells with low laser pulses.

Buthelezi matriculated from Thubelihle High School near Newcastle. His favourite subjects were Mathematics and Physical Science, leading him to pursue studies that challenged his logical thinking, required problem-solving skills and encouraged comprehension rather than memorisation.

He enrolled in Physics at UKZN, an institution he chose because of its international recognition and because it is situated in his home province. The supportive environment at UKZN, and its staff’s attentiveness to students kept him at the Institution all the way to master’s studies, when he benefitted from the supervision of Professor Naven Chetty.

Despite beginning his studies with few computer skills, the introduction to computer skills offered by UKZN to new students after orientation helped him start off on the right foot. He said the experience of studying at UKZN was positive because of the resources made available to students, including tutors, well-equipped facilities and computer lans. Residence became a home away from home, and he found support when he needed it.

The location of the University and the international nature of the Discipline of Physics meant Buthelezi was able to interact with people from all over the country and continent, enhancing his learning experience.

‘Many cosmetic applications these days, such as laser hair removal, blemish removal and evening out the skin complexion, use lasers; however, not many take the actual colour or pigmentation of the skin into account,’ said Buthelezi.

He set out to determine how different human tissue behaves under varying levels of radiation. He created synthetic “phantom” brain and prostate tissue with the same absorption and scattering properties as authentic human tissue, and exposed them to Argon red laser and He-Ne green laser light to determine opportune levels of scattering and absorption, improving on the results of previous studies on the topic.

He hopes his research will contribute to some aspects of medicine, including improved treatment of cancers through less invasive therapeutic procedures, and improved information in the public sphere about the benefits and dangers of lasers.

Buthelezi completed his master’s while working as a physics laboratory technician at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, where he applies the skills and knowledge acquired at UKZN, demonstrating the value of the competitive education he received.

Undertaking master’s studies taught him the value of taking time to plan before executing a task, and understanding the work at hand. He found discipline essential to reach his goals, and learned to be determined and persistent. Encountering challenges that included the loss of a laptop and valuable data, as well as a vehicle accident while he was studying, taught Buthelezi to persevere.

‘When things go wrong, you need to come back the next day with a good attitude, and never lose sight of your goals,’ he said.

Balancing full-time work with his studies was challenging, requiring him to do much of his research on weekends, and spend his vacations in Pietermaritzburg. Shortly before graduation, Buthelezi’s brother passed away, and he said he will feel his absence as he graduates.

‘He has overcome tremendous adversity to achieve his MSc, and his work has been characterised by his tenacity for betterment of his life,’ said Chetty. ‘This achievement speaks volumes for his growth as an individual.’

Buthelezi thanked Chetty, and his co-supervisor Dr Bamise Adeleye for their support and encouragement, and for ensuring the quality of his work by providing appropriate and thorough guidance. He expressed gratitude to Mr Mpumelelo Hlongwane in the Discipline of Physics for providing accommodation in Pietermaritzburg when he needed it. He thanked his mother in particular, and the rest of his family for their support. He also credited his daughter, born during his studies, for motivating him to complete what he starts.

Buthelezi is considering pursuing PhD studies, saying he hopes to live up to the middle name of “Doctor” bestowed on him by his parents.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Research on Edible Insects and Related Indigenous Knowledge Earns a PhD

Research on Edible Insects and Related Indigenous Knowledge Earns a PhD
Dr Zabentungwa Hlongwane earned her PhD in Ecological Sciences.

Dr Zabentungwa Hlongwane was awarded a PhD in Ecological Sciences for her study on the diversity of edible insects and their related indigenous knowledge, focusing on KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces.

Her study was supervised by Dr Caswell Munyai and Professor Rob Slotow.

‘My interest in UKZN started when I was in Grade 11 at high school,’ said Hlongwane. ‘I was part of Ikamva Youth which offered tutoring and mentoring to disadvantaged schools in uMlazi and Chesterville. During the holidays, the tutorials were held on UKZN’s Howard College campus. Our tutors were UKZN students, and I was amazed how they helped us improve our understanding of difficult subjects such as Maths and Physics. I was inspired because I thought they knew everything and I wanted to study at UKZN.’

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Hlongwane chose to continue her postgraduate studies at UKZN because of its reputation for academic excellence, especially in terms of the support and resources it offers to conduct ground-breaking research.

‘I also loved the diverse culture,’ said Hlongwane. 

Hlongwane investigated the indigenous use of edible insects as a source of food and their potential in addressing food and nutrition security in low economic status communities.

‘Entomophagy, which refers to the consumption of insects by humans, is an ancient indigenous practice that has played a significant role in human nutrition around the world, particularly in Africa,’ explained Hlongwane. ‘Edible insects might be a solution to food shortages due to their promising potential to contribute to livelihoods and mitigate food security problems around the world.’ 

Hlongwane found that edible insects contain a high percentage of essential nutrients such as zinc, iron, amino acids and proteins. ‘As a result, they can contribute significantly to the alleviation of protein, zinc and iron deficiencies in poor communities,’ she said.

‘Edible insects also play an important role in improving rural livelihoods. We found that trading in insects provides employment opportunities and financial support in rural areas.’

Hlongwane said that her motivation was to do research that translated into meaningful knowledge that could be used to address social needs and provide recommendations on how to fight food and nutrition insecurity in South Africa.

‘Poverty and malnutrition are major issues in developing countries and with increasing populations more people will face malnutrition,’ said Hlongwane. ‘It is important to find cheaper and sustainable nutrient rich food sources that are easily accessible to supplement diets.’ 

From her research findings, Hlongwane was able to provide recommendations and select edible insect types that should be prioritised for consumption.

She also recommended the best cooking methods that resulted in higher retention of nutrients. Moreover, her research provided policy recommendations on how to promote, preserve and expand the use of edible insects to improve rural livelihoods and wellbeing.

‘Dr Hlongwane’s work provides key policy recommendations for the use of insects to supplement household food insecurity and to enhance livelihoods in resource poor rural communities,’ said Slotow. ‘Not enough attention is paid to this important traditional use of our natural resources, and her work will provide impetus to this.’

Said Dr Munyai: ‘Zabentungwa is one of a kind, dedicated, always getting things done and goal driven. She has already published three of the four data chapters from her PhD, with the fourth currently under review.

‘She has a bright future ahead. She is innovative, always thinks out of the box, and is a strong, fearless, up-and-coming scientist who is ready to continue contributing to academia. All her published papers - not more than a year-and-a-half old - have already been cited more than 20 times.’

Hlongwane has been appointed a lecturer in Biology on UKZN’s Westville campus from January 2022. She will teach undergraduate courses in general biology as well as more specialised courses, with a focus on plant and algal biology and ecology. ‘I am excited about this new role,’ she said.

She thanked her supervisors and her family for their support, especially her father, ‘who has been my biggest cheerleader since day one and has always motivated me to work hard and take education seriously.’ She dedicated her PhD to her late mother and grandmother.

And what does someone who studies edible insects like to do in their spare time? Cook, of course!

Words: Sally Frost

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PhD Focuses on Alleviating Energy Poverty and Environmental Pollution in South Africa

PhD Focuses on Alleviating Energy Poverty and Environmental Pollution in South Africa
Dr Peter Gbadega earned his PhD in Electrical Engineering.

The knowledge that science and technology have provided for humankind has always fascinated Dr Peter Gbadega and was one of the main reasons he delved into the field of Engineering.

‘My desire to use science and technology to solve energy problems motivated me to enrol for a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering,’ he said. Gbadega completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Lagos, Nigeria. He then decided to register at UKZN for postgraduate studies.

‘UKZN has always been among the top five universities in Africa with top-notch faculty members, research facilities and excellent laboratories. This motivated me to choose the University for my Master’s and PhD in Electrical and Electronic Engineering,’ said Gbadega. He was awarded his master’s degree cum laude.

Gbadega’s PhD thesis focused on alleviating energy poverty and environmental pollution in South Africa and Africa at large by deploying renewable distributed generation and microgrids.

In remote communities that lack electricity, stand-alone microgrids and microgrid clusters (using different forms of renewable energy) can deliver electricity without having to extend the utility grid. Indeed, grid-connected microgrids can augment grid generation at the distribution level and improve energy supply security during power cuts and load-shedding, providing utilities and communities with environmentally-friendly generation. Microgrids can also be used to ensure uninterrupted power supply to medical facilities/hospitals, the health and pharmaceutical sectors, and businesses that make important economic contributions to the country.

Gbadega is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg. ‘I see myself joining the league of leading world-class researchers, contributing my best to the scientific and technological advancement of the world. I hope to broaden my knowledge of sustainable energy and acquire a holistic understanding of the electricity sector,’ he said.

‘What kept me going through my arduous and solitary journey was my own commitment as well as support, encouragement and gentle prodding from those around me,’ said Gbadega.

He thanked his supervisor, Professor Akshay Kumar Saha, for his contributions and support and his wife, Mrs Olufunke Abolaji Gbadega, for her encouragement, support and prayers. Gbadega expressed sincere appreciation to the National Research Foundation (NRF) for a block grant award.

Words: Swastika Maney

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Breeding Ethiopia’s Groundnuts to Withstand Drought

Breeding Ethiopia’s Groundnuts to Withstand Drought
Dr Seltene Abady Tesfamariam checks his breeding populations of groundnut.

Dr Seltene Abady Tesfamariam is celebrating receiving his PhD in Plant Breeding. Based at his alma mater, Haramaya University in Ethiopia, he pursued his doctoral studies through UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI). His research focused on breeding improved crops for Ethiopia using conventional and molecular tools.

Tesfamariam’s study involved the creation of new breeding populations of groundnut with high yield, early maturity and drought tolerance in response to challenges faced by Ethiopian farmers who utilise low yielding, late maturing varieties that are vulnerable to drought stress caused by erratic rainfall. He focused on developing drought-tolerant, dual-purpose, high yielding groundnut genotypes that farmers would readily adopt.

Tesfamariam conducted participatory rural appraisal studies in two major groundnut-producing districts in eastern Ethiopia to identify major groundnut production constraints as well as farmers’ preferred traits. He phenotyped 100 groundnut genotypes to select drought-tolerant and genetically superior parents for breeding, developing 28 groundnut families for drought tolerance with several recommended for further genetic advancement. He conducted the genotyping, crossing and evaluation of selected lines at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India, and published five papers from his PhD research.

The experience of designing new groundnut cultivars for specific traits of interest contributed expertise and skills to Tesfamariam’s repertoire that will inform his teaching and mentoring of students at a Higher Education Institution and his contribution to Ethiopia’s national groundnut research programme.

Tesfamariam completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in plant sciences at Haramaya University, and was drawn to the ACCI by stories of the Centre’s research efforts and the achievements of the PhD students it has trained via its social media channels.

He found the regular progress report presentations by students facilitated by the ACCI very useful for sharing knowledge and experience, and enjoyed working with ACCI team members and supervisors in writing up his manuscript, which he said contributed to the publication of all of his PhD chapters in high-impact journals.

Tesfamariam was supervised by Deputy Director of the ACCI and South African Sugarcane Research Institute Chair of Crop Science Professor Hussein Shimelis, who commended him for being a highly committed, organised and productive doctoral student.

Tesfamariam expressed gratitude to the funders of his study, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research’s Program on Grain Legume and Dry Land Cereals (CRP-GLDC) through the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries Fund for International Development, the International Foundation for Science and the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.

He thanked Shimelis for his consistent guidance and invaluable suggestions and comments throughout the process of obtaining his PhD, as well as his co-supervisor Dr Janila Pasupuleti, Principal Scientist in groundnut breeding and cluster leader for Crop Breeding, and leader of “Variety and Hybrid Development” in ICRISAT’s CRP-GLDC, for her support and for providing the opportunity to conduct his research at their facilities.

Tesfamariam expressed his thanks to UKZN for the opportunity to pursue doctoral studies in plant breeding, and for leveraging digital platforms to enable communication with his supervisor when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and Haramaya University for study leave.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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PhD Study Driven by Passion for Human Health and Environmental Safety

PhD Study Driven by Passion for Human Health and Environmental Safety
Dr Elizabeth Omotola in the lab.

Dr Elizabeth Omotola graduated with her Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry.

Omotola received her primary and secondary education in the city of Ibadan, Nigeria. She completed a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science at Tai-Solarin University of Education and the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, respectively.

Her PhD research focused on developing appropriate methods for the detection and monitoring of pharmaceutical compounds in the environment. It also aimed to create a database that the authorities and regulatory bodies can use to take appropriate action to safeguard human health.

The study highlighted the dangers of releasing untreated wastewater into water bodies and the need to upgrade wastewater treatment plants to become more effective and efficient, as pharmaceutical residues were detected even in so-called treated waste water.

The methods Omotola developed to quantify and analyse the detected compounds have opened a new pathway for monitoring of contaminants by chemists. She has already published two papers, with more under peer-review.

‘Research and teaching are my passion and I hope to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself in either of these areas in the future,’ said Omotola.

She added: ‘I had the privilege of working with the best staff any university Department of Chemistry could boast of. Notwithstanding the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, my research experience progressed smoothly.’

Her supervisor, Dr Olatunde Olatunji commented: ‘Elizabeth joined our Analytical Environmental Chemistry and Chemical Toxicology Research Group in 2018. She is a determined and passionate scholar, and this is evident in the timeous completion of her research work. She completed her PhD in two-and-half years, a feat that is not common.’

Words: Leena Rajpal

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First Graduate of New MSc Degree Passes with Flying Colours

First Graduate of New MSc Degree Passes with Flying Colours
Ms Giselle Pillay is the first graduate of UKZN’s new Master of Science in Engineering in Waste and Resource Management.

‘Graduation is a time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future. Completing my master’s degree was one of the best decisions I have ever made.’

These were the words of Ms Giselle Pillay, who graduated cum laude with a Master of Science in Engineering in Waste and Resource Management.

‘She is the first student to graduate from our new master’s programme, and an amazing, strong young woman!’ said her supervisor, Professor Cristina Trois, who holds the NRF South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Waste and Climate Change.

Pillay’s interest in engineering started in high school. ‘After winning the SAICE Bridge Building Competition, I discovered my interest in engineering and further research in this field led me to complete my degree in Civil Engineering.’ Her first choice of university was always UKZN. ‘I chose UKZN as it has a worldwide reputation for academic excellence and a well-structured engineering programme,’ she said.

‘This thesis satisfies the requirements of a cum laude degree and the results of this study could eventually be considered for an international publication,’ commented her external examiner.

Pillay’s research degree focused on the optimisation of waste recovery systems in the construction sector and aimed to design an economic, and social and environmentally feasible construction and demolition waste management system for eThekwini Municipality.

Her interest in waste management was sparked during her undergraduate studies when she identified the need for sustainable development in the construction industry. ‘Having graduated in 2019, when the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, I decided to make use of my time in lockdown and be part of the first batch of UKZN’s Waste and Resource Management Master’s degree,’ said Pillay.

Interaction with national and international waste management experts helped Pillay to gain advanced knowledge of waste management and sustainable development. Being surrounded by professionals motivated her to complete her research. She aspires to make a difference in the world just as they have.

Pillay is currently working for JG Afrika, where she is part of the JG Afrika and USAID Resilient Water team. She is involved in developing a national faecal waste management strategy for South Africa.

She has also taken on the role of researcher and is currently conducting a needs assessment of gender integration for sanitation partners in Africa. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the project involves gathering information on how to integrate women in the sanitation sector and reduce economic exclusion.

‘I am looking forward to the next step in my career, which is to register with the Engineering Council of South Africa as a professional engineer, progressing into project management and making a difference to society,’ said Pillay.

Words: Swastika Maney

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Agricultural Economist with a Passion for Teaching

Agricultural Economist with a Passion for Teaching
Agricultural Economics cum laude masters graduate, Mr Lungane Mvelase.

Hailing from Nkandla in northern KwaZulu-Natal, Mr Lungani Mvelase has always had a passion for Agricultural Economics. He looked to UKZN to help him realise his dreams and enrolled for a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, majoring in Agricultural Economics. He has now been awarded his Master’s degree in Agricultural Economics cum laude.

Mvelase said that aiming for excellence and not just an ordinary pass was his formula for success.

His research, under the supervision of Dr Stuart Ferrer and Mr Mark Darroch, assessed the economic impacts of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) - commonly referred to as the Health Promotion Levy (HPL). It focused on the South African sugar industry (both sugarcane growers and sugar millers), which is believed to be the most affected of all industries impacted by the SSB tax.

The study revealed that the HPL is causing a significant reduction in the South African sugar industry’s returns through reduced domestic demand for sugar (a relatively more lucrative sugar market), and an increase in sugar exports (a relatively low-priced sugar market).

These findings will provide South African policymakers with quantitative evidence on the South African tax rate as well as informing the sugar industry on its negative economic impacts.

Mvelase is grateful to his supervisor Ferrer, who not only helped him with his research but was also concerned about his wellbeing. He is currently registered for a PhD at UKZN and is also serving as an ad hoc lecturer for Agricultural Economics. He said that he is passionate about teaching and mentoring and aims to carve out a career in academia.

Words: Ntokozo Dladla

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Chemist Grows her Collection of Distinctions

Chemist Grows her Collection of Distinctions
Summa cum laude MSc Chemistry graduate, Ms Stephanie Fraser.

Ms Stephanie Fraser graduated with her Master of Science in Chemistry summa cum laude. She also received her BSc and BSc Honours degrees summa cum laude.

Consumer demand for affordable, high-quality commodities has resulted in modern society relying heavily on petroleum-based materials, with devastating environmental consequences. It was for this reason that Fraser’s research focused on exploring alternative technologies that promote a more sustainable future.

Cellulose is the most abundant natural polymer on Earth and, as a primary component of the cell wall, it provides structural support to plants. Fraser’s study revolved around the development of nanoscopic cellulose derivatives as sustainable platforms for the development of high-performance materials. She designed and fabricated cellulose-based, electrically conductive hydrogels using “green” synthetic protocols and used these materials to construct wearable sensors capable of real-time human motion detection.

Fraser thanked her supervisor, Professor Werner van Zyl, who supported her and ensured she had the resources required to conduct high-quality research. She added that the publication of her first peer-reviewed journal article marked a significant milestone in her career. She was also fortunate to participate in the Green Chemistry Postgraduate Summer School held in Venice earlier this year, where she was awarded a prize for her presentation.

Fraser acknowledged her family, especially her parents, who have supported her throughout her academic career. ‘The unrelenting curiosity and passion that my parents have for their own specialisations, both of whom hold a PhD in STEM fields, has also been highly influential in my decision to pursue a career in scientific research,’ she added.

If things go as planned, Fraser hopes to pursue a PhD overseas with the long-term goal of securing a position in academia.

Van Zyl was one of the lecturers who taught Fraser from her undergraduate years. He said: ‘I was fortunate that she decided to join my research group for her MSc studies in 2020. Stephanie is not someone one really supervises; once she has a general idea of what the project is about, she can be left to explore and come up with solutions to solve the problem on her own. We only had a few meetings to touch base. She is also an incomparable oral and written communicator of her science at this level.’

Words: Leena Rajpal

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ISA Vice-President Awarded PhD

ISA Vice-President Awarded PhD
Dr Ronald Tombe with his family.

Vice-president of UKZN’s International Student Association (ISA) on the Westville campus, Dr Ronald Keng’ara Tombe graduated with a PhD in Computer Science.

With the digital world and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) taking centre stage, Tombe explored machine learning techniques that are effective in characterising the complex semantics of remote sensing images.

‘Kenya was a foundation for me to get into the technology field with a strong desire to develop information technology solutions for industry in this digital era,’ he said. He graduated from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya with a Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology and was subsequently awarded a Master of Science in Software Engineering. His desire to solve complex challenges in the computing discipline led him to enrol for his PhD in Computer Science at UKZN. 

Advances in satellite technology, remote sensors and drone technologies have yielded high-quality sensing images (big data) that require effective and intelligent earth observation application processing. Tombe focused on remote sensing and its applications. He found that remote sensing images are a valuable source of data, which can be used to determine and visualise detailed information on the Earth’s surface with the aid of computer algorithms that can effectively extract and interpret these image data. 

Tombe formulated various computer vision methods that effectively characterised the complex semantics of remote sensing images. The research applied advanced machine learning techniques such as convolutional neural networks, multigrain cascade deep forests, and deep residual networks for feature characterisation and classification of remote sensing images - computer vision aids in developing artificial intelligence solutions for a broad range of applications in earth observations.

‘Computer algorithms are the architecture and engine for software solutions on various digital devices in the fourth industrial revolution era,’ said Tombe.

In his PhD research he used computer algorithms which have different computer vision applications for earth observation systems, surveillance systems, medical imaging systems, and smart-farming, among many other applications that utilise sensing technologies. He has published papers in high-impact journals and attended international conferences. 

On serving as Vice-president of ISA on the Westville campus, Tombe commented: ISA gave me the chance to learn about different cultures and how the diversity of culture, when embraced, enriches our ways of knowing and provides alternative approaches to address issues.’

His supervisor, Professor Serestina Viriri said: ‘Ronald was a hard-working student with the passion and determination to make novel contributions in his research work. This is attested to by the high quality research output he has published.’

Tombe is currently a lecturer in the Department of Computer Science at Kisii University, Kenya. He is working on various projects to build research teams to develop ICT solutions that address problems of a local and global scope. This collaboration will involve aspects of software engineering, big data and machine learning.

Words: Leena Rajpal

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PhD Research Contributes to Rescuing Ethiopia’s “White Gold” From Disease

PhD Research Contributes to Rescuing Ethiopia’s “White Gold” From Disease
Dr Kidane Tumsa Hurisa earned a PhD in Plant Breeding.

Dr Kidane Tumsa Hurisa’s doctoral research tackled a plant disease that causes devastating losses to bean crops in Ethiopia, earning a PhD in Plant Breeding.

Based at the Melkassa Agricultural Research Center, Hurisa set out to breed common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.) for resistance to Common Bacterial Blight (CBB). These beans are referred to as “white gold” in Ethiopia - cultivated by about 3.6 million smallholder farmers, they have high commercial value, particularly for export.

Despite its value, the crop has relatively low levels of productivity as it is susceptible to various abiotic, biotic and socio-economic constraints, a major one of which is CBB.

‘CBB causes significant yield loss, between 20% and 100%, necessitating development and deployment of CBB resistant and farmer-preferred common bean cultivars for sustainable production and economic gains in the country,’ said Hurisa.

Supervised by the Deputy Director of UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) and South African Sugarcane Research Institute Chair of Crop Science Professor Hussein Shimelis, Hurisa bred CBB resistant and high yielding common bean lines through designed crosses and rigorous selections based on field screening and marker-assisted techniques - these lines are set for further evaluation and eventual release in the great East African rift valley regions. From his research, Hurisa has published two scientific papers in high-impact journals.

Having completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Ethiopia’s Mekelle University and Haramaya University in Crop Science and Plant Pathology, respectively, Hurisa was drawn by the ACCI and UKZN’s School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences’ (SAEES) reputation for training plant breeders across Africa. His research at UKZN was funded by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) through its Tropical Legume-III (TL-III) project.

The experience he gained through this research will contribute vital knowledge to Hurisa’s contributions to Ethiopia’s national common bean improvement programme, which seeks to implement holistic breeding systems and solutions.

Hurisa enjoyed the experience of studying at a foreign university, joining UKZN’s volleyball team while based at the University.

He thanked Shimelis and his co-supervisors, Professor Mark Laing and Dr Clare Mukankusi of CIAT for their guidance and support during his studies, and all the ACCI staff for their support. He credited the Ethiopian Institute Agricultural Research (EIAR) for providing research facilities and technical support, and CIAT’s TL-III project for its financial, technical and training support. He also expressed gratitude to his family for their encouragement and understanding while he completed his PhD.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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PhD Showcases the Application of Remote Sensing to Forest Monitoring

PhD Showcases the Application of Remote Sensing to Forest Monitoring
Environmental Scientist Dr Enoch Gyamfi-Ampadu.

Dr Enoch Gyamfi-Ampadu graduated with his Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental Science. His research focused on the mapping of natural forest cover, tree species diversity and carbon stocks of a subtropical afromontane forest using remote sensing to enhance forest conservation and management.

Gyamfi-Ampadu received his schooling in Kumasi, the capital of Ghana’s Ashanti Region, and Sunyani, the capital of the Bono Region.

His interest in becoming a forester was aroused through a career outreach programme held at his Kumasi High School by the Faculty of Renewable Natural Resources Students Association (RENARSA), of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana.

Gyamfi-Ampadu was awarded a Diploma and later a BSc by KNUST. He completed his Master of Science in Environmental Science at Bangor University.

His PhD study focused on the Nkandla forest reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Natural forests are high in biodiversity and provide multiple benefits to society. They absorb atmospheric carbon, contribute to rainfall patterns and provide food and medicine. However, they are under severe threat owing to climate change and human factors such as increased demand for forest products (timber and fuel wood). ‘It is thus important to map and monitor natural forests with advanced technology such as remote sensing and machine learning algorithms,’ said Gyamfi-Ampadu. Remote sensing involves obtaining information about an object or phenomenon without making physical contact with the object. Mapping and monitoring of natural forests provides credible information that assists forest managers, ecologists and conservationists in managing and protecting forests.

Gyamfi-Ampadu’s research provides recommendations on modelling approaches that could be adopted to replicate his study in other climatic and forest zones. He is currently focusing on part-time research and consultancy services. He hopes to become a lecturer and research scientist and contribute to the training and development of the next generation of natural resource scientists.

Speaking of his PhD, he said: ‘It has been a great and awesome experience. Through my supervisors, I gained experience in conducting advanced remote sensing research that could have a positive impact on science and society. I also gained knowledge from other local and international researchers that can guide me in my studies.’

Gyamfi-Ampadu has this advice for emerging researchers: ‘Form partnerships and networks that enhance and facilitate interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research to address common societal problems. As a researcher, persevere until you succeed.’

Dr Alma Mendoza-Ponce (based at the Atmospheric Sciences Center, National Autonomous University of Mexico) commented on Gyamfi-Ampadu’s PhD research: ‘The first time I had news from Enoch, I was surprised when he asked me for support for his PhD thesis because I am from a very faraway place. I was not sure if I could help him. He was so enthusiastic and hungry for learning that his enthusiasm was contagious. We exchanged ideas about how to develop some land-use change models for his study area. Month after month and year after year, the thesis was growing along with Enoch’s knowledge and skills. Years have passed, and Enoch finished his research.

‘He has become a self-sufficient scientist who never gives up and overcomes challenges. He is an excellent researcher, and I am sure he will produce outstanding scientific work in whatever he decides to do. I hope we can strengthen collaboration by creating creative and new environmental work for our countries.’ 

His supervisor Dr Michael Gebreslasie in UKZN’s Discipline of Geography commented: ‘Enoch has published four research articles in high-impact peer-reviewed journals. His findings will benefit the broader community, such as forest managers, ecologists and remote sensing experts, in adopting modelling approaches to assess the impact of climate change on natural forests locally and regionally. I am delighted to have supervised such a diligent student, and I wish him success in his new research career.’

Words: Leena Rajpal

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Providing Radiation Protection Using Plants

Providing Radiation Protection Using Plants
Dr Richard Akomolafe received his PhD in Physics.

Dr Richard Akomolafe, a lecturer at Crown-Hill University (CHU) in Ilorin, Nigeria received his PhD in Physics from UKZN for his research that will benefit the medical community as he investigated the use of plants to protect the human body from the harmful effects of ionising radiation.

Akomolafe completed his degree in Engineering Physics at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ife-Ife and his master’s at the University of Ibadan in Ibadan, Nigeria where he specialised in Radiation and Health Physics.

Taking study leave from CHU to begin his PhD in 2019, Akomolafe chose to study at UKZN after a university friend who completed his PhD at UKZN introduced him to the Institution.

Akomolafe said the prospect of receiving his degree from a reputable and influential university made UKZN attractive, especially given the calibre of its academic staff and research outputs, and its consistent performance in global rankings. He appreciated the University’s vision to be the Premier University of African Scholarship and its commitment to providing fee remission opportunities for international postgraduate students.

Securing funding for his studies through a grant from South Africa’s National Research Foundation and The World Academy of Sciences, Akomolafe set out to explore the radioprotective potential of ginger lily (Costus afer) and tropical chickweed (Drymaria cordata).

‘Radioprotectors are prophylactic agents given before radiation exposure to reduce the level of cellular or molecular damage; if effective, they give normal tissue a high level of protection, with little to no tumour cell protection and should be non-toxic to normal cells,’ he explained.

With a focus on natural products and the medicinal properties of plants having always figured in human development, from anecdotal folklore to exhaustive research, the beneficial properties of Costus afer (CAE) and Drymaria cordata (DC) were well-established, but little was known about their ability to protect cells against radiation-induced damage. Akomolafe evaluated these properties to investigate the plants’ potential as alternatives to synthetic drugs, particularly in cancer radiotherapy.

Despite the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which deprived Akomolafe of the chance to travel to two international conferences where he was invited to present his work, he was able to make the most of working from home and the limited time he had on campus to complete his research.

His work resulted in the publication of two papers in high-impact international journals, and contributed new knowledge about the radioprotective efficacy of these plants. Completing his PhD also conferred personal benefits, developing his analytical skills and ability to work independently.

‘Richard has worked tirelessly on his PhD,’ said supervisor Professor Naven Chetty. ‘He has been an exemplary student with a pleasing demeanour and he has a very promising future.’

Akomolafe thanked Chetty for his support and guidance during his research, and his wife Mrs Ibukunoluwa Akomolafe for her love, commitment and sacrifice throughout his academic pursuits. He also thanked the management and staff of the Department of Radiotherapy and Oncology at Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg for providing the irradiation facility, particularly Mr Nipho Mdletshe for his assistance with the radiation dosimetry and other technical support.

Akomolafe expressed gratitude to God for the success of his research and for his dream becoming a reality. He said his time at UKZN had been a memorable and enjoyable one, and had contributed to his academic development.

Words:Christine Cuénod

Photograph:Supplied


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