Summa Cum Laude Honours Graduate Aims to Safeguard Biodiversity

<em>Summa Cum Laude</em> Honours Graduate Aims to Safeguard Biodiversity
Summa cum laude graduate, Ms Thembekile Mthimunye.

Ms Thembekile Mthimunye achieved a summa cum laude result for her honours studies in Ecological Sciences at UKZN, which involved becoming familiar with ecosystem indicators in timber plantations and which has taken her to master’s studies in her quest to contribute to conserving South Africa’s natural environment.

Originally from Secunda in Mpumalanga, Mthimunye has lived in Pietermaritzburg since her high school days, when she attended Alexandra High School. She chose to study at UKZN because of its research productivity and quality, seeing it as the ideal place to acquire knowledge and skills to further her aim to protect what remains of South Africa’s rich biodiversity while ensuring that social and economic needs are met.

‘I have always been passionate about solving the biodiversity crisis in the face of climate change and intensified anthropogenic activities,’ she said.

Specialising in entomology, Mthimunye dedicated her honours project to examining ants’ response to timber plantation conditions, as these tiny ecosystem engineers can indicate the health of the environment where they operate. In South Africa, the timber industry is a dominant economic activity that impacts biodiversity.

Aiming to use this research to contribute to meeting the demands of a growing global population with limited and irreplaceable natural resources while maximising the protection of those resources, Mthimunye is continuing in this line of research for a master’s degree supervised by Dr Caswell Munyai.

Her academic achievements gained her recognition from the Entomological Society of South Africa as one of the top honours entomology students among the various universities in the country.

The high achiever was motivated to do well from the time she set foot on campus - as an older child in her family, she aimed to set a good example to her younger siblings.

Progressing to honours after completing her undergraduate degree left Mthimunye without many of her university friends after they moved on, but she beat self-isolation by getting involved in campus activities that included participation in the UKZN Residence Garden Project, assisting with fieldwork trips, and engaging with associates in her discipline. These pursuits, she said, helped to develop interpersonal skills and teamwork.

To other students, Mthimunye gave the advice to challenge themselves to achieve one thing they thought they never would and commit to it.

‘Start small to build self-confidence. Nothing is more important than believing in yourself and having self-confidence when trying to achieve a specific goal,’ she said.

Committed to her faith, Mthimunye credited God with her achievements, saying she would not have made it this far without regularly communicating with Him and prioritising a balanced, healthy lifestyle. She encouraged other students to nurture their spirituality no matter the demands of academic life and acknowledged her family, friends and Munyai for their support and encouragement that enabled her success.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan


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Mathematician in the Making

Mathematician in the Making
Mr Shimon Corcos at Graduation and with a diagram summarising his honours project.

Mr Shimon Corcos graduated with a Bachelor of Science Honours in Mathematics summa cum laude, achieving a weighted average of 98.75%!

During his matric year, Corcos researched UKZN’s undergraduate programmes. Through alumni and his searches, he discovered that the University has highly qualified academic staff members and world-renowned researchers. Furthermore, the Durban campuses are close to his home in Westville. He said that all these factors made UKZN the best choice.

While Corcos noted that studying online due to the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge, he appreciated being in the comfort of his own home.  It also opened up communication with lecturers and enhanced students’ administration and computer skills. ‘I admire the way our lecturers adjusted so quickly to the online mode of teaching and learning,’ he said.

Corcos was inspired to pursue his Honours in Mathematics by his lecturers in his undergraduate years, including two of his mentors and supervisors, Professors Dharmanand Baboolal and Paranjothi Pillay, whom he holds in high regard. His project focused on Point-free Topology, which is the study of frames/locales of open sets of topological spaces rather than the spaces themselves. Ongoing efforts have been made since the late 1930s to translate classical topological concepts and theorems into concepts and theorems applicable to frames/locales. The project thus focused on the process of transitioning from working in the context of topological spaces to working in the context of frames (called the Point-free context), and vice versa. This transition is seamless for a class of topological spaces called Hausdorff spaces. The benefit of working in the Point-free context is that some important classical theorems in Topology such as Tychonoff’s Theorem have a frame theoretic counterpart that can be proved without the axiom of choice (a fundamental set-theoretic axiom) whereas the proof of the classical version is reliant on this choice principle.

Corcos describes his years of studying at UKZN as ‘very eventful’. He thanked the University for the numerous scholarships and awards he received during the course of his studies as well as his lecturers and family for their support.

Baboolal commented: ‘Shimon is a brilliant student who consistently performed at the highest level in all the courses I taught him. I feel honoured to supervise him for his master’s studies.’

Pillay agreed: ‘It was my absolute pleasure to teach Shimon. He is hard-working, diligent and extremely humble and respectful. He is very bright and has produced exceptional results every year. He did a lot of work for his honours project going way beyond what was expected of him.’

Corcos said that his Masters in Mathematics relates to ‘hyperspaces of topological spaces, that is, topological spaces whose points are the subsets of the original space. In particular, the research will investigate the Vietoris and uniform hyperspaces, the former being more prevalent in the literature on hyperspaces.’

He plans to pursue a career in academia, conduct research in Mathematics and share his passion for the sciences through lecturing.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photographs: Rajesh Jantilal and Supplied


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Insights into Reptile Trade Earns Cum Laude MSc

Insights into Reptile Trade Earns <em>Cum Laude</em> MSc
Mr Asekho Mantintsilili graduated with an MSc in Ecological Sciences cum laude.

Mr Asekho Mantintsilili is thrilled to have been awarded his MSc in Ecological Sciences cum laude.

Supervised by Professor Colleen Downs and husband and wife team Drs Tinyiko Cavin and Ndivhuwo Shivambu, his dissertation assessed the trade of reptile species within the South African pet trade industry.

Mantintsilili said he registered at UKZN because, ‘I wanted to study with the best. Many top-class professors teach at UKZN, and I know that a degree from this University means something in the job interviews and will open doors to interesting places.’

He explained the background to his research: ‘Many animal species have been freely translocated around the world as part of the exotic pet trade. Globalisation has been one of the main contributing factors leading to human movement and trade of diversified species from continent to continent. To date, more than 1 000 reptiles are sold as pets worldwide. These include species such as the Burmese python Python bivittatus, green iguana Iguana iguana and red-eared slider Trachemys scripta.

‘These animals have become invasive as a result of pet release or as escapees. Impacts associated with these species include transmission of zoonotic diseases and negative effects on biodiversity through completion, predation and/or hybridisation.’

Mantintsilili explained that online trade and physical pet stores are two of the pathways by which many reptile species are traded in different countries. This has resulted in difficulties in tracking or monitoring species sold across diversified platforms. Poor monitoring of the pet trade often leads to the establishment of several alien species, which may be associated with economic and environmental impacts.

‘South Africa is one of the countries that has trade in reptilian species,’ he said. ‘Some South African native species are illegally exported as pets to various countries. The sale of native species may lead to local extinction, while the sale of alien species potentially leads to invasions.’

He said that there has been limited monitoring of the reptilian pet trade in South Africa.

For his dissertation, Mantintsilili monitored physical pet stores and online trade to determine the trade volume, and current and future distribution of both native and alien reptile species in South Africa.

His study provides a list of all native, invasive and endangered reptiles that are traded in the country.

‘This list can be used as baseline information by the authorities to identify species that should be protected from going extinct due to over-exploitation for the ongoing trade of reptiles,’ said Mantintsilili.  ‘It can also be used to identify species that are harmful to our native environment.

‘The information on how these species are distributed across South Africa currently and in the future will be valuable in developing legislation and regulations pertaining to the reptile trade in the country.’ 

Mantintsilili’s interest in this topic developed in his honours year and he thanked his supervisor and co-supervisors for encouraging him to enter this research field. He also thanked his parents, Mr Mzwamadoda Mantintsilili and Mrs Noaction Mantintsilili for keeping him ‘grounded and focused’ and for always encouraging him. ‘I am truly grateful for their love and support. Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for more.’ 

Mantintsilili hopes to complete his PhD by 2024 at the age of 28. He is currently registered with Nelson Mandela University for a PhD in Nature Conservation.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph:  Abhi Indrarajan


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BSc Augmented Programme Lays Foundation for Success

BSc Augmented Programme Lays Foundation for Success
BSc Augmented graduate Mr Siphiwe Maphalala with his proud parents, Thandi and Bethwell Maphalala.

BSc Augmented student Mr Siphiwe Maphalala has graduated, majoring in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science.

‘Before pursuing my studies at UKZN I researched the University thoroughly,’ said Maphalala.  ‘I discovered that UKZN is well-known as one of the best producers of BSc students.  Its staff publish nationally and internationally and it has a good relationship with industry, so that one feels that the knowledge one obtains during one’s years of study is applicable to the working world and to real-life problems.  This really motivated me to study at UKZN.

‘Science fascinates me.  I enjoy the innovation within the field and the problem solving involved.  The field also offers many job opportunities.’

Maphalala followed in the footsteps of his older brother Siyabonga Maphalala, who is also a UKZN BSc graduate.

Apart from honing his problem-solving skills in the fields of applied mathematics and computer science, Maphalala said that the group work component of his degree taught him the important skills of teamwork and collaboration.

‘My degree also taught me self-discipline,’ he said, ‘because I learnt to always be in class on time and submit my work on time.

‘The ongoing change in the world with the Fourth Industrial Revolution is what motivated me to pursue my studies toward a Computer Science, Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics degree,’ said Maphalala.  ‘It has always been my dream to solve real-life problems using computational skills.’

Coming from a rural area with poor connectivity and network coverage, Maphalala said he was particularly fascinated by the rapid change technology is bringing into the world.  He hopes to bring these changes to his community so that they can benefit from technological initiatives and innovations. 

‘I come from Bergville and it is my dream to open an Information Technology (IT) Academy that will introduce the digital world to my community, to see Tabhane Secondary School as the first high school to introduce IT in the area.  I believe that charity begins at home, and by me having these skills, my community and high school will gain.’

‘We use mathematics everywhere,’ said Maphalala.  ‘A mathematics major helps one gain fundamental knowledge of the subject so one can contribute to the future advancement of many industries. And a computer science major makes one have a faster, better and far more connected life. We are truly living in a digital age, driven by computer science.’

Maphalala is currently enrolled at UKZN for a BSc Honours degree in Computer Science. Thereafter, he hopes to find employment as a software engineer, software developer or data scientist.  And he does not rule out the possibility of a PhD one day.  ‘I am passionate about artificial intelligence, computer visioning, image processing and machine learning,’ he said.

Maphalala acknowledged the help of numerous people, including his parents, brothers and sisters; his high school Physical Science and Mathematics teachers; his lecturers Dr Simo Mthethwa and Mr Yougan Aungamuthu;  his friends and successful BSc role models Mr Siyanda Mungwe and Mr Siyabonga Tshabalala, his study group “The Legends”; and his friend Mr Lindani Cele who let him stay with him during lockdown in order to access connectivity.

Maphalala entered UKZN through the BSc Augmented programme, which gives students from disadvantaged backgrounds an extra year of skills training in the course of their degree studies.  He praised the programme for exposing him to different fields within science and assisting him in the transition from high school to university.  ‘It taught me to use study groups, about time management, setting priorities and other life skills.  These basic skills taught in first year set me on the right path for the rest of my degree.  A course in science communication provided me with the skills of researching and writing scientific reports, and improved my language skills. 

‘The biggest struggle at university is making the adjustment from high school,’ said Maphalala.  ‘High school does not prepare you for university. In high school you are given a defined way to solve a problem but at university you have to teach yourself to solve problems. Ambition and passion are key.  Set goals and stop at nothing to achieve them.  There will be days when you just want to quit and you will make many sacrifices along the way.  Passion will motivate you to get through this journey.

‘Today I am a proud Computer Science, Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics graduate with 10 Certificates of Merit and a Dean’s Commendation, and I am doing my honours. All this wouldn’t have been possible if I was not given an opportunity to show how good I am.  Thank you UKZN and the founders of the BSc4 Augmented programme.

Together with friends from his Augmented class, Maphalala has started a WhatsApp group to encourage new students in the programme.

‘UKZN’s tagline says it all.  “Inspiring Greatness” means showing up and being there for people. Greatness is the little things you do to help others, which makes you a better human being at the end of the day.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Tackling the Mysteries of the Universe

Tackling the Mysteries of the Universe
Summa cum laude graduate, Ms Shavani Naicker.

Ms Shavani Naicker was awarded her Master’s in Science specialising in Applied Mathematics summa cum laude.

Naicker attended a Science Career event at UKZN when she was in Grade 11 where she was introduced to the Astrophysics Research Centre’s (ARC) programme and the various opportunities in Astronomy in South Africa. This set her on her path toward a career in Astrophysics.

Her dissertation titled: New Models in General Relativity and Einstein-Gauss-Bonnet Gravity, investigated static spherically symmetric stellar models in general relativity and Einstein-Gauss-Bonnet (EGB) gravity theory. Higher dimensional exact models were obtained in general relativity for a shear-free heat conducting fluid and new solutions were produced in five dimensional EGB gravity using a new approach. This work was then extended to include the effects of the electromagnetic field. 

‘My research forms an integral part of relativistic astrophysics and cosmology that is widely used in the framework of general relativity and EGB gravity to model compact relativistic stars,’ she said.

Naicker was awarded numerous scholarships and awards during the course of her studies and is a member of the Golden Key International Honours Society. She said that her passion for Mathematics was sparked by Dr Byron Brassel who was her lecturer and is now her PhD co-supervisor. ‘I wanted to follow in his footsteps.’

Her other co-supervisor, Professor Sunil Maharaj commented: ‘Shavani is an excellent student and she has shown special insight into the geometry of spacetime, and how this affects modified gravity theories.  She has obtained new results and these are to be published in leading journals. She has a very bright future in research.’

Brassel commented: ‘Shavani decided to do an honours project with myself and Professor Sunil Maharaj and I was pleasantly surprised by how well she managed the material, which was new and at the time, rather daunting, especially for an honours student. She has become an exceptionally fine student and academic with a sound mind and a refreshing curiosity about all things related to science and the universe. I look forward to seeing where she will end up in this world.’

Naicker’s future plans include undertaking postdoctoral research at an international institution. Her ultimate goal ‘is to become an accomplished researcher and lecturer in the field of astrophysics. I also hope to make significant contributions to the field of astrophysics that can unravel the many mysteries of the universe.’ She thanked Maharaj and Brassel and her parents for their support.

When not studying Naicker relaxes by reading, baking and following a dance fitness workout which helps her to de-stress.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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PhD for Work on Microalgae for Wastewater Treatment and Biofuel Production

PhD for Work on Microalgae for Wastewater Treatment and Biofuel Production
Dr Sifiso Gumbi who plans to pursue a career in academia.

Dr Sifiso Gumbi was awarded his doctorate in Microbiology after conducting innovative research that involved examining the potential of indigenous microalgae to produce biofuel as well as treat wastewater; work that he hopes will pave the way for cheap and sustainable methods of wastewater reclamation and biofuel production.

The aim of Gumbi’s research, supervised by UKZN’s Professor Ademola Olaniran and Dr Taurai Mutanda of Mangosuthu University of Technology, was to develop and optimise technology for sustainable wastewater treatment and biomass accumulation for biodiesel production to satisfy the needs of communities and industry.

The strains of microalgae used in Gumbi’s study were isolated in KwaZulu-Natal, where he uncovered a hyper lipid-producing microalgal strain that could be used as feedstock for sustainable and eco-friendly fuel production and wastewater treatment. This original work resulted in three publications in reputable international peer-reviewed journals.

Originally from Ingwavuma in KwaZulu-Natal, Gumbi attended Ziphozonke High School in Empangeni and enrolled for undergraduate studies in Biochemistry and Microbiology and honours studies in Microbiology at the University of Zululand.

The relevance of microbiology for innovation in biotechnology motivated Gumbi to pursue research in applied and environmental microbiology focusing on wastewater treatment and biofuel production.

Drawn to UKZN by its ranking among the top five universities in South Africa and its infrastructure for scientific research, he enrolled for a Master’s in Microbiology on the Westville campus and had his master’s converted to a PhD.

While his research was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, he found the PhD experience instructive, saying that achieving this degree compensates for the sleepless nights and hard work and has made his family proud.

Passionate about research, Gumbi plans to pursue a career in academia, aiming for international recognition in his field and hopefully attaining full professorship in his discipline.

He thanked his supervisors for their on-going guidance, support and mentoring during the course of his study and the National Research Foundation for funding his research.

Saying that he was deeply humbled by their support, Gumbi thanked his family for their multiple contributions to his success.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal 


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Biochemical-Physical Mechanisms of Light-Tissue Interactions Investigated in MSc

Biochemical-Physical Mechanisms of Light-Tissue Interactions Investigated in MSc
Mr Musa Buthelezi is congratulated by his supervisor, Professor Naven Chetty.

Mr Musawenkosi Doctor Buthelezi is one step closer to achieving his dream of becoming an academic doctor - having successfully completed his MSc degree in Physics.

His dissertation, supervised by Professor Naven Chetty and Dr Oluwabamise Adeleye, investigated the biochemical mechanisms of light-tissue interactions using tissue phantoms developed in the laboratory at UKZN.

‘I wanted to study the effects of a Helium- Neon and Argon lasers on melanin machinery in certain tissue (in this case the human testes and brain) as this mechanism is important for many aspects of medicine and in particular the treatment of cancer cells with low pulses,’ he explained.

‘Lasers are widely used nowadays for cosmetic purposes such as blemish removal, for evening out the complexion and for hair removal,’ said Buthelezi. ‘However, many laser practices do not take the pigmentation or actual skin colour into account. This could account for higher cancer risks when undergoing such procedures.’

‘I hope that my research contributes to improved public awareness of the dangers and benefits of lasers as well as improved treatment of cancers through less invasive therapeutic techniques.’

Buthelezi paid tribute to his supervisors for their support and guidance as well as Mr Mpumelelo Hlongwane who provided accommodation in Pietermaritzburg when needed. He also thanked his mother and extended family for their encouragement throughout his studies.

He chose UKZN because of the support it gives to its students, the facilities available, its international reputation and because it is in his home province.  He is keen to proceed with PhD studies in the future.

‘Musa overcame many obstacles to complete his degree and achieve his dream of earning a master’s,’ said Chetty.  ‘He showed great tenacity to complete the degree while holding down a demanding full-time job. His achievement is a sterling example of how hard work can overcome disadvantage and convert it to success. I wish Musa well on his new journey.’

‘It is very important never to give up even when you face difficulties along the path to achieving your dreams,’ said Buthelezi.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Applied Chemistry Degree Equips Graduate for the Working World

Applied Chemistry Degree Equips Graduate for the Working World
Applied Chemistry cum laude graduate, Mr Kylen Moodley.

‘There were two reasons why I chose to do my BSc at UKZN,’ said cum laude Applied Chemistry graduate, Mr Kylen Moodley. ‘Firstly, UKZN is regarded as a prestigious university. Our Science department houses high-end equipment and laboratories that make our lives easier and more precise from an analytical viewpoint. Secondly, the University came highly recommended by previous graduates.’

Unlike the standard Bachelor of Science degree that has two majors, Applied Chemistry focuses purely on Chemistry. ‘It takes a deeper dive into the industry and gives students a preview of what to expect in the working world,’ explained Moodley. ‘Research is focused on current and newly-emerging fields.  Students do a bit of everything, ranging from environmental analysis and industrial chemistry to the study of material science and integrated projects.

‘As a child I was always interested in how the world works and the mechanisms controlling it. In Grade 10 when I chose Physics and Chemistry, I immediately fell in love. The questions that I had always wondered about growing up were finally being answered.

‘My reason for choosing Applied Chemistry was simple:  I wanted an in-depth analysis of the world we are living in and the advancements that are being made every day.’

For Moodley, chemistry forms the foundation of life, thus making all research in this area crucial. He stressed the importance of further investigation of complex concepts that need more characterisation to understand them better.

‘The chemical industry is a vital part of any country’s economic growth. Development and improvement of industrial processes and techniques can help grow economies. Applied chemistry takes the fundamentals of chemistry and applies it to industry, where many of us may be working in the near future.’

During his third year Moodley tackled his “integrated project”, part of the syllabus that helps students build an understanding of research and development in chemistry. ‘We were taught various analytical techniques used in quantitative and qualitative analysis as well as writing up research papers and reports,’ he said.

He is currently registered for his Honours in Chemistry at UKZN.  ‘Where I go from there has not yet been decided,’ he said.  ‘My options include studying further at master’s level, or working in the field.’ 

Moodley thanked his parents for their constant encouragement and involvement in his academic journey.

When not studying, Moodley spends time with his three dogs Hunter, Coco and Max, indulges his passion for gaming and dabbles in sport and recreation. ‘I am a Manchester United supporter and as painful as it may be, I am still loyal to my team,’ he quipped.

He said he was very grateful to have an in-person Graduation after the trials of COVID-19 and online learning.  ‘All in all, my time at UKZN has been an enjoyable and memorable experience. We have some of the best academics in their respective fields, paving the way for us students.’    

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph:  Abhi Indrarajan


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PhD Study Shines Light on Solar Cells

PhD Study Shines Light on Solar Cells
PhD in Physics graduate, Dr Adam Kheralla.

Dr Adam Kheralla earned his PhD in Physics after conducting a computational study of the structure and optical properties of perovskite solar cells materials. 

He was supervised by Dean of Teaching and Learning in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, Professor Naven Chetty. ‘Adam investigated transition metal iodide perovskite Cs2Hf I6 to determine the electronic structure and optical properties,’ said Chetty. ‘Density Function Theory was utilised in the quantum-espresso code. His results suggest that Cs2Hf I6 may be helpful in the future instead of the toxic element Pb in solar cells due to better band gap and optical properties.

‘Adam’s work is topical in that he proposes new novel materials for semi-conductors, which adds significant value to the current body of work in the field,’ Chetty added. ‘His work has been published in international journals.’

A citizen of Sudan, Kheralla was attracted by UKZN’s academic reputation and came to the University to pursue a PhD after obtaining a bursary. 

He explained that perovskite compounds - whose structure and optical properties were the focus of his research - are considered promising materials for the fabrication of solar cell energy.  The numerous potential applications for solar energy motivated his interest in the topic. 

‘My research is significant as it will assist scientific researchers who are doing experimental work in solar cells materials,’ he said. 

Kheralla plans to continue with research as a means of securing employment.  He gave thanks to God for his academic success and paid tribute to his supervisor.

‘Adam worked through severe hardships imposed by financial difficulties in his country,’ said Chetty.  ‘But he persevered in his studies and completed them in record time. His pleasant nature and hard-working attitude have resulted in this success.

‘He will no doubt make a valuable contribution in his own country as an academic of note.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph:  Supplied


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The Chemistry Works for Cum Laude Graduate

The Chemistry Works for <em>Cum Laude</em> Graduate
MSc Chemistry cum laude graduate, Ms Talia Chetty.

It was all smiles when Ms Talia Chetty heard that her MSc degree in Chemistry had been awarded cum laude.  Chetty, who was supervised by A-rated scientist Professor Fernando Albericio and Professor B Garcia De-La-Torrre, submitted a dissertation focused on the design, synthesis and evaluation of antibacterial peptides.

‘Talia is an example of clear perseverance,’ said Albericio. ‘Working in a medical chemistry programme is difficult, because many times the theoretical hypotheses are not met in practice. Through hard work, Talia was able to identify a peptide that could be a good starting point to move forward on the long path of discovering a new drug.’

‘I was honestly unsure about pursuing a master’s degree during my honours year,’ said Chetty. ‘It was only during the second semester, after picking a peptide chemistry elective module, that I felt passionate about furthering my studies in this particular topic. UKZN has an extremely sophisticated peptide lab which made it the obvious choice.

‘I’ve always found the process of drug discovery fascinating as these discoveries positively impact and save lives. The role of chemists in this process cannot be overstated.’

Chetty hopes that her research will inspire strategies to improve the efficacy of therapeutic peptides.

‘I am excited to continue learning about this field in an industrial setting,’ she said. ‘My goal is to join a research and development team in a pharmaceutical company.’

Chetty credited her family for her success, saying that they had always emphasised the importance of a solid education and made it a priority.

When not in the lab, Chetty spends her spare time outdoors, hiking, fishing and playing golf.

She had the following words of advice for fellow students: ‘Research is 99% negative results and 1% positive. Don’t give up, the 1% will happen.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan


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PhD Study Proposes Algorithms to Solve Real-Life Problems

PhD Study Proposes Algorithms to Solve Real-Life Problems
Dr Ovre Agushaka graduated with a PhD in Computer Science.

Dr Ovre Agushaka’s investigation of the influence of several initialisation methods on the performance of population-based metaheuristic optimisers earned him a PhD in Computer Science. He completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Nigeria.

Agushaka has nearly two decades’ experience as a computer scientist in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI) encompassing optimisation, algorithms complexity and design, and semantic web.

He said that the research and teaching expertise in UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science and the School’s flexible PhD programme with its student-centred approach and excellent mentoring nurtures academic excellence.

Agushaka’s study proposed three novel nature-inspired metaheuristic algorithms whose performance was significantly improved by the right balance of population size, diversity, and the number of iterations. His findings advance understanding of how an imbalance in initialisation methods can lead to suboptimal solutions for complex optimisation tasks such as constrained engineering design problems.

‘Optimisation occurs in every facet of human endeavour,’ he said. ‘There is a need to find optimal solutions/combinations in fields like Engineering, Medicine, and others. For example, in Medicine an optimal set of features can be selected by my proposed metaheuristics algorithms from many features in omics data. Combined with deep learning algorithms, these features would help discover biomarkers for different diseases like prostate cancer, which would improve patient care.

‘The proposed algorithms were applied in the engineering domain to find the minimum manufacturing cost of different design problems like the welded beam design problem, the compression spring design problem, the pressure vessel design problem, and many more. The results obtained were significantly better than current results.’

Agushaka acknowledged the guidance and mentorship provided by Dr Absalom Ezugwu which led him to publishing 10 research articles in reputable peer-reviewed journals, with two under review.

Ezugwu commented: ‘Dr Agushaka’s completion of his PhD degree in record time, a programme which he started just before lockdown in 2020, is a clear case of hard work paying off. His high impact journal publications speak volumes of his efforts.’

Agushaka has applied for several postdoctoral positions. 

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Supplied


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A Passion for Pure Mathematics

A Passion for Pure Mathematics
Mr Siyabonga Dubazana who is currently registered for a PhD.

Mr Siyabonga Dubazana received his Master’s in Science specialising in Pure Mathematics cum laude.

Dubazana was always fascinated by abstract concepts and fell in love with Algebra and Topology while pursuing his honours studies. His master’s research fell under the broad theory of Pure Mathematics, specifically Point-set Topology. It investigated the classes of topological spaces called “J-spaces” that resemble some aspects of the famous Jordan Curve Theorem. He introduced new classes of topological spaces that generalise J-spaces and proved several new theorems, thus contributing to the Theory of Typology.

‘Siyabonga’s work revolved around “J-spaces”, a class of topological spaces that was introduced by a prominent mathematician by the name of Ernest Michael in the year 2000. Siyabonga investigated and identified new properties and characterisations of these spaces and their variants and obtained a number of new results,’ said his supervisor Dr Simo Mthethwa.

Dubazana is currently registered for a PhD under Mthethwa’s supervision. His future plans include conducting postdoctoral research abroad or locally, with the ultimate dream of becoming a research professor in Mathematics.

‘My master’s journey was wonderful. I obtained a merit scholarship from UKZN and a National Research Foundation scholarship. I also got a chance to participate in a research visit with my supervisor to the University of Eswatini,’ he said. He thanked his lecturers, family, friends and fellow postgraduate students for their support.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Supplied


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Love of Natural Forests and their Creatures Leads to PhD

Love of Natural Forests and their Creatures Leads to PhD
Ecological Sciences graduate, Dr Mbalenhle Sosibo.

Forest mammalian community dynamics and human-wildlife interactions in the southern mistbelt forests of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and the Eastern Cape was the focus of newly-capped Dr Mbalenhle Sosibo’s PhD dissertation.

The Ecological Sciences graduate was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs and husband and wife duo Drs David and Yvette Ehlers Smith.

‘African forests are known for their diversity,’ said Downs.  ‘However, many are degraded because of past and present anthropogenic activities. Mbali investigated the anthropogenic impacts on mammals occurring in the southern mistbelt forests of KZN and the Eastern Cape provinces. She highlighted which mammalian species inhabit these forests, their forest use and how anthropogenic activities affect their populations.

‘Furthermore, she showed that nearby communities feel that it is important to conserve these forests.’

Sosibo, who said she has always had a genuine interest in natural forests and their inhabitants explained further: ‘The mistbelt afromontane forests of the Eastern Cape and southern KwaZulu-Natal are naturally fragmented, but have been heavily logged in the past. Furthermore, the natural grassland mosaic around them has been modified for agriculture. Forest mammals are also hunted.

‘Persistence of mammals in these disjunct forests is thus of concern. My study investigated the effects of habitat transformation on mammalian functional diversity and biodiversity in these mistbelt forests, which are affected by fragmentation and other anthropogenic factors.’

Sosibo believes her research is significant as it highlights the crucial role these forests play in mammalian conservation.

She thanked her family for the integral part they played in supporting her through her PhD journey.  Acknowledging that she set sights on a PhD way back in high school and that UKZN was a natural choice due to its researchers’ reputation, she is looking forward to taking up a postdoctoral position under Downs’ supervision in the second semester of 2022. 

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Computer Boffin Awarded BSc Honours Summa Cum Laude

Computer Boffin Awarded BSc Honours <em>Summa Cum Laude</em>
Mr Jason Botha graduated summa cum laude.

Mr Jason Botha graduated with a BSc Honours in Computer Science summa cum laude. His honours research focused on the automated detection of spam and poor quality content on the web. A web page was scanned for adverts and the area and location of the adverts was calculated. The page was judged to be of poor quality if the adverts were too numerous and detracted from the reading experience.

He described COVID-19 as a huge upheaval that ‘forced everyone to adapt’. He added that, having completed his undergraduate studies at UKZN, it was natural to proceed to an honour’s degree. He was also attracted by the modules offered by the Discipline of Computer Science on machine learning, image processing and cybersecurity.

Lecturer Mrs Rosanne Els said: ‘Jason was an engaged and interested student from the moment he started University and was well-liked by his classmates, many of whom he assisted.’

Botha worked part-time during his studies creating web applications. ‘I wanted to experience some practical work and solve real-life problems, and Computer Science and programming lends itself very well to this. This experience supplemented my studies and prepared me for the industry,’ he said. He recently completed an internship as a software development engineer at Amazon Web Services and plans to work in the software industry for the foreseeable future. However, ‘a master’s degree is not out of the question down the line’.

He is grateful to his long-time lecturer and supervisor, Els, the Computer Science department and his family and friends for their continued support.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Master’s Degree for Research into Medicinal Plant Compounds to Treat Diabetes

Master’s Degree for Research into Medicinal Plant Compounds to Treat Diabetes
Mr Almahi Idris with his supervisor Professor Shahidul Islam (left) and Dean and Head of the School of Life Sciences Professor Ade Olaniran (right).

Mr Almahi Mohamed Idris was awarded his Master’s in Biochemistry cum laude for research that explored the potential of traditional Sudanese medicinal plants to treat diabetes and hyperglycaemia.

Diabetes affects close to 20 million adults on the continent of Africa alone, with a regional prevalence of 3.9% of the population. Idris was drawn to the field of Biochemistry for its potential to identify more agents to treat this ailment.

Originally from Sudan where he studied at the University of Khartoum, he was attracted to UKZN by its high rankings and the expertise of Professor Shahidul Islam, a leader in developing animal models for research on type 2 diabetes.

Under Islam’s supervision, Idris investigated the antioxidative and antidiabetic activities as well as the phytochemicals of selected Sudanese traditional medicinal plants.

‘Plants are widely utilised throughout Africa, with up to 90% of the population in some areas relying on them as a primary source of medication to treat various ailments such as diabetes,’ said Idris. ‘The need for more agents to treat hyperglycemia and associated consequences has created an opportunity to explore traditional antidiabetic treatment.’

Motivated to contribute to the development of his home country by developing the skills and abilities needed to meet public health challenges, Idris excelled at his studies.

He found that the plants he studied have remarkable antioxidant and antidiabetic activities that could help to ameliorate oxidative stress and diabetes, making them a primary source of natural bioactive compounds that are beneficial to human health and the management of diabetes and oxidative stress-related metabolic disorders.

With renewed global interest in research on phytocompound-based pharmacological agents with clinical benefits, many pharmaceutical therapeutic agents derived from plants are used in western medicine to manage various conditions. Plant compounds are useful for their secondary metabolites, inherent phytochemical characteristics that include polyphenols, alkaloids, flavonoids, and saponins which offer therapeutic benefits to humans.

Idris is currently pursuing his PhD in Biochemistry under Islam’s supervision at UKZN, focusing on the use of natural products for enhanced human health and particularly the treatment of type 2 diabetes.

He credited Islam for his encouragement, patience, knowledge and unlimited support during his master’s studies and research, saying that he helped him to become an accomplished researcher and biochemist.

Idris also expressed gratitude to the members of the Biomedical Research Laboratory for their guidance, encouragement, suggestions and considerable contributions to his project. He thanked Drs Ochucko Erukainure and Veronica Salau of the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Free State for valuable guidance, keen interest and encouragement at various stages of his study, and finally, acknowledged the Sudanese community in Durban for being a family to him.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan


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MSc Focuses on “Training” Robots

MSc Focuses on “Training” Robots
From left: Ms Anita Dube, Mr Vernon Kok and Ms Maria Kok Dube celebrate his cum laude graduation.

After excelling in his previous degrees at Sol Plaatje University, Mr Vernon Kok graduated with his MSc in Computer Science cum laude from UKZN.

Robotics have fascinated Kok from an early age. His thesis entitled A Few-Shot Learning Adaption of Mapless Navigation explored how images can be used to move a robot and how it can be designed and “trained” to explore its environment to find a “goal” while avoiding collisions with obstacles.

During his time in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science, Kok participated in various NCDev hackathons and served as a tutor and teaching assistant for Machine Learning.  

His co-supervisor, Dr Micheal Olusanya of Sol Plaatje University commented: ‘Mr Vernon Kok is a dynamic, focused student with innovative research ideas, especially with regard to robotics.’

Kok is employed as a data scientist at Standard Bank. ‘Aside from my day job, I am exploring how the tools and techniques I focused on in my MSc can be enhanced,’ he said. He is also registered for a PhD at UKZN.

Despite his demanding work schedule and studies, Kok added that he finds time to indulge in gaming.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Fascination with Big Data and AI Pays Dividends

Fascination with Big Data and AI Pays Dividends
Ms Chiara Rajcoomar with her parents, Jenny and Sunil.

Ms Chiara Rajcoomar was awarded her Bachelor of Science Honours degree summa cum laude, with merits for six of her seven modules.

During the course of her undergraduate degree at the University of Stellenbosch, Rajcoomar became fascinated with Statistics and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

She was drawn to honours studies at UKZN when the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science offered a new degree in Data Science.

Rajcoomar’s honours project was based on data from vehicle tracking company Altech Netstar. It modelled accelerations in the three-dimensional space, ie, the x, y and z axis prior to an impact. Altech Netstar could use the data to send signals to drivers if their acceleration pattern matched those from the results of the model to prevent further accidents.

The project also used longitude and latitude data to identify areas where accidents were more common which could be used by the South African National Roads Agency Ltd (SANRAL) and the Department of Transport to improve conditions.

During her honours year, Rajcoomar interned at Procter and Gamble where she worked with big data. She is currently a trainee quantitative analyst on the Nedbank Quants Graduate Programme.

‘I enjoy coding and plan to expand my data systems and AI knowledge by working in sectors other than banking to get an overall idea of how AI is utilised and its benefits,’ said Rajcoomar. She relaxes by being creative and socialising and has a part-time job as an assistant painting instructor.

‘I have been a swimmer for most of my life and I use it to de-stress,’ she said.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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PhD for Powerhouse Statistician

PhD for Powerhouse Statistician
UKZN staff member and PhD Statistics graduate, Dr Danielle Roberts.

Statistics lecturer, Dr Danielle Roberts is celebrating graduating with her PhD after the home-grown applied statistician completed her research on the relationship between anaemia and malaria in young children that could contribute to improved public health strategies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Having always been interested in public health, inspired partly by having a nurse for a grandmother, Roberts’ childhood dream was to become a Medical doctor. However, the Durban local’s love and aptitude for mathematics took her in a different direction.

Choosing to study at UKZN because of its proximity to home, from her first year Roberts was taken with the discipline of Statistics due to her lecturers’ passion for the subject. She completed her Bachelor of Science in Applied Mathematics and Statistics, going on to an Honours degree in Statistics.

Spurred on by Professor Delia North, Roberts then registered for a Master’s in Statistics, taking what she saw as a natural shift in applying the science to public health and examining malaria in young children.

During that project, Roberts met with epidemiologists working in public health in Africa and, one suggested examining anaemia - a neglected area of study - alongside malaria.

Supervised by her colleague and mentor Professor Temesgen Zewotir in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS), Roberts built on her master’s work by developing advanced statistical methodologies to investigate the co-morbidity of childhood anaemia and malaria in four African countries.

These two health challenges are among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in children under the age of five.

Roberts explored risk factors and used spatial modelling to identify high risk districts for the two ailments, which could help policy makers to target the correct set of interventions or prevent the use of incorrect interventions for anaemia and malaria control and prevention. In countries with limited health system resources, it could also assist targeted resource allocation.

‘For me, the most interesting application of biostatistics is discovering the spatial patterns of the risk of diseases,’ said Roberts. ‘At the moment, this is a common application to identify hot spots of COVID-19 outbreaks and vulnerable communities.’

Roberts was drawn to academia by her supervisors and mentors who provided the opportunity for her to gain experience lecturing and supervising students during her postgraduate studies and when she joined the permanent staff at UKZN, leading her to discover her passion for academia. She found the field of statistics flexible, allowing for shifts in focus as it is applied to an expansive range of topics.

She has already supervised six postgraduate students to completion, is currently supervising four postgraduate students, and coordinates the master’s and postgraduate diploma programmes in data science in the SMSCS.

‘In my teaching I try to keep the broad application of what is being taught open to students’ interests, potential career paths and current work,’ she said.

Roberts teaches several modules including those on machine learning.

‘It is a new field for me, so as I am teaching I am learning new skills, and this has guided my new research interest in machine learning within biostatistics and its application,’ said Roberts.

Driven by her mentors and role models including North and Zewotir, whom Roberts described as family, she hopes to inspire a love for statistics in her students. Despite the heavy workload as she develops new curriculum content, she said it is rewarding to see students comprehend the knowledge taught.

Over and above her research and teaching, Roberts explores innovation in her work; she created a web-based app to gather application information from prospective postgraduate diploma students, and has an interest in programming and creating an interactive dashboard for visualisation of data. She has also participated in short course facilitation, analytics games competitions and Women in Analytics events.

Roberts acknowledged Zewotir for his humility and support, saying his guidance provided a fresh perspective on her work and made her doctorate feel achievable. She also thanked her family for their unconditional love and support, calling them a driving force behind her success.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal


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Deaf Zoologist Earns PhD in First for Conservation Sciences and UKZN

Deaf Zoologist Earns PhD in First for Conservation Sciences and UKZN
Deaf zoologist and PhD graduate, Dr Nancy Barker, collars a lioness as part of her PhD research into the movement ecology of lions and spotted hyenas within southern African protected areas and wildlife management regions.

‘This is a one-of-a-kind case of UKZN Inspiring Greatness!’

These words by Professor Albert Modi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, reflect the Institution’s pride in conferring a PhD in Biology on its first Deaf doctoral graduate, Dr Nancy Barker.

A Canadian by birth who has made southern Africa her home for the past 11 years, Barker was awarded a PhD for her research on the concurrent spatiotemporal ecology of African lions and spotted hyenas and the potential for inter- and intraspecific interactions in semi-arid and wetland ecosystems.  She was supervised by Professors Rob Slotow and Wayne Getz.

‘I wanted to work with Professor Getz for his home range and movement analyses of wildlife, and with Professor Slotow for his expert knowledge in carnivore ecology,’ said Barker.  ‘Since Professor Getz was an adjunct faculty of UKZN, it made perfect sense for me to do my PhD at UKZN under two of the people that I most wanted to work with.’

‘Nancy worked effectively in the field in Etosha, Chobe and Okavango, collaring and following lions and spotted hyenas to study the spatiotemporal relationships between them,’ said Slotow.

‘Lions and hyenas exploit different behavioural strategies with fine-scale segregation in space and time, enabling them to co-exist. This assists conservation of the two apex predators in a way that ensures the ecological integrity of the systems in which they occur.’

‘My research analysed the movement patterns of lions and spotted hyenas in various ecosystems ranging from semi-arid savannas in Namibia to riverine and floodplains in the Okavango Delta of Botswana,’ explained Barker.  ‘Firstly, we wanted to understand the differences and similarities between the two species in how they move through and use different habitats across the landscape, so that we can better understand how these two species’ movement and space use patterns influence and impact each another.

‘This is important as lions and spotted hyenas are Africa’s largest predators that compete for the same resources.  Because apex predators regulate the animals that live within wild areas, this is relevant for the conservation of functioning and healthy ecosystems as we shift into a world of decreasing habitats for wildlife. 

‘In addition to these challenges, increasing climatic variability brings added stresses through changes in the environment that may prompt these species to seek resources elsewhere, potentially increasing the chances of human wildlife conflict as they move into human-dominated landscapes.’ 

Barker said she had an affinity with animals from a very young age, especially carnivores.  ‘I find that I am able to understand the hidden language they speak through their bodies by how they position themselves or indicate their intentions with a flick of the ear or a twitch in their muscles,’ she explained.  ‘This affords me insight into their behaviour, and is an advantage in studying carnivores’ behaviour in the wild.

‘A big part of working with carnivores is understanding what factors influence their decisions on where to go and what to do.  Since everything in nature is connected and intertwined, it has always fascinated me to understand the dynamics between different carnivore species, especially when they are competing for the same resources,’ she said. 

For her master’s degree with the University of Pretoria Barker examined the competition ecology between spotted hyenas and endangered brown hyenas in the Madikwe Game Reserve.  ‘I saw with great interest that lions had a significant impact on the interactions between the two species of hyenas I was studying,’ she said.  ‘It became clear to me that the potential of interactions with lions had far more of an impact on hyenas than was previously understood, and I wanted to be able to quantify the type of impact that their interactions had on each other.  What better way to do this than a PhD!’

Barker said her work had significant applications for wildlife conservation, as we move into a world of fragmented habitats and increasing land-use constraints on wildlife.  ‘My research highlights methods and tools for analysing dynamic interactions among coexisting species within a shared area, which can be used to inform the designated areas where wildlife can exist, and where best to connect different patches of habitats using wildlife corridors,’ she said.  ‘Designing such spaces in accordance with the space use patterns demonstrated by interacting species can preserve and sustain the natural movement ecology of coexisting wildlife species that interact with one another.’

Barker, who flew in to attend her graduation at UKZN, labelled it ‘the highest honour I will ever receive in my life.

‘It is an extremely special day not just for me but for Deaf people everywhere,’ she added.  ‘For UKZN, it is significant to be the first university to confer a doctoral degree on a Deaf zoologist in conservation sciences.  UKZN is the pioneer for such an unprecedented occasion. I am extremely proud to be able to achieve this moment as a UKZN graduate.’ 

Barker thanked all the teachers, family members, friends and mentors who played a role in her life journey.  She paid special tribute to her parents, who are both Deaf.  ‘My parents come from a time where sign language was looked down on and as a result, received very limited education training and support,’ she said.  ‘However, they provided me with full access to communication from the time I was born, and this was pivotal in providing me with the tools necessary to succeed in my education - to the point that I am obtaining a doctorate today!’

She plans to continue with wildlife research working with carnivores.  ‘I believe that research and education go hand in hand, and I would like to ensure that important research findings are not only disseminated to the scientific community, but also made accessible to everyone including Deaf communities worldwide by making this content available in sign language.’

The University arranged sign language interpretation services on the day so that Barker could understand and fully participate in her Graduation ceremony.

‘This is a special and significant occasion for Nancy and for our University,’ said Dean and Head of the School of Life Sciences, Professor Ade Olaniran.   ‘We proudly share in the excitement of her graduation.’

‘I am proud of my accomplishments,’ said Barker.  ‘It was a long and hard road.  However, I did not achieve this alone - many Deaf people sacrificed their dreams and desires before me and fought for my right to language and education. That helped to pave the way for me to be the first Deaf zoologist to be awarded a PhD in conservation sciences.

‘Although getting my doctorate has been a long-held goal, I see this not as the end, but merely the beginning of a new journey. 

‘I would have preferred not to have been the first one, but now that it has been done, I hope that the path has been set, and that many more will follow.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photographs: Rajesh Jantilal and Supplied


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Posthumous PhD for Popular Biochemistry Student

Posthumous PhD for Popular Biochemistry Student
The late Dr Lucky Marufu graduated posthumously with a PhD in Biochemistry.

The untimely passing of Dr Lucky Marufu weeks before he was due to graduate with a PhD in Biochemistry has led to an outpouring of tributes for the dedicated scientist from his discipline and beyond.

Marufu, who died in a car accident while returning home from a friend’s wedding in Limpopo province, had completed his PhD at UKZN on the spread of trypanosome parasites by the bite of infected tsetse flies in sub-Saharan Africa that causes African trypanosomiasisis or sleeping sickness in humans and nagana in livestock, especially cattle.

The disease is a serious problem in the region with millions of people at risk of contracting it while major financial losses are experienced when livestock is infected.

To contribute to reducing the disease burden of trypanosomiasisis or nagana, Marufu worked with major surface proteases (MSPs), developing important tools in the fight against the disease. Using molecular-modelling and molecular-docking studies, he examined the activity of the MSP-C enzyme in altering proteins located on the parasite surface that allow it to “change its coat” and evade the immune response of its host. He also identified potential drug compounds to inhibit this activity and through the production of MSP antibodies, developed an antigen-based diagnostic test for nagana.

Originally from Zimbabwe, Marufu was born in Chivhu, the fourth child in a family of two sons and three daughters. His O-level Biology teacher, who had a background in biomedical sciences, inspired Marufu to pursue a career in life sciences. He completed his A-levels at Seke High School, then enrolled at Midlands State University in Gweru where he completed his Bachelor of Science and Honours degrees in Biological Sciences.

Marufu was passionate about transferring knowledge and completed a teaching qualification after his honours degree, as well as doing an internship as a microbiological analyst at the Tobacco Research Board and then working as a laboratory technologist at the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Harare.

Marufu got an opportunity to complete his Master’s degree in Medical Biotechnology at Wageningen University in The Netherlands and achieved outstanding marks. He worked as a research assistant in Wageningen’s Department of Cell Biology and Immunology for a year after graduating, and explored PhD opportunities in Europe and South Africa before he made the decision in 2017 to join the laboratory of Professor Theresa Coetzer, South African Research Chair in Proteolysis in Homeostasis, Health and Disease.

Marufu’s research resulted in a publication in the Journal of Molecular Graphics and Modelling, with a second publication being prepared.

Marufu developed a rapport with his colleagues, supervisors and fellow students and is remembered for his reliability, humility, gentleness, helpfulness, kindness, encouragement of others, his committed Christian faith and dedication to his work. He formed friendships across the globe, and was perceptive about the challenges others faced.

While his work did not leave him much time for extracurricular pursuits, Marufu was committed to his faith and his church, and in secondary school he spent time learning and practising traditional dancing. He was an enthusiastic team player in his department, taking on responsibilities beyond his research in the Biotechnology cluster, and participating in team building events including the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Fun Run.

Intent on pursuing a career in research and academia, Marufu had been awarded a postdoctoral fellowship under Coetzer’s supervision after completing his PhD.

‘It was a pleasure and privilege to be Lucky’s supervisor,’ said Coetzer, who praised his wide reading around his research topic, his technical skills and his critical engagement with literature.

‘He worked very hard, productively and always with a smile. His kind and gentle disposition will be sorely missed,’ she said.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied


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Passion for Pointer Dogs Ignites MSc Research

Passion for Pointer Dogs Ignites MSc Research
Mr Stuart Beaumont at his Graduation ceremony and in the grasslands with his dogs.

‘My story is less than conventional, but I really enjoyed the journey!’ said graduate Mr Stuart Beaumont who was awarded his MSc in Ecological Sciences cum laude.

A former UKZN alumnus and mechanical engineer by training who has enjoyed a productive career in the automotive industry, Beaumont has also long enjoyed the hobby of training and surveying with pointing dogs. 

He explained how this passion brought him back to his alma mater: ‘At the end of a long day walking my pointing dogs with some good friends in what appeared to be ideal habitat for red-winged francolin, and not having found anywhere near the numbers we would have expected, I started to ask questions as to why this might be the case.

‘A few Google searches revealed that veld management techniques have a significant impact on the veld’s suitability for the redwing, and that they can be considered an indicator of veld condition. Digging a little deeper revealed a method of counting the francolin, and whilst it was very applicable, it was most suited to scientists wanting to research these and other game birds, and not particularly friendly to the layperson running his pointing dogs.

‘I set out to develop a method of counting these birds utilising modern technology that would afford citizen scientists the flexibility to collect data whilst training their dogs and simultaneously contributing to our understanding of the ecology of the red-winged francolin.’

Beaumont’s dissertation was titled: Development and Application of Novel Ornithological Survey Methods for the Detection of Cryptic Avian Indicator Species that Predict Grassland Health. He was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs and husband and wife team Drs David and Yvette Ehlers Smith.

‘Many studies using pointing dogs to detect cryptic species have found that environmental conditions can have a significant influence on the dog’s ability to detect the species,’ said Beaumont. ‘I initially set out to establish the influence of these conditions by recording the conditions whilst I repeatedly allowed the dogs to search for birds of known location. I then recorded the distance at which the dogs clearly detected the birds’ scent. I established that wind strength was the biggest influencing factor, with stronger wind increasing the distance at which the dogs could detect the birds.

‘I used this knowledge in conjunction with data from GPS devices strapped to the dogs and GIS to establish an area of search when the dogs were searching for red-winged francolin. An abundance was calculated from the number of birds detected whilst searching.’

Many pointing dog enthusiasts utilise GPS tracking devices on their dogs, and Beaumont argued that this method would enable them objectively to establish the abundance of these birds.

‘Since red-winged francolin can be considered an indicator of veld condition, a change in abundance can inform ecologists, land managers and farmers of the impact of their management practices,’ he said.

Beaumont explained that the community that runs pointing dogs derives tremendous pleasure from spending hundreds of hours per season walking the rolling hills of the Midlands in search of red-winged and grey-winged francolin. They became very aware of the apparent demise of these species from farms where they were historically abundant.

‘I wanted to understand better the drivers of the demise so that we can hopefully influence them and restore the populations to their former glory,’ he said.

Beaumont’s methodology will enable laypeople to collect data on the abundance of cryptic gamebirds as a spinoff of recreational pursuits, thus significantly increasing the geographical area previously studied. This data can be used to influence veld management practices at a farm-to-farm level.

His methodology could also be applied to other canine detection projects, including lost person search and rescue.

Moving forward, Beaumont hopes to study how the birds respond to short-, medium- and long-term burning and grazing practices.

He paid tribute to his supervisors and UKZN for their generous support and thanked his wife, Danielle and children Ava, Rhett and Vivienne.  He also singled out his friend Mark Lansdell, ‘for introducing me to this crazy pastime, for taking me under his wing, and training me like he might a pointer - with patience!’ 

Words: Sally Frost

Photographs: Abhi Indrarajan and Supplied


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