Ph.D. was never really part of my plans until 2011 when I conducted my very first independent scientific project as an Honours student in the Botany Department at Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha, Eastern Cape, South Africa. The project was biotechnology-based, with the aim of producing bioethanol from lignocellulosic biomass. After completing that degree I felt the urge to continue studying, regardless of the pressure to work. My parents at the time were struggling financially and needed as much assistance from us their kids as possible. Choosing to educate ME even further was not such a tough decision to make for me. I was selfish but believed and hoped that it would all pay off in the end. With overwhelming drive and an undisputable ambition, I registered for a Masters degree in the Botany Department at the University of Cape Town, working on phenotypic characterization of rhizobia isolates and distribution of Burkholderia rhizobia in the Core Cape Subregion. It was as tough as stone, but I loved every second of it and was fascinated by the discoveries we made. In fact, working with microbes and analysing their DNA was so captivating that I wanted to explore the ocean’s microbial communities, particularly the understudied Southern Ocean’s microbial communities.
I searched and applied for about two Ph.D. opportunities that captured my interests. I was offered both Ph.D.s but was especially fond of one with the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition XII, Dr Sarah Fawcett and Professor Rosemary Dorrington. The study would enable me to continue with microbial community exploration, introduce me to biogeochemistry and allow me to understand nutrient cycling in the eccentric Southern Ocean and on the Agulhas. The Ph.D. has been an eye opener in that within such a short space of time I have been exposed to a world of science I knew existed, but did not know was so intricately important in the mitigation of global climate change, the change in average weather conditions. My study is predominantly part of and addresses the biological pump. The biological pump refers to oceanic processes which transfer inorganic carbon, including CO2, via fixation by organic matter and carbon sequestration from the atmosphere and surface waters into the deep ocean. The Southern Ocean’s macronutrients are never completely consumed in surface waters and this a key indicator of the ineffectiveness of the biological pump in Southern Ocean waters. My research, therefore, focuses on the view of the Subantarctic island systems and understanding their role in the Southern Ocean’s productivity. We apply a combination of molecular and chemical techniques to explore the structure and activities of microbial communities. The project additionally evaluates community changes in relation to nutrient concentration fluctuations, sources and ratios. Microbe-nutrient interactions concentrate on N due to the nutrient’s existence in marine systems in copious forms. In driving carbon export, roles of different species of phytoplankton, sources and different forms of N found in the upper ocean waters and N supplied to island systems are analysed with the objectives to quantify new production.
This project, spearheaded by mainly fierce women in SCIENCE, is extremely close to my heart! In fact, at times I feel like my partner who is also a Ph.D. candidate undergoes neglect a bit at times, but equally, understands how important it is to me and us, overall. I was one of the lucky students to go on the Marion Island Relief Voyage Cruise, April 2017- May 2017 under my Head of Department and Primary Investigator, Professor Isabelle Ansorge. It was an experience of a lifetime where I gained professionalism, scientific skills and a multitude of people skills.