PhD Graduate Cultivates a Career in Agricultural Extension and Rural Resource Management

PhD Graduate Cultivates a Career in Agricultural Extension and Rural Resource Management
Dr Sithembiso Ndlela with his supervisor Professor Steve Worth.

Dr Sithembiso Ndlela is celebrating completing his PhD research that emphasises the importance of responsible natural resource management while simultaneously increasing small-scale farmers’ agricultural production capacity.

His interest in this topic sprang from Ndlela’s master’s research that concluded that promoting self-reliance and sustainability among small-scale farmers begins with developing human capital through capacity building. His own observations coupled with reviews of the literature led him to his thesis topic.

‘I realised that most development interventions globally and especially in South Africa focus on improving agricultural production to improve national food security and combat poverty, with less attention placed on sustainable management of natural resources,’ said Ndlela.

He applied development theories to his research, which suggest that the sustainability of any agricultural intervention depends on striking a balance between optimum production and natural resource management.

‘LandCare is a public programme that works directly with issues related to natural resources, and my research focused on understanding the role of agricultural extension and the LandCare policy in building farmers’ capacity to manage natural resources,’ said Ndlela.

‘While a lot of effort is invested in growing more food, it is likely that future generations will not be able to grow enough food if natural resources are not managed correctly,’ he said.

His study made recommendations and proposed a framework to better contextualise agricultural extension in LandCare in terms of building capacity, and how LandCare policy could be improved for consistency with the principles and theory of capacity building.

Despite the challenge of not having funding for his research, with support from his supervisor Professor Steve Worth and a sustenance bursary from UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, Ndlela’s dissertation was a success, with an international examiner accepting it with no corrections.

‘Work, study, family, contract lecturing, publishing - he’s done it all. If anyone does, he inspires,’ said Worth of Ndlela.

Ndlela’s academic career at UKZN began when he enrolled in the Bachelor of Agriculture (BAgric) extension programme run by the University with Cedara College of Agriculture. Despite having dreamt of a career as a chartered accountant, when Ndlela was accepted to agricultural extension he discovered a love for the subject and chose to pursue a vocation in this field.

Joining in the BAgric’s second year of existence, Ndlela completed the programme and went on to complete his BAgric honours and his master’s at UKZN, graduating cum laude with both and completing three degrees in five years.

‘It did not only train me for a job but expanded my thinking capacity which has impacted my life and career in many positive ways,’ he said.

Ndlela’s first work experience came as a tutor at UKZN during his master’s studies. He also worked for the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, and while completing his PhD he worked as an agricultural advisor for the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development in Ermelo for more than two years. He is currently a contract lecturer in Agricultural Extension and Rural Resource Management (AERRM) at UKZN.

‘I decided to pursue my career at UKZN because it is one of the best universities in South Africa and has the best agricultural extension programme in the country,’ said Ndlela.

He is also exploring his interest in setting up a business offering training to agricultural practitioners working for the government and non-governmental organisations, and farmers, and plans to work as a freelance consultant in agricultural extension and rural development.

Ndlela thanked Worth for his support and supervision, and the AERRM team at UKZN for their moral support and faith in him. He expressed appreciation to Mrs Karen Worth, Mr Jeff Mthwalo, officials from the national and KwaZulu-Natal provincial LandCare offices, extension officers and smallholder farmers in the UMkhanyakude, Ugu and Amajuba districts who participated in the study, and Miss Ntombenhle Blose. He thanked his friends Stan, Kaptein, Mayor, Razoh, Mabheshu, Ozzie and Black for their motivation and support, and his family, particularly his mother Ms A P Ndlela and father Mr E Ntuli.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu

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Promoting Sustainable Waste Management

Promoting Sustainable Waste Management
Mr Gaogane Jephtah Gaogane graduated with a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering.

Hailing from a rural village in Botswana has not hindered Mr Gaogane Jephtah Gaogane from achieving success.

He graduated cum laude with a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering from UKZN. ‘To paraphrase Albert Einstein, it’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer,’ he said.

Gaogane’s research investigated the feasibility of converting the organic portion of municipal waste into biogas using anaerobic digestion, with the aim of generating alternative fuel and redirecting waste from landfill. His dissertation highlights the need for sustainability in waste management and the economy.

‘South Africa is moving towards zero landfilling. A sustainable solution can be achieved through anaerobic digestion, which is a widely accepted technology. I hope that this can be an initiative that creates employment for the youth. Botswana has already adopted this approach for youth empowerment and poverty eradication.’

Gaogane believes that studying at UKZN laid a foundation that will benefit his future endeavours. His choice of Institution was influenced by the excellence and diversity of cultures the University is known for. ‘I learnt a lot from studying here and the relationships I built,’ he said.

As the eighth of nine children, life has not always been easy. ‘However, my parents Loomtsoga and Violet raised and nurtured me to grow in Christ and this has helped me immensely in all aspects of my life. I can never thank them enough,’ said Gaogane.

Gaogane is thankful for the close collaboration that cultivated his success. He extended his gratitude to his supervisors Professors Bruce Sithole and Cristina Trois - the SARChI Chair in Waste and Climate Change, the Biorefinery Industry Development Facility (BIDF), and his colleagues and friends for their support throughout his academic journey.

In his spare time, he enjoys reading as he believes there is always something new to learn.

Gaogane is currently registered for a PhD. He aims to further his investigation of biohydrogen production in broader spaces.

Words: Wendy Mngadi

Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu

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Journey to PhD Spans Five Decades

Journey to PhD Spans Five Decades
UKZN’s oldest graduate for the 2022 Spring Graduation, Dr Chris Brouckaert.

A journey spanning five decades and filled with many highs and lows reached completion with Dr Chris Brouckaert graduating with a PhD in Chemical Engineering at the grand age of 74.

Brouckaert is UKZN’s oldest graduate for the 2022 Spring Graduation season.

Brouckaert began his academic career in 1967, when he registered as an undergraduate student alongside the late Professor Chris Buckley. Little did he know that Buckley - who headed UKZN’s world-renowned Pollution Research Group (now the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Research and Development Centre (WASH R&D Centre)) for many years until his untimely death in 2021 - would become his lifelong colleague and mentor.

On completion of his undergraduate degree Brouckaert registered for postgraduate studies but was unable to finish. Instead he became a part-time lecturer in Chemical Engineering at the then University of Natal, and progressed to a full-time appointment in 1978. In 1988 he left the Department to explore a career in industry. However, he soon realised that this was not for him and was fortunate enough to return to academia. In 1990 he was offered a contract research post in the Pollution Research Group, headed by his old friend, Buckley.

Brouckaert remained with the Pollution Research Group for the next 30 years until his retirement in 2021. Asked what inspired him to complete a PhD post-retirement, his laconic response was: ‘This was my third attempt, the first being in 1972, so my age at completion is largely a reflection of poor strategy and time management!’

The inspiration for this final attempt proved to be the accumulation of an almost complete series of published papers that became the basis for his dissertation, aided by the reduced time pressure that retirement allowed.

‘A moment of “inspiration” was the discovery that a notable finding in a PhD thesis that had attracted considerable notice and acclaim at international conferences was completely incorrect because of basic errors that should not have been made by someone familiar with the content of the (as yet unpublished) series of papers,’ he added.

‘The final spur was the thought that, after 20 years of having to correct people who addressed me as Dr, I will be able to relax,’ he joked.

Brouckaert paid special tribute to the support and encouragement he received from both his academic mentors, namely, Buckley and Professor George Ekama. Tragically Ekama - who would have acted as Brouckaert’s supervisor with Buckley as co-supervisor - suffered a stroke which ended his academic involvement in supervision. ‘And sadly, while I was in the process of submitting the registration for my PhD degree, Prof Chris Buckley became terminally ill,’ he said.

Brouckaert’s dissertation is based on a series of five papers published in Water SA that set out a framework and methodology for the mathematical modelling of bio-processes that have significant interactions with inorganic aqueous physicochemical processes. The papers represent a distillation of the modelling experience of the Water Research Group (WRG) at the University of Cape Town and the Pollution Research Group (now the WASH R&D Centre) at UKZN spanning some 15 years of collaboration.

‘The idea of writing a series of papers which would provide a comprehensive guide on developing and implementing simulation models of wastewater treatment processes was conceived by Prof Ekama from UCT in about 2012,’ said Brouckaert. ‘At that time, George was guiding the research of a large group of students, mostly at UCT, but also at UKZN and other universities around the world and the papers centred on a mathematical model of wastewater treatment plants that was jointly developed by UCT and UKZN, and continues to provide the basis for ongoing research.’

In a discussion with Ekama in 2019, it was decided that these papers could be used as a basis for his dissertation.

‘Chris Brouckaert’s affiliation to our Department stretches back many decades,’ said academic leader for Chemical Engineering at UKZN, Professor David Lokhat. ‘He was instrumental in developing a number of our undergraduate courses, lectured within our programme and has mentored and guided many of our postgraduate students on water-related projects.

‘Chris is a chemical engineer in every sense of the word. He has such a broad understanding of a range of issues related to our Discipline, although his passion is most definitely in modelling.

‘His PhD was very well received by his examiners, with one commenting that he had never before granted a doctorate without recommending any adjustments, testament to the excellent body of work that Chris has been involved in for a long time at UKZN.

‘We can only hope that some of his talent has rubbed off on the next generation. This PhD has been a long time coming for Chris, but I imagine nonetheless most fulfilling for a career dedicated to Chemical Engineering.’

Words: Swastika Maney

Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu

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First Black Female South African Awarded PhD in Marine Geology

First Black Female South African Awarded PhD in Marine Geology
Developmental lecturer and marine geologist, Dr Nonkululeko Dladla.

Dr Nonkululeko Dladla, a developmental lecturer in Geological Sciences at UKZN focused her PhD study on the stratigraphy and geological evolution of three coastal waterbodies along the north-eastern KwaZulu-Natal coastline to gain an understanding of how coastlines responded to a rise in sea levels in the past and better understand the potential consequences of future changes.

Concentrating on Lake St Lucia, the Richards Bay Harbour and the Kosi Bay system, Dladla looked beneath the ocean’s surface at the complex network of ancient river valleys that underlie these systems, which were flooded during the Holocene epoch as sea levels rose due to melting glaciers.

Despite each of these waterbodies being situated in a similar climatic, geomorphological, oceanographic and sea-level framework, Dladla pointed out that each differs in terms of its palaeo-sediment supply and underlying geological framework. She set out to understand how much these factors influenced the stratigraphic evolution of incised valleys as they evolved from rivers through to estuaries with rising sea levels, and what role they could play in the final geomorphological form. That final form is critical in understanding how estuaries function today, an important consideration as they act as nurseries for juvenile fish species and are current focal points for development around the world.

With the threat posed by climate change and global warming a major current issue, there has been an increased focus on the effect of sea-level changes on global coastlines, both in the present and historically.

‘Reconstructing the geological signatures of these kinds of coastal systems can greatly improve our understanding of how coastlines respond to climate change and sea-level rise and improve prediction of the consequences of future changes,’ said Dladla.

Having loved the subject of Geography while in school, ending up in geology was a happy accident for Dladla. While she thought that the two subjects were similar, she said she had the shock of her life when she arrived at her undergraduate lectures. However, by the end of her first year, the subject had grown on her to the point that she was already planning her path to a PhD.

With UKZN being the only Institution in Africa specialising in Marine Geology, it was the clear choice for Dladla’s postgraduate studies and is where she has developed her research interests in sedimentology and marine geology. Her passion for the subject has also been encouraged by her honours, masters and PhD supervisor Professor Andrew Green.

‘UKZN is my home, and home is where the heart is,’ said Dladla.

Attaining her PhD was not without its challenges – Dladla had to find ways to strike a balance between her work and studies, but motivation from her supervisor, proper planning and dedication helped her find her rhythm and momentum.

The COVID-19 pandemic also took its toll – Dladla lost loved ones to the virus and the emotional cost was high. However, with encouragement and support from her colleagues and community, she was able to persevere to complete her studies.

She published several articles emanating from her studies in the foremost international, peer-reviewed journals, and her PhD was awarded with no corrections to her thesis.

‘I am especially proud of Nku, she is the first South African Black female to graduate with a PhD in Marine Geology, not to mention that the quality of her PhD was outstanding. She is an absolute role model for our students who need mentors they can identify with,’ said Green.

Driven to build a career in marine geoscience research, she completed her PhD while working in her Discipline as a developmental lecturer and will continue working as a lecturer with the completion of her studies.

Dladla expressed gratitude to Green for his inspiration and guidance, and thanked her parents, siblings and niece for their love and support. She also thanked her partner for being by her side, and her friends and colleagues for their encouragement.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu

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Genetics Research Investigates Antimalarial Drug Resistance in KwaZulu-Natal

Genetics Research Investigates Antimalarial Drug Resistance in KwaZulu-Natal
Ms Alexandra Roux earned herself a master’s degree cum laude.

Ms Alexandra Roux’s research provides insight into antimalarial drug resistance in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) - the province closest to eradicating the pathogen in South Africa - and earned her a master’s degree cum laude for her analysis of molecular markers associated with drug resistance.

Under the supervision of Dr Moses Okpeku and Professor Matthew Adeleke in the School of Life Sciences, Roux assessed the presence or absence of mutant genes in malaria strains in northern KwaZulu-Natal to determine whether or not the Plasmodium falciparum parasite that causes the disease had again become sensitive to chloroquine and sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine, formerly the frontline drugs used to treat malaria.

She also identified possible mutations in the Kelch 13 (K13) gene associated with artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) resistance in northern KwaZulu-Natal to determine whether ACT resistance was emerging.

Roux said that this research reinforces the importance of assessing antimalarial drug susceptibility to inform the drug policy of the KwaZulu-Natal malaria control strategy. Despite progress towards the elimination of malaria, Roux said that the threat of antimalarial drug resistance is a significant one.

Initially interested in learning more about chromosomal disorders and their prevention, Roux was intrigued by the subject of genetics and after completing her honours degree expanded her focus to disease control and elimination.

She was drawn to UKZN because of the Institution’s values and its enabling learning environment, as well as the international recognition afforded its scientific degrees, and its research productivity.

‘I have always wanted to contribute to something bigger than me, and studying genetics has given me that opportunity,’ said Roux.

She enjoyed the student atmosphere at UKZN that provided opportunities to balance her academic work with recreation and socialising. While an honours student, she was invited to join the Golden Key International Honour Society.

Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed laboratories and campuses for a time, Roux managed to achieve excellent results. She published a review in the Frontiers in Genetics journal and co-authored two other publications.

Having completed her master’s, Roux is hoping to work in a research-based laboratory that focuses on disease control as well as community outreach and education.

‘My time in northern KZN highlighted the importance of educating communities about the disease as there are so many misconceptions, which is part of the reason many people go undiagnosed and untreated,’ she said.

Feeling that her work has just begun, Roux plans to build a career working with infectious diseases to understand how viruses and bacteria cause illness, as well as the science behind possible prevention and how to control their spread and treat disease effectively.

Roux acknowledged her mother for her support and encouragement through challenging seasons, and thanked her supervisors and laboratory colleagues who offered her guidance and support throughout her research.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu

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Innovation in Ecology: Low-Cost Drones for More Accessible Wildlife Monitoring

Innovation in Ecology: Low-Cost Drones for More Accessible Wildlife Monitoring
Dr Albert Myburgh during a routine helicopter-based crocodile survey.

Dr Albert Myburgh has been awarded a PhD in Ecological Sciences for his research on monitoring wild and captive Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) populations in southern Africa.

He was supervised by Professors Colleen Downs and Stephan Woodborne.

‘UKZN has a historically strong focus on my study species and a track record of professional alumni that I had the pleasure to work with during my honours and master’s studies,’ said Myburgh on his choice of institution.

Myburgh developed and evaluated a low-cost drone mapping method specifically for monitoring and managing crocodiles in both wild and captive environments.

He was motivated by the lack of accessible techniques and equipment to monitor wildlife populations across conservation institutions.

‘During my master’s studies, I was exposed to the world of wildlife population monitoring and saw how budget dependant it is, often resulting in long periods of time between wildlife surveys when funds are limited,’ said Myburgh. ‘This makes the life of managers and policymakers very difficult as they rely on routine data to make adaptive management decisions in order to manage conservation areas effectively.’

Myburgh turned to drones as the answer to this conundrum. His research is significant as it paves the way for the low-cost adoption of emerging technologies in conservation areas - ‘in this case specifically enabling more frequent crocodile censuses whilst providing more reliable data than previous methodologies.’

He is currently employed as a postdoctoral researcher, with a focus on the adoption of emerging technologies in ecological research.

‘I hope to develop methods that can aid in the efficient management of natural resources into the 21st century,’ said Myburgh.

Drones and crocodiles are not Myburgh’s only preoccupation - he believes in a balanced lifestyle and has a plethora of hobbies ranging from electronics and 3D printing to fishing and mountain biking.

He thanked his supervisors and family, and especially his wife who supported him both mentally and financially throughout his postgraduate studies.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied

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PhD in Applied Mathematics Undertaken in Son’s Memory

PhD in Applied Mathematics Undertaken in Son’s Memory
Dr Daniel Krupanandan seen at his graduation, and pictured with his late son Rowan to whom he dedicated his PhD.

Dr Daniel Krupanandan was awarded a PhD in Applied Mathematics for his thesis titled: Exact Einstein and Higher Curvature Astrophysical Models. He dedicated his achievement to the memory of his son, Rowan.

‘The Einstein field equations governing the behaviour of astrophysical entities are notoriously complicated and difficult to solve,’ said his supervisor, Professor Sudan Hansraj. ‘In this work a new algorithm was devised which generated previously unknown solutions to Einstein’s equations.

‘Inspired by the success at the Einstein level, a similar approach was applied to the more formidable Einstein-Gauss-Bonnet (EGB) system incorporating higher curvature effects. Other physically reasonable models with equations of state were developed.’

Having completed his first teaching qualification in 1979 at the former University of Durban-Westville and an honours degree in Mathematics in 1995, Krupanandan started lecturing at Springfield College of Education in 1999. ‘The internationally recognised staff members within UKZN’s Mathematics Department prompted me to pursue my masters and doctoral studies at the Institution,’ he said.

During his MSc, Krupanandan investigated the modelling of compact objects such as neutron stars and pulsars in Einstein’s theory of general relativity. For his PhD he expanded on this research, extending the four-dimensional stellar models to modified theories of gravity, specifically the EGB five- and six-dimensional theories.

‘We successfully solved the EGB gravity equations to obtain models of hyperspheres,’ said Krupanandan. ‘These stellar models were subjected to rigorous physical viability tests and we showed that they describe realistic stellar stars in higher dimensions. We also showed that contributions from higher dimensions lead to higher stellar densities and higher redshifts. Our models provide explanations about stellar masses and radii which lie outside the realm of Newtonian and Einstein’s gravities.’

The work contained in Krupanandan’s thesis has resulted in four publications in well-known astrophysical journals with high impact factors.

Krupanandan’s motivation to complete his PhD was extremely personal: ‘My late son, Rowan Krupanandan mentioned before his untimely and tragic death whilst he was an Engineering student that he was getting better than me in mathematics. This was evident in his excellent matric and university results. I agreed with him but took a challenge that I would further my studies in applied mathematics to give him academic support. I also promised him that we would both graduate with higher scientific degrees.

‘During my lecturing years I worked with Professor Sudan Hansraj and was extremely impressed with his research activities at UKZN, especially in the area of Applied Mathematics. I knew that this was an extremely difficult area of scientific study. Listening to Professor Hansraj’s journey into the world of mathematics and research ignited my mind to look into pursuing research in the areas of gravity and stellar modelling. My son was also excited about these fields of study. Professor Hansraj took on the challenge of supervising me and gave me a project to work on solution-generating algorithms in Einstein’s general relativity.

‘My son passed away tragically in a car accident. It was difficult but I pushed through the pain and loss to complete my MSc in Mathematics and kept my promise to him about graduating. I stood in the same Graduation ceremony as my son’s friends and literally stood in for him on Graduation day.

‘Since my son’s death in 2009 I longed to study Mathematics as a tribute to his memory.’

Krupanandan believes the results contained in his thesis are important within the realm of theoretical astrophysics and gravitation. ‘The solutions are excellent descriptions of stellar models in higher dimensions,’ he explained. ‘As technology and observations improve, such models will play an important part in determining the fundamental physics of stars.

‘This work will encourage future postgraduate students and emerging researchers to seek new families of solutions describing more realistic matter distributions. The most rewarding and impactful part of this work will be future evidence of higher dimensions and the effects on stellar structure.’

With his PhD complete, Krupanandan plans to continue his work to develop school teachers and learners’ mathematical skills, to which he has devoted much of his career.

He thanked his family, supervisor and numerous colleagues for their support.

‘Some dreams seem impossible and scare us, but that’s only because they are bigger than us,’ he said.

‘I never thought that I would achieve my dream of obtaining a PhD in Applied Mathematics. Despite the difficulty and illusive nature of the field of research I was determined to finish the course of study. This achievement is a great lesson in life for anyone who has a dream, to continue striving for its realisation even if it scares you.

‘I was inspired by my late son as a challenge. At the age of 65 and with many health issues I persevered and kept focused on my dream. I encourage those who dream: you have the potential to succeed, just believe in yourself and trust God to do the rest.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photographs: Sandile Ndlovu and Supplied

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PhD Focuses on Avian Diversity in KZN and Eastern Cape Mistbelts

PhD Focuses on Avian Diversity in KZN and Eastern Cape Mistbelts
A PhD in Ecological Sciences for Dr Samke Ngcobo.

Research on local and landscape drivers of avian diversity in the naturally fragmented southern mistbelt forests of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and the Eastern Cape earned Dr Samukelisiwe Ngcobo her PhD in Ecological Sciences.

She was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs and husband and wife, Drs Yvette and David Ehlers Smith.

‘Naturally fragmented forests harbour resilient species, but novel challenges experienced by these species have unknown consequences,’ explained Downs. ‘Samke assessed local avian diversity in selected southern mistbelt forests of KZN and the Eastern Cape using a multifaceted approach. She revealed how key landscape features affected local bird diversity and mapped the connectivity of core forest patches providing the highest avian diversity. She also provided recommendations for the long-term survival of species in these forests.’

‘I examined the many-sided nature of the biodiversity of bird communities in these forests influenced by habitat loss and fragmentation, that is, the arrangement of forests after the removal of habitat,’ said Ngcobo. As a KZN local, UKZN was the obvious choice of institution for her research.

‘My research highlights the importance of conserving forest habitat in order to maintain the bird diversity that is dependent on forests. This is vital since the forest biome is the smallest of the biomes in South Africa and further degradation and loss could negatively affect forest-dependent plants and animals,’ she said.

‘Little is known about how naturally fragmented forest biotas respond to present-day anthropogenic (ie human-induced) fragmentation effects, and my research helps to fill this research gap.’

Ngcobo has always loved nature and being able to get out to study these forest communities was a dream come true.

She paid tribute to her mother as her primary supporter who made personal sacrifices to get her where she is; and to her supervisor Professor Downs for academic and financial support. ‘And I could not have finished this PhD had it not been for the grace of God,’ she said.

Not one to miss an opportunity, Ngcobo spends her spare time studying free online training courses. With a PhD under her belt, she hopes to continue pursuing an academic career by undertaking postdoctoral research.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu

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Mobile Applications Designed to Improve Home Convenience and Human Well-being

Mobile Applications Designed to Improve Home Convenience and Human Well-being
Dr Olutosin Taiwo with her children, Oluwaseyifunmi and Oluwadarasimi.

Dr Olutosin Taiwo graduated with a PhD from UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS) specialising in Computer Science.

Taiwo gained her Bachelor of Science honours degree from Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye and her Master of Science from the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, both in Ogun State, Nigeria. She registered for a PhD degree at UKZN in order to broaden her knowledge and research skills. She commented that she was drawn to the University by its well-equipped facilities and the availability of experienced supervisors.

Motivated by the desire to undertake research that improves people’s quality of life, Taiwo’s PhD focused on using the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies enhanced by machine learning and deep learning models to design systems for the remote control, monitoring and surveillance of the home, its appliances and the surrounding environment.

She designed mobile applications using IoT surveillance cameras and an Android-based mobile application to alert the occupants to an intruder. In order to avoid false alarms, her study proposed the use of machine learning and deep learning models to enhance system intelligence by discretely and automatically distinguishing between the images or motion patterns of regular home occupants and that of an intruder. The Android-based application also enables the occupants to monitor and adjust humidity and temperature in the home.

Taiwo said that the research findings can be used by companies to develop mobile applications that enable users to control home appliances, monitor environmental factors and ensure security from any location at any time.

The second aspect of her PhD study involved using IoT sensors to monitor patients’ health status remotely and thus reduce hospital visits and enhance communication between patients and their healthcare providers. An Android-based mobile application was designed to record and transmit patients’ vital physiological readings to their doctors.

Taiwo said that she appreciated UKZN’s state-of-the-art facilities, provision of data during the COVID-19 pandemic and the provision of equipment and software which facilitated her research. She presented two research papers at the virtual International Conference on Computational Science and its Applications, Italy, in 2020 and has published three articles in reputable journals. She was also awarded third prize for oral presentations at the SMSCS’ 2021 Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium.

Taiwo is currently continuing her research and hopes to secure a postdoctoral or lecturing position. She aims eventually to become a university professor.

She expressed her gratitude to her supervisor, Professor Absalom Ezugwu for his mentorship, guidance and patience, and her husband, Dr Adeolu Taiwo, a UKZN alumnus, for his care, support and encouragement during her studies. He said that he admires his wife’s determination, zeal, diligence and perseverance, adding: ‘I am blessed to have her as my wife.’

Ezugwu praised Taiwo for her focus and excellent understanding of her research topic, as well as her technical contribution to smart home automation.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Supplied

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African Crowned Eagle Champion Earns PhD

African Crowned Eagle Champion Earns PhD
Left: Dr Mfundo Maseko in the field and right, at his graduation.

‘To God be the glory. I dedicate this PhD to my family; I could have not completed it without their exceptional support. A big thank you to my grandmother Mrs J. Maseko for her incredible support and prayers.’

These are the heartfelt words of Madadeni resident, Dr Mfundo Maseko.

Maseko graduated with a PhD in Ecological Sciences, with a dissertation that focused on factors affecting the persistence of African crowned eagles (Stephanoaetus coronatus) in an urban mosaic landscape in KwaZulu-Natal. He was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs and Dr Manqoba Zungu, to whom he also expressed his heartfelt gratitude for their immeasurable support, motivation and belief in him. ‘They kept me going during difficult times,’ he said.

‘Mfundo explored the conservation implications for this threatened raptor by determining their occupancy and detection probability; comparing characteristics of their nests; assessing local perceptions and attitudes towards raptors; and evaluating how extreme rainfall events may influence the long-term viability of the local population of crowned eagles,’ said Downs.

His research focused on the mosaic forest areas of eThekwini Municipality. ‘I investigated the influence of the conservation of forests and public attitudes on the persistence of African crowned eagles, and how climate change will likely affect such populations,’ he said. ‘Conservation of forests and peoples’ attitudes can assist in the conservation of wildlife species, especially in human-dominated landscapes.’

Maseko’s research is significant as it provides knowledge on the potential impacts of urbanisation and climate change on the persistence of a globally Near Threatened raptor species. ‘Although thriving in some environments, several raptor species will be severely affected,’ he explained.

‘Growing up, I was always curious about what was happening inside forests, what types of animals were there and how they were living. After completing my masters, which investigated the effects of fragmentation and forest structural components on the diversity of forest bird species, my love for forest birds deepened,’ he said.

Not surprisingly, the crowned eagle aficionado enjoys bird watching in his spare time. He gives back to his community by assisting high school learners with their studies and university applications, and plans to continue his involvement in science education in townships and rural areas. He also hopes to conduct research that prioritises the conservation of natural habitats and climate change mitigation strategies.

Mfundo said he chose UKZN due to the quality of education offered and its globally renowned scientists.

Words: Sally Frost

Photographs: Supplied and Sandile Ndlovu

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PhD for Research on Computer-aided Tuberculosis Diagnosis

PhD for Research on Computer-aided Tuberculosis Diagnosis
Dr Mustapha Oloko-Oba earned a PhD for computer-aided Tuberculosis diagnosis.

Dr Mustapha Oloko-Oba graduated from UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science with a PhD in Computer Science. He was supervised by Professor Serestina Viriri.

Of the firm belief that “travelling is part of education”, he relocated from Nigeria to register at UKZN. The University’s ranking as a leading university in Africa and its innovative research, curricula, dynamic teaching and learning, and state-of-the-art laboratories influenced his choice of institution.

Oloko-Oba developed a computer-aided detection system to diagnose Tuberculosis (TB) from a chest radiograph (CXR). He employed state-of-the-art deep learning models through ensemble learning to detect and distinguish infected CXRs from healthy ones.

The model was trained on the Shenzhen dataset and validated on the Montgomery dataset to improve accuracy and generalisation on new (unseen) datasets. The EfficientNet model’s performance was found to be comparable with state-of-the-art techniques and it outperformed existing TB classification systems.

Oloko-Oba noted that TB is among the leading causes of death in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization, South-East Asia and Africa account for about 69% of global cases. Tuberculosis causes economic distress and exacerbates poverty and vulnerability. The automatic detection system will assist with early diagnosis, correct misdiagnosis and address the shortage of skilled radiologists. Early detection increases the chances of a cure and millions of deaths could be averted.

The system will also assist healthcare centres, especially in TB-burdened regions, to detect the disease early and prescribe appropriate treatment.

Oloko-Oba is currently involved in online sentiment analysis. His future plans include ongoing research and publications, and collaborating with industry, research institutes and individuals to create new ideas and design innovations for the benefit of humanity.

His supervisor Professor Viriri noted that Oloko-Oba was a dedicated researcher with innovative ideas and an expert in machine learning, especially applied to the medical image analysis niche.

Oloko-Oba described his PhD studies as a wonderful experience, enhanced by the warm reception he received from staff and students in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science. He said that he was privileged to learn about South Africa’s diverse cultures and even picked up some isiZulu.

He devotes his spare time to advocating for equity, diversity and inclusion.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu

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Master’s Graduate Revels in the Challenge of Quantum Computing

Master’s Graduate Revels in the Challenge of Quantum Computing
Cum laude master’s graduate, Mr Dean Brand.

Mr Dean Brand describes obtaining his MSc in Physics cum laude as a surreal experience.

Supervised by Professors Francesco Petruccione and Ilya Sinayskiy of UKZN’s Quantum Research Group his dissertation is titled: Investigation of IBMQ Quantum Device Hardware Calibration with Markovian Master Equation.

The first in his family to study to a master’s level, he found himself in unfamiliar academic territory but despite difficulties along the way, it was a rewarding process and he is proud to have stayed the course.

‘I was inspired by the world-class research group that accompanied me on my journey,’ said Brand. ‘It has proven itself to be a pioneering group in South Africa and is the African flagship for quantum and computational science.’

Brand said that quantum computers have entered a golden age of research and development and research gaps remain to be filled in order to understand their functionality and capabilities fully.

His research focused on experimentally validating the properties of state-of-the-art superconducting quantum computers from a theoretical perspective, providing new methods for calibration and data extraction from the device.

‘Although my research only addresses a small topic within the larger field of quantum computing, I believe it to be an important contribution that emphasises the need to bring many overlapping research fields together to offer new insight into the future development of quantum devices.

‘Over the past few years, I’ve been experiencing burnout and stress to the extent that I constantly had to make an effort to leave work and go outside during the day,’ said Brand. ‘The thing that helped me the most was running in the morning - that’s when I completely cleared my head.’

Fortunately, most of Brand’s work could be done remotely, so the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t directly derail his research. He still had to work hard to keep his mindset and mental health in good stead, however, as social isolation created unforeseen stress. He focused on healthy self-improvement habits, staying physically active by going to the gym, running and reading as much as possible to remain mentally alert.

Brand thanked his family and supervisors for always supporting him and nurturing his perseverance.

‘Professors Sinayskiy and Petruccione rekindled my passion for academic research and provided invaluable help in ensuring the success of my endeavours,’ he said. ‘Sponsorship from CSIR/eNICIS was the icing on the cake that made this journey even sweeter.’

His advice for current and future students is always to dream big and know that struggling is natural and part of the process. ‘Be patient; anything is possible.’

Words: Cindy Chamane

Photograph: Supplied

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Developing Striga-Resistant and Biocontrol-Friendly Maize for Africa

Developing Striga-Resistant and Biocontrol-Friendly Maize for Africa
Dr John Lobulu (right) with his supervisor, Professor Hussein Shimelis.

Dr John Lobulu, a researcher at the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) is receiving a PhD from UKZN after he successfully investigated the development of maize varieties resistant to the Striga parasite and compatible with a fungal biocontrol agent to combat the threats to food security posed by the weed that affects millions of small-scale farmers across Africa.

Lobulu’s thesis focused on breeding Zea mays L. in Tanzania for resistance to the asiatica and hermonthica species of Striga, commonly known as witchweed, and their compatibility to Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. strigae, a soil-borne fungal biocontrol agent.

Lobulu, who completed his research through UKZN’s African Centre of Crop Improvement (ACCI) with funds from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), emphasised the importance of work like this to improve food security among resource-poor smallholder farmers and improve the availability of Striga resistant maize seed that is compatible with their needs. Application of the Fusarium biocontrol agent promotes higher yields in the areas affected by Striga.

Having worked with maize in several positions throughout his career, Lobulu decided to contribute to science and society by improving the yields of this crop that so many in Africa depend on.

‘The losses caused by Striga in smallholder farmers’ fields troubled me, so I asked myself how I could help them,’ he said.

Upon receiving a PhD scholarship, Lobulu approached UKZN’s Professors Hussein Shimelis and Mark Laing to develop a viable study to achieve his goals. Already used to working as a plant breeder where he had to schedule and prioritise his work carefully, he was able to balance his work and his studies and enable them to complement each other.

He said he was fortunate to work under Shimelis’ supervision at UKZN, and that his supervisors were professional, friendly and dedicated. He expressed appreciation to Shimelis for ensuring that he completed his studies without any difficulty and for always being available.

Lobulu also said he benefited from the ACCI’s programme which schedules UKZN-based activities for a year of the PhD process to accommodate students from outside South Africa and allow them to complete their field studies in their home countries. He added that the availability of world-class facilities including laboratories, physical and online libraries and support services made the process simpler.

Attaining his PhD was not without its challenges - the COVID-19 pandemic precluded visits to South Africa to write up his thesis, necessitating a more isolated, limited online writing process. Lobulu also contracted malaria during his studies which resulted in a loss of consciousness for five days, lengthy hospitalisation and follow-up health checks.

Despite these significant challenges, Lobulu triumphed, and was able to publish two manuscripts in peer-reviewed journals, with a further two under review.

With his PhD under his belt, Lobulu will continue his work with the TARI and finalise the development of Striga resistant varieties so that they can be released for farmers’ use.

Lobulu said that he is indebted to Shimelis for his excellent supervision, guidance and mentorship, and expressed gratitude to his co-supervisor Laing, in-country co-supervisor Dr Arnold Mushongi, AGRA, his parents Mr and Mrs Lobulu, his wife and his children for their patience, and the many others who supported his PhD journey.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Supplied

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Comprehensive Monkey Research Provides Useful Guidelines

Comprehensive Monkey Research Provides Useful Guidelines
PhD graduate Dr Kerushka Pillay conducted research on vervet monkeys.

Dr Kerushka Pillay was awarded a PhD in Ecological Sciences for her research on aspects of the ecology and persistence of vervet monkeys in mosaic urban landscapes in KwaZulu-Natal. She was supervised by Professor Colleen Downs.

‘Increased contact between humans and troops of vervet monkeys using residential gardens has led to human-vervet conflict,’ said Downs. ‘Ms Pillay investigated vervet monkeys’ spatial ecology in a mosaic urban landscape including their home ranges and habitat use. The effects of anthropogenic activities and human-wildlife conflict on vervet monkeys were also documented. Her results contribute to human-vervet conflict resolution and support for further education and coexistence with wildlife in mosaic urban landscapes.’

Having completed all her tertiary qualifications at UKZN Pillay had built a strong relationship with the School of Life Sciences over the years. ‘It felt fitting to complete my PhD in an institution that fosters and guides young scientists like myself,’ she said.

Pillay studied the spatial ecology of vervet monkeys and troops living in a conservancy on a landfill site (Buffelsdraai) and compared this to an urban residential area (Bluff). Her study documented the home range and habitat use of vervet monkeys using GPS tracking collars. ‘The vervet monkeys in this study had relatively small home ranges and utilised both forest and urban areas,’ said Pillay.

Another key aspect of the study focused on the human-wildlife conflict of vervet monkeys in eThekwini Municipality by documenting trends in admission records (2011-2018) at an urban wildlife rehabilitation centre.

‘Significantly, admissions increased annually and were reported highest in Spring,’ said Pillay. The main causes were being hit by motor vehicles, dog attacks and being orphaned.

‘Most of the vervet monkeys arrived alive at the centre; however, 71% were declared dead by the end of the admission process,’ she said. ‘Admission data also account for the first observations of pregnancy cases exhibiting dystocia (difficulties during birth/labour) in pregnant female vervet monkeys (n = 13).

‘The study’s results highlight the plight of urban vervet monkeys and support education, management and conservation of this primate species in the urban mosaic landscapes of South Africa. Despite urban infrastructure and human activities, vervet monkeys persist.’

Pillay explained her interest in monkey research: ‘Being born and brought up in KwaZulu-Natal, there is no place you can go and not see vervet monkeys. Love them or hate them, they have caused quite a stir amongst the public with many taking up positions for or against the species.

‘I wanted to provide scientific evidence to support protection of the species and highlight the blatant disregard for wildlife living in a shared environment along the urban-forest mosaic.

‘Vervet monkeys depict resilience in an ever-changing landscape. They can thrive under anthropogenic activities and in fragmented habitats with or without humans.

‘I am in awe of them as they resemble human behaviour so closely, like when they groom or play fight. We are lucky we still get to see wildlife on our doorstep without having to leave the city. Most of us take this for granted,’ she said.

Pillay said her study was significant as the results revealed that vervet monkeys are active and move regardless of their urban and anthropogenic surroundings.

‘They mainly move for food and I believe if feeding were ultimately banned we could reduce a lot of conflict in urban areas between people and monkeys,’ she said. ‘Feeding monkeys allows them to become pests. We need to avoid them becoming a nuisance or Damage Causing Animals (DCA).

‘Collisions with vehicles and pet attacks will also be reduced if food provisioning is banned as monkeys will not have to move down from the trees to forage around pets and human food in garbage. We as humans, need to manage our waste better.’

Pillay said that monkey-proof bins and screens on windows to deter monkeys from entering properties for food are warranted to avoid conflict.

‘The spate of poisonings arising from vervet monkeys eating food laced with poison is another reason we should stop feeding them,’ said Pillay. ‘Monkeys cannot distinguish between a person genuinely feeding them or to get rid of them, sadly forever.’

Pillay’s study showed that the major human-wildlife conflict is vervet monkeys being hit by motor vehicles. ‘The public needs to reduce their speed, especially near wildlife crossing areas which we have identified as hot spots for collisions.

‘I could go on and on, but we wish to educate as many people as possible to learn to co-exist with vervet monkeys, which will eventually help us alleviate the “vervet monkey problem”,’ said Pillay.

She thanked her ‘work mother and supervisor Professor Colleen Downs’ as well as her parents, Links and Pavanee Pillay, and paid special tribute to her father who passed away suddenly in 2010 whilst running a qualifying race for the Comrades Marathon. ‘With the support of my mother and his guiding spirit, I managed to complete my studies.’

Pillay is currently working for the Endangered Wildlife Trust and hopes to continue applying her knowledge as an ecologist to conserve habitats and assist with saving wildlife in South Africa.

Words: Sally Frost

Photographs: Sandile Ndlovu and Supplied

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Chemical Desalination Master’s Applicable to the Circular Economy

Chemical Desalination Master’s Applicable to the Circular Economy
Left: Ms Lungile Hadebe celebrating her graduation and (right) working in the lab.

A Master’s in Chemistry cum laude is the result of Ms Lungile Hadebe’s research on reclaiming potable water from brackish water using an innovative technology together with discarded coffee grounds to develop a potential material for use in water purification technology, contributing to a more sustainable society.

Hadebe utilised capacitive deionisation technology (CDI) for water purification, which removes salt ions or charged species from aqueous solutions using two oppositely charged electrodes. The performance of CDI relies on the structural and textural characteristics of the electrode materials, usually expensive and involving complicated synthesis methods, as well as being derived from non-renewable resources.

In her project, Hadebe used biowaste in the form of easily accessible and abundant waste coffee grounds to serve as the electrode material. The prepared carbon electrode was characterised using different techniques to investigate the properties of the material, and demonstrated its potential to be used in the CDI technology to replace expensive, non-renewable electrode materials.

In addition to addressing the scarcity of safe drinking water - Hadebe pointed out that only 0.26% of the earth’s 2.5% freshwater resources are suitable for human consumption, with South Africa’s rural areas particularly afflicted by dependence on unsuitable groundwater sources - she also hopes it will promote the circular economy and the use of waste as a resource.

‘CDI technology is convenient to utilise in rural areas for the reclamation of drinkable water since it requires less energy,’ she said.

Hadebe’s interest in chemistry was piqued when she realised that the discipline is not limited to the laboratory, but can be seen in soil’s interaction with water, fertiliser and seed to yield a crop.

‘If everything has an element of chemistry, then chemistry can be used to meet basic human needs such as food, health, clean water, air and soil,’ she said.

Having grown up lacking clean water and electricity, Hadebe is satisfied that her degree will help her to help communities, her country and the world at large.

Keen to pursue a career in research, Hadebe is now enrolled for doctoral studies on UKZN’s Westville campus, drawn to the Institution for its academic quality, learning environment, facilities and courses, and says she is grateful for the opportunity to pursue her studies at the University.

Despite the mental health challenges brought on by the isolation and disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the fire damage sustained by the campus’s chemistry facilities in November 2021, she used her challenges to fuel her drive for success, and was able to attend a conference and publish a research article during her studies.

The article: Properties of porous carbon electrode material derived from biomass of coffee waste grounds for capacitive deionization won Hadebe first prize at an international conference on applied research and engineering.

‘My biggest accomplishment was to show that it is possible for a rural child from a disadvantaged background to excel at an international level, and receiving my master’s cum laude is validation,’ said Hadebe.

She thanked her supervisor Dr Bhekumuzi Gumbi not only for his supervisory support, but also for his coffee consumption that furnished her with the experimental materials she needed. She also thanked her industrial supervisor Dr Zamani Cele of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and her funders, the Water Research Commission, the National Research Foundation Thuthuka grant awards, and GreenMatter. She also credited her laboratory colleagues, friends, and family, for their consistent support.

‘Most importantly, I thank God, because after all has been said and done, a person plans but God decides the course of our lives,’ said Hadebe.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photographs: Sandile Ndlovu and supplied

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Passion for Food Security Leads to Master’s Degree

Passion for Food Security Leads to Master’s Degree
Ms Nqobile Mthuli graduated with a Master of Agriculture in Food Security.

‘I have supervised Nqobile from the time of her Postgraduate Diploma in Food Security and recognised key research skills, passion and commitment even at that stage,’ said Professor Joyce Chitja of her star student, Ms Nqobile Mthuli, who graduated with a Master of Agriculture in Food Security through UKZN.

With a Bachelor of Social Science background majoring in Geography and Environmental Science, Mthuli enrolled in the Introduction to Food Security class as an elective in her third year of undergraduate studies and fell in love with the discipline. ‘I went on to do my PG Diploma in Food Security and found that I had a knack for research, coming top of my class,’ she said. ‘Professor Chitja then provided me with the opportunity to pursue my MAgric in Food Security through UKZN in 2020, for which I will be forever grateful.’

Mthuli’s study focused on environmental management of urban farming and water quality, and its implications for food security.

‘My research aimed to understand the environmental impacts of farming practices and the environmental constraints that threaten crop production, which ultimately affect the fundamental pillars of food security as well as the sustainability of urban farming in three socio-economically marginalised study areas,’ said Mthuli.

‘Nqobile is a quiet but passionate, insightful and analytical, committed and respectful researcher,’ said Chitja. ‘Often working with older and less literate farmers in Sweetwaters and Sobantu township, she was great in engaging with the community with care and patience.’

Mthuli explained what motivated her interest in food security: ‘I was part of an ongoing project led by my supervisor in collaboration with the Water Research Commission. My area of knowledge and skills was in environmental management and food security, which led to the idea to address and/or highlight the interconnectedness of food security objectives with sustainability objectives such as agriculture and the environment. Hence my topic - Environmental Management of Urban Farming and Water Quality: Implications for Food Security.’

Mthuli said her research is significant as it promotes sustainable farming by identifying management practices that can reduce environmental issues in agriculture, thus aligning with the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. ‘The overall findings can be key to the development of community-based interventions for smallholder urban farmers,’ she said.

Mthuli is currently actively looking for employment whilst keeping busy editing journal articles for publication. Her interest in food security also led her to co-found Greenery Women in Action, a non-profit organisation that focuses on alleviating food insecurity and poverty through crop farming in the rural area where she grew up.

‘I plan to use the knowledge and skills I have acquired to contribute to the growth and success of our ongoing projects,’ said Mthuli. ‘I hope that in the next five years we will achieve our goal of assisting more households to become self-sufficient in food production with the necessary resources to gain socio-economic resilience against environmental risks.’

Mthuli paid tribute to her parents, maternal aunt and siblings. ‘They provided me with a leg to stand on all my life. All of the good parts of me and my academic achievements are because of their love and support.’

She also thanked her friend and colleague Ms Sinethemba Ndwalane and her supervisor Chitja and co-supervisor Dr Ojo Temitope.

An avid reader in her spare time, Mthuli had the following to say about her achievement: ‘I believe each of our names define our destiny and I finally understand why I was named uNqobile (one who has conquered). I am not usually one to celebrate my achievements but the past couple of years have been truly humbling. Yet I soldiered on. I look forward to a new chapter in my life.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied

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PhD Study Holds Promise for Natural Gas Purification

PhD Study Holds Promise for Natural Gas Purification
Dr Paul Zvawanda who is passionate about mentoring and imparting knowledge to upcoming engineers.

Given the significant technical and logistical requirements to make the complex operation of natural gas processing efficient and economically viable, the need to optimise natural gas transportation and purification processes motivated Dr Paul Zvawanda’s research to provide technical data on the performance of the natural gas purification process.

This work involved the measurement and thermodynamic modelling of high-pressure vapour-liquid equilibria data for mixtures of key components present in the natural gas streams, such as methane, propane, carbon dioxide, water, methanol and triethylene glycol.

Working at UKZN’s Thermodynamics Research Unit (TRU), a national leader in separation technology, specifically high- and low-pressure phase equilibrium measurements and modelling, Zvawanda worked under the supervision of Professor Prathieka Naidoo, and Drs Wayne Nelson and Kuveneshan Moodley.

‘Natural gas processing involves removing impurities from gas streams since some of them may lead to blockages in pipelines due to hydrate formation, and then enhance corrosion and lessen the calorific value of the gas,’ said Zvawanda.

These impurities are usually eliminated using various solvents depending on the process, for example methanol and triethylene glycol, and Zvawanda focused on the measurement and thermodynamic modelling of phase equilibria data for seven chemical mixtures of relevance to the natural gas industry to close gaps in the available data.

Using a new horizontal variable volume view cell apparatus in the TRU that allows for analytic and synthetic methods of phase equilibria measurement, he generated a hundred new data points over a temperature range of 10 to 50 degrees Celsius and pressure of up to 18 megapascals. The chemical composition ranges investigated and conditions are typical of those found in gas pipelines and gas dehydration plants.

Supported by the South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Fluorine Processing and Separation Technology held by Professor Deresh Ramjugernath, his work aligned with the TRU’s research on optimising natural gas transportation and purification processes. Natural gas processing in South Africa is an attractive option that is being assessed by the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. The Unit’s recent studies have expanded into process development and optimisation through process simulation and control.

Zvawanda’s work resulted in the publication of results in the Journal of Chemical and Engineering Data and selection for the Editors’ Choice® for the American Chemical Society publishing house, which has more than 65 journal categories that publish 50 000 articles annually, demonstrating its broad impact. Some of his recommendations have also been carried into a master’s project in the TRU, which Zvawanda is mentoring.

‘This data contributes to the information required for the process design, control and monitoring of methanol and/or triethylene glycol in gas conditioning systems,’ said Zvawanda.

His data will also help refine thermodynamic models to predicate phase behaviour in multicomponent systems in applications such as gas hydrate inhibition, gas dehydration, subsea gas processing, carbon capture, and storage.

Zvawanda explained that experimental data play a conclusive role in validating theoretical methods and correcting parameters in correlations. These new measurements contributed to a databank for the thermophysical properties of polar solvents in hydrocarbons at high pressures, which is vital for knowledge generation and in the design of separation processes.

His PhD research was not without its challenges; Zvawanda had to switch to an alternative synthetic method of measurements when his analytic one did not work, and his first sapphire equilibrium cell broke, necessitating the use of a backup. However, he highlighted the importance of perseverance and determination.

Growing up in Zimbabwe, Zvawanda was always interested in the engineering profession for its applicability to everyday life, and the serious fuel shortages in that country in the early 2000s prompted him to investigate chemical engineering for its potential to alleviate fuel poverty through understanding the processes and equipment involved in oil and gas refining and investigating alternative fuels.

After completing a BTech (honours) degree in fuels and energy engineering at Chinhoyi University of Technology and a master’s at Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas in Russia, he chose to pursue his PhD at UKZN because of its well-resourced personnel and laboratories that support research.

Zvawanda hopes to apply his talents in a major oil and gas multinational company to gain industrial exposure and see theories in action. He also hopes to continue research, working on projects of industrial and academic importance, especially relating to energy transition and the creation of a circular economy for sustainable development.

He is passionate about mentoring and imparting knowledge to upcoming engineers and seeks to add value in both the academic and industrial arenas, and ultimately to use his technical expertise and knowledge to be a “technoprenuer” in the fuels and energy industry.

Zvawanda credited Naidoo, Nelson and Moodley for their guidance and support, and thanked Ramjugernath for the resources to purchase material and construct the apparatus used. He expressed appreciation to Professor Dominique Richon for his assistance and expertise in the development of the equipment.

Zvawanda thanked Miss Sivanna Naicker, Mr Ayanda Khanyile and all the technical staff in Chemical Engineering for their help, support, teaching and guidance, and his colleagues Mr Paul Ngcobo, Mr Phakamile Ndlovu, Mr Edward Marondedze, Dr Mojgan Ebrahiminejadhasanabadi and Dr Marcin Durski for their inspiration and support. He said his family, particularly his wife Ms Palocia Magorimbo, his son Nyashadzashe and his parents Mr and Mrs C. Zvawanda provided indispensable support and motivation.

Zvawanda acknowledged the National Research Foundation and the SARChI for their financial support that made his study possible.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu

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Inspired to be Great

Inspired to be Great
BSc graduate, Ms Phumelele Mbongwe.

‘Getting a Bachelor’s degree was a rat race,’ said Ms Phumelele Mbongwe on receiving her BSc majoring in Geography.

The daughter of Humanities staff member Mr Themba Mbongwe, she relied on the support of her family throughout her studies.

Mbongwe said she learnt a lot about herself, her subject and time management during her academic journey. Prioritising her time well, developing positive habits and focusing on her goals became her main objectives.

Minor setbacks led to Mbongwe completing her studies a little later than she had planned. ‘I am proud of my accomplishments despite my setbacks and I believe that the knowledge I gained will give me a significant competitive advantage in today’s job market,’ she said.

Mbongwe enjoyed the dedication of her lecturers and the passion they imparted to their students. ‘In addition to teaching, UKZN also aims to foster enthusiasm, growth and innovation.’

She enjoys playing video games in which she finds solace when feeling down. ‘Having friends around and spending time with relatives helps me unwind if I am feeling out of sorts,’ she said. Besides talking to people, she enjoys a good read in her spare time.

‘The support I received from my parents throughout this journey is unmatched,’ said Mbongwe. ‘Despite the impediments, they never lost hope and always believed in my capabilities.’

Words: Cindy Chamane

Photograph: Supplied

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Cum Laude Result for Biochemistry Research on Novel TB Drugs

<em>Cum Laude</em> Result for Biochemistry Research on Novel TB Drugs
Cum laude Masters in Biochemistry graduate, Mr Sandile Mthembu.

Mr Sandile Mthembu graduated with his Masters in Biochemistry cum laude for his research on identifying an alternative drug to fight tuberculosis (TB) that will combat the rapidly rising strains of the disease that are resistant to typical first-line drugs.

Working in Professor Raymond Hewer’s laboratory under the supervision of Hewer and Dr Alexandré Delport, where a native recycling system of the bacterium that aids in virulence termed pupylation has been identified as a potential target for drug development, Mthembu conducted a preliminary study to identify small-molecule(s) capable of binding the pupylation integral protein “PafA”. This was in the hope of using these ligand(s) to develop a drug that hijacks the system for anti-TB effects.

Tuberculosis is responsible for a high disease burden in Africa, with South Africa being one of only six countries accounting for 60% of global cases. Despite the availability of an effective treatment regimen, the growing epidemic of antibiotic resistance is leading to the development of drug-resistant strains of TB.

‘We hope to alleviate this by introducing an alternative treatment option that looks to hijack the pupylation system of TB to target essential TB proteins for cell apoptosis; this would be a first in the field,’ said Mthembu, who benefited from a National Research Foundation grant-holder-linked bursary through Dr Ché Pillay.

Mthembu applied his talents to studying biochemistry thanks to a fascination with biological science from a young age when he was drawn to television shows involving forensics. Despite living in an area where he was only exposed to the careers of a medical doctor, lawyer and engineer, he still knew a vocation in something resembling molecular biology was for him.

He was inspired to study at UKZN by a weekend programme on the Westville campus that offered extra lessons to students in lower quintile schools. The campus pond also made an impression.

Mthembu served as a residence assistant and laboratory demonstrator while studying, as well as volunteering to tutor junior students and serving as a volunteer at UKZN’s Open Day and the “Be a Scientist” programmes. He said that he valued his interaction with diverse groups of people, including staff and students, and that his academic and personal growth was a testament to the benefits of such exposure.

He completed his honours in microbiology under the supervision of Professor Gueguim Evariste Kana, working on the production and optimisation of algal biomass for biofuel production, using innovative nanotechnology that employed machine learning to optimise algal biomass production, a novel study that he presented at the South African Society for Microbiology conference.

With his master’s under his belt, and the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed laboratories not preventing him from finishing on time, Mthembu does not intend to slow down.

‘I plan to continue doing what I love the most, being on this road of discovery where we put meaning to the unknown and use whatever we discover for the benefit of society,’ said Mthembu, regardless of whether this takes place in research or in industry.

‘Imfundo ayikhulelwa,’ said Mthembu of his continuing studies.

He is enrolled for a PhD in Biochemistry that will further develop a bi-functional drug-like compound capable of inducing protein degradation by hijacking the native degradation system of mycobacteria.

‘This novel work will showcase the idea of recruiting the native recycling system of the pathogen to target its essential proteins for antiproliferative effects, a first in the field,’ he said.

He credited his parents and grandmother for their support, and thanked Hewer and Delport for their invaluable guidance. He also acknowledged all his microbiology and biochemistry lecturers, and Pillay in genetics, for their positive influence on his development.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Supplied

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Believe That You Can Achieve, Says PhD Graduate

Believe That You Can Achieve, Says PhD Graduate
Dr Wiseman Mpilo Dlamini in the lab and at his graduation.

Work full-time, live some 550 km from campus, study towards a PhD … and throw a pandemic into the mix. This definitely sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Not for newly-capped Dr Wiseman Mpilo Dlamini, who earned his PhD in Physics for his research entitled: Plasmon as a Mechanism to Improve Performance of Bulk-heterojunction Organic Solar Cells. He was supervised by Professor Genene Mola.

‘Dlamini used local surface plasmon resonance effect to improve the performance of thin film organic solar cells,’ said Mola. ‘He found new evidence on the effect of metal nanoparticles on the charge transport processes and the trapping of solar radiation using a very thin layer of polymer solar absorber. He also published four research articles in international peer-reviewed journals.’

Hailing from Mhlabashane near the small town of Ixopo in KwaZulu-Natal, Dlamini overcame humble beginnings to rise to academic success. ‘I never thought this would happen to me,’ he said. ‘I am overwhelmed with joy and pride.’

As an alumnus, Dlamini chose UKZN for his PhD as he had a well-developed working relationship with Mola. ‘I had fallen in love with UKZN so much that I even influenced my siblings to study here. At home we are a family of UKZN graduates,’ he joked.

The threat of global warming and diminishing reserves of fossil fuels motivated Dlamini to research solar cells. ‘Organic solar cells are easier to produce, flexible and more environmentally friendly than inorganic (silicon) solar cells,’ he said.

‘Currently, the whole world relies significantly on fossil fuels for energy, and this has created major environment pollution and global warming problems. Solar (sunlight) energy has been considered as one of the most promising, abundant and clean energy sources. Solar cells are used to harvest this energy and convert it to usable electricity.

‘My research focused on improving the performance of polymer/organic material-based solar cells using metallic nanoparticles. Polymer solar cells are the subject of intense research and development with the aim being to replace their inorganic (silicon based) counterparts.

‘My research used metallic nanoparticles to improve the sunlight-to-electricity conversion efficiency of the solar cells. The solar cells incorporated with the nanoparticles showed significantly enhanced performance.

‘The significance of this research is that it adds to the body of knowledge and contributes to the quest to find alternative clean, cheap energy sources to solve energy scarcity and global warming/climate change,’ said Dlamini.

Based in Pretoria, Dlamini acknowledged that COVID-19 restrictions made his research extremely difficult as access to equipment was limited and the ban on interprovincial travel had him feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place. The July 2021 unrest did not help either.

He kept himself sane by playing soccer, jogging and listening to music in his spare time.

Fear of failure and the desire to achieve was Dlamini’s recipe for success. ‘Proper planning, effective time management, and assistance and support from friends, colleagues, my supervisor and my family were a huge help,’ he said.

Dlamini thanked a number of organisations and people, including the National Metrology Institute of South Africa, the National Research Foundation, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, his supervisor, his family and his fiancée as well as various colleagues and friends.

With his PhD completed and now on a well-earned “study break”, Dlamini intends spending more quality time with his fiancée and son. ‘I wish that the youth of this country, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and rural areas can be more inspired and believe that they too can achieve success,’ he said. ‘As the youth of today, we are afforded opportunities that the generation before us was not.’

Words: Cindy Chamane

Photographs: Supplied and Sandile Ndlovu

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Early Detection of Cancer Using Statistical and Machine Learning Models

Early Detection of Cancer Using Statistical and Machine Learning Models
Dr Mohanad Mohammed with his wife, Tehnan.

Dr Mohanad Mohammed graduated with a PhD in Statistics from UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science.

Mohammed completed his undergraduate degree in Statistics and Computer Science and a BSc Honours at the University of Gezira, Sudan. He decided to pursue an MSc degree in Statistics at UKZN because of its reputation as a top-ranked Institution. He received a prize for academic excellence and went on to study for a PhD. He said that UKZN encourages students to engage with researchers and scientists in various fields, which developed his group work skills.

Mohammed’s research focused on cancer. ‘It is on the rise and the chances of being diagnosed with a high degree of accuracy and then getting suitable treatment are low,’ he said. ‘Cancer is among the leading causes of death in developed and developing nations.’

Mohammed’s PhD study used gene expression data to facilitate decision-making in relation to cancer diagnosis, treatment and care. It found that gene expression profiling of tumours enhances the accuracy of cancer prediction, leading to correct diagnoses and the application of effective therapies.

Mohammed used statistical and machine learning methods to develop cancer types, subtypes and survival prediction models. He developed a hybrid signature of DNA mutation and RNA expression data and assessed its predictive properties for colorectal cancer mutation status and survival. A stacking ensemble deep learning model was developed for cancer type prediction. Predictive performance of random survival models and the Cox model were compared based on three gene mutations.

Mohammed’s research resulted in three articles being published in highly reputable journals. He believes that his findings will positively impact society, as the prediction models he developed can be used to detect and classify cancer type, subtype and survival prospects as early as possible. This will help facilitate decision-making with regard to treatment.

He described his time at UKZN as amazing. ‘I learnt a lot and my skills have grown,’ he said.

Mohammed is currently a postdoctoral fellow in a health data science project hosted by UKZN in collaboration with Harvard T. H. Chan, School of Public Health, USA, and Heidelberg University in Germany.

His supervisor Professor Henry Mwambi said that Mohammed produced excellent research.

Mohammed expressed his gratitude to his supervisors, Mwambi and Professor Bernard Omolo for their inspiration, patience, dedication and guidance. He thanked UKZN and the University of Gezira, GlaxoSmithKline and the Sub-Saharan Africa Consortium for Advanced Biostatistics Training for financial support.

He also thanked his parents, brothers, sisters and other family members who supported him. ‘Above all I would like to thank my wife Tehnan Mohamed for her love and constant support, for all the late nights and early mornings, and for keeping me sane over the past few months. Thank you for being my muse, editor, proofreader and sounding board. But most of all, thank you for being my best friend. I owe you everything,’ said Mohammed.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Supplied

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Deep Learning Model Used for Early Detection and Classification of Lung Cancer

Deep Learning Model Used for Early Detection and Classification of Lung Cancer
MSc cum laude graduate, Ms Tehnan Mohamed with her husband and fellow graduate, Dr Mohanad Mohammed.

Ms Tehnan Mohamed graduated with an MSc in Computer Science cum laude.

Having completed her BSc and BSc Honours at the University of Gezira, Sudan, she said that she registered for her MSc at UKZN as it offers unique teaching and learning methods that enhance the development of personal and professional skills.

Mohamed’s research focused on early detection and classification of lung cancer using an optimised deep learning model. The results will help to improve cancer prediction and early diagnosis and thus decrease mortality rates.

Mohamed said that she was driven by her passion to learn more about how data science can solve real-life problems and save human lives, especially in relation to cancer. She is currently registered for a PhD at UKZN that will extend her MSc research by employing more advanced artificial intelligence methods. She aims to develop meta-heuristic methods for early cancer detection using next generation sequencing data with gene expression data.

Mohamed thanked her family for their support and her husband for his encouragement. She also extended her gratitude to her supervisor Professor Absalom Ezugwu for his inspiration, patience, dedication and guidance.

Ezugwu described Mohamed as a young scholar with great promise and commended her for completing her MSc in the record time of one year.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Supplied

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Algorithms Applied to Solve Real-Life Problems

Algorithms Applied to Solve Real-Life Problems
Mr Victor Uzor obtained his master’s summa cum laude.

Mr Victor Uzor graduated summa cum laude with a Master of Science specialising in Mathematics.

Uzor completed his undergraduate degree at the Michael Okpara (Federal) University of Agriculture, Umudike, Abia in Nigeria. It was during this time that he developed a passion for pure mathematics.

He said that he chose UKZN for his master’s degree as it is a research-friendly environment with access to local and international educational resources. It also offered an experienced supervisor in his field and fee remission.

His research entailed formulating algorithms in the form of mathematical models, proving their validity and applying them to solve optimisation and other real-life problems such as image recovery and processing, and optimal control. His research outputs can be applied to solve problems in industry, economics, decision making, communication and technology.

Uzor explained that certain real-life problems can be directly modelled into mathematical equations. Hence, solving these equations would be equivalent to solving a practical problem. For example, the results obtained from solving certain optimisation problems can be applied to optimising profit and cost/consumer prediction. Solving variational inequality problems can be very useful in image recovery (where a blurred image is restored by an algorithm in the form of mathematical equations) and signal restoration. These diverse applications are relevant in the fields of communication, ICT, sales and marketing.

He described his master’s studies as exciting but challenging as he was required to independently produce tangible, quality research outputs.

Uzor expressed his gratitude to his supervisor, Professor Oluwatosin Mewomo, co-supervisor, Dr Timilehin Alakoya and his colleagues. He also thanked his parents, siblings, his aunt and the family of the late elder Joseph Ezeagwula, for their moral and financial support.

Mewomo commended Uzor for completing his MSc summa cum laude and in record time. Alakoya commented that Uzor’s research will benefit society. He added that he produced three research articles, one of which has been published, with two under review for reputable Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) and Scopus indexed international journals.

Uzor is currently pursuing a PhD at UKZN.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Supplied

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Biostatistician Conducts Novel Research on HIV

Biostatistician Conducts Novel Research on HIV
Statistics doctoral graduate, Dr Ashenafi Yirga.

Dr Ashenafi Yirga graduated with his PhD in Statistics from the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.

Yirga was born and raised in Jijiga, a city in eastern Ethiopia. He completed his undergraduate degree in Statistics at Addis Ababa University and chose UKZN, which he described as ‘one of the leading universities in Africa’ for his postgraduate studies, where he was awarded a Bachelor of Science honours and MSc in Statistics, completing the latter in record time. Yirga’s MSc on statistical models to study the BMI of under-five children in Ethiopia was awarded with distinction.

Yirga received a scholarship from the Sub-Saharan Africa Consortium for Advanced Biostatistics (SSACAB) to pursue doctoral studies in Biostatistics at UKZN under the supervision of Professors Sileshi Melesse and Henry Mwambi, and Dr Dawit Ayele. He employed a statistical modelling approach known as Quantile Regression for Longitudinal Data to study CD4 counts among HIV-infected individuals. This approach was sourced from the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) under the guidance of Head Biostatistician, Dr Nonhlanhla Yende-Zuma. The novel technique relaxes the assumption of basing a regression model on the mean and instead uses any part of the distribution of the outcome of interest. The work was even more novel because it was applied to longitudinal data which is not common in statistical applications.

Yirga added further complexity by including random effects in order to capture data correlation and individual-to-individual heterogeneity. The study modelled disease progression and dynamics at population and individual levels. It produced five research papers, four of which have been published in ISI-indexed or Q1 (highly) rated journals, with one currently under review.

Yirga expressed his gratitude to the SSACAB-DELTAS Africa Initiative fund for funding his doctoral and master's studies. Currently a postdoctoral fellow in Health Data Science as part of the Data Science Initiative for Africa (DSI-A) training programme, he is keen to contribute to the growing body of research on public health that will improve the quality of life of HIV-affected individuals and the population at large.

He thanked all his lecturers who supported him on his academic journey and expressed his heartfelt thanks to his supervisors for their support and guidance and for growing his understanding of statistics. Yirga also praised God Almighty for all the blessings granted to him and his family for putting up with him during difficult times.

Words: Leena Rajpal

Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu

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Cum Laude Master’s Research Unveils Seasons’ Effect on Beneficial Indigenous Plant

<em>Cum Laude</em> Master’s Research Unveils Seasons’ Effect on Beneficial Indigenous Plant
MSc Genetics cum laude graduate Ms Reshika Ramasar.

Ms Reshika Ramasar is celebrating achieving her masters cum laude after taking on a study of the phytochemical constituents, biological activity and morphology of the indigenous Natal Plum (Carissa macrocarpa) leaves in the summer and winter seasons.

The shrub, known colloquially as AmathunguluumThungulu oBomvu, or “noem-noem”, is known to have many applications in traditional medicine; it is used to treat diarrhoea in livestock, and coughs and venereal diseases in humans, and displays anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant, antipyretic, and anti- inflammatory activity.

Ramasar’s research aimed to close the gap in knowledge about this species. She examined C. macrocarpa for its micromorphological features, histo-phytochemical properties, and antioxidant and antibacterial potential of the plant’s extracts.

Supervised by Professor Yougasphree Naidoo in the Laboratory for Medicinal Plant Research, her study was the first to relate the phytochemical composition and medicinal properties of C. macrocarpa to changes between winter and summer. Ramasar discovered that in winter, the leaves have chemical constituents that show more pharmacological activity than in summer.

Ramasar hopes her results will stimulate interest in and trigger the development of clinically effective medicines from this species that are affordable and have fewer side effects than synthetic medications. Her work was published in the international, peer-reviewed, open-access journal Horticulturae.

Ramasar, who is from Durban, chose to study at UKZN thanks to its international reputation, proximity to home, well-equipped research laboratories and promotion of research of relevance to societal problems.

Her honours and master’s studies were supported by scholarships from the National Research Foundation (NRF), and she is continuing with PhD studies, also supported by the NRF. Ramasar is an invited member of the Golden Key International Honour Society.

Despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and national lockdowns, which restricted access to campus and laboratories, Ramasar was able to complete her studies in the minimum time of two years.

Aiming at a career in clinical research and drug development, Ramasar hopes to gain experience in a pharmaceutical company working on plant-based medications.

She thanked her family for their unconditional support and love, as well as her best friend and colleague Mr Arvish Maharaj for being an integral part of her journey. She expressed appreciation to her partner Mr Thashil Tuckooriah, who she called her biggest supporter and motivation to always aim higher. Ramasar also thanked her supervisor for her guidance and encouragement.

Words: Christine Cuenod 

Photograph: Sandile Ndlovu

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Research on Early Detection of Diabetic Retinopathy Abnormalities Earns PhD

Research on Early Detection of Diabetic Retinopathy Abnormalities Earns PhD
Dr Olubunmi Sule and her husband, James.

Dr Olubunmi Sule graduated with a PhD in Computer Science from UKZN’s School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science.

Hailing from Nigeria, she chose UKZN for her PhD studies as the University ‘is well equipped with laboratories, provides training and innovative workshops that broaden perspectives, has a multi-cultural student body and most importantly is rated amongst the top universities according to Academic Rankings of World Universities.’

Her PhD was inspired by her desire to become an expert in her field and her passion for research. Sule said that this was an opportunity to focus on cutting-edge research that enhances the quality of life by linking artificial intelligence and medical analysis.

She described her PhD journey as ‘characterised by ups and downs, joy and sadness’, but added that she has come to acknowledge that God is a powerful game-changer. The hardest challenge she had to overcome on the verge of completing her PhD was the death of her mother.

Sule implemented a deep learning framework for retinal blood vessel segmentation to support early detection of diabetic retinopathy abnormalities. The framework resolved the visual complexities of retinal fundus images and the challenges of inaccurate diagnosis and delays in manual eye screening approaches to prevent premature vision impairment. The study found that the performance of the proposed deep learning framework compared favourably with other state-of-the-art methods.

‘Diabetic retinopathy is one of the leading causes of vision loss and blindness that affect people of working age,’ said Sule. Her research will enable early diagnosis of ophthalmological-related diseases and timely treatment.

Sule excelled in her studies, receiving first prize for an oral presentation at UKZN’s 2020 Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium; and an honourable mention for her poster presentation at the Deep Learning IndabaX International Conference, South Africa in 2019. She has published a number of articles and three articles are currently under review in reputable peer-reviewed journals.

Her supervisor Professor Absalom Ezugwu said: ‘Sule’s accomplishment speaks directly to the saying that hard work would beat talent when talent doesn't work hard.’

‘Students should never give up on their dreams regardless of the odds but keep striving. Always remember that it is darkest before dawn,’ advised Sule.

She hopes that her research will positively impact society by reducing the global prevalence of premature vision-impairment that could have been prevented; easing the global financial burden arising from such problems like decreased productivity; alleviate the burden on patients, their family members and the health sector; and improve access to screening facilities by disadvantaged people and those residing in rural areas.

Sule is currently revising further journal manuscripts for submission. She plans to continue her research in this field. She thanked her siblings, husband James, supervisor and PhD colleagues for their support.

Words: Londeka Makhoba

Photograph: Kendra Battle

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