Mhlangabezi Mdutyana had his socks knocked off when his Master’s was upgraded to a PhD, and this University of Cape Town (UCT) graduate has now made history as South Africa’s first black observational ocean biogeochemist.
Mdutyana was part of hundreds of UCT graduates who were awarded and acknowledged during a virtual graduation ceremony on Tuesday, December 14 2021.
As the son of a domestic worker and a security guard who grew up on the dusty roads of Polar Park in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, Mdutyana’s journey with UCT started in 2015 when he was awarded a scholarship to pursue his Master’s in marine biogeochemistry.
As a ‘new kid on the block’ in Cape Town, Mdutyana quickly realised that his Master’s scholarship was not enough to pay his rent, buy food and pay for his transport. He then pursued a different avenue and decided to get creative with his living arrangements.
“I spent the first year of my master’s on my friend’s couch. The arrangement worked well and meant that I could use my scholarship money for things I needed and not for rent, which took a huge chunk of the cash. I was blessed to have a friend who was willing to help me out,” he said.
According to a statement, this ‘couch surfing’ arrangement changed when he was told that his MSc would be upgraded to a PhD as a result of his unparalleled research, which at the time had been in a class of its own. He then became a doctoral candidate under the guidance of Dr Sarah Fawcett, a senior lecturer in the Department on Oceanography.
With several scholarships from the Harry & Doris Crossley Foundation; the National Research Foundation (NRF); and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – the troubles he had had just a few months prior were a thing of the past.
“I can safely say that I had a seamless PhD experience and it’s all thanks to Sarah [Fawcett]. Far too many PhD candidates feel that they aren’t 100% supported by their supervisors. But I can’t complain; having crossed paths with her was a blessing. Her support and guidance meant everything to me,” he added.
Mdutyana explained that ocean biogeochemistry is the field of science that studies the carbon and nutrient transformation that occurs through biological, chemical, and geological processes. An ocean biogeochemist therefore investigates the role marine organisms play in cycling carbon and nutrients in the upper ocean.
On the unique topic of his research, has been on a quest to understand certain changes in the Southern Ocean, which is widely known for its nutrient, chlorophyl and iron concentrate imbalances, particularly in the upper ocean surface.
His research focused on the role that phytoplankton – the autotrophic components of the plankton community and a key part of ocean and freshwater ecosystems – and nitrifying bacteria play in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the statement reads.
Mdutyana said his PhD and the lessons he has learned along the way have paved the way for his future. And his journey with UCT doesn’t end here. He has been awarded the University Research Committee’s (URC) Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Award and will kickstart his postdoctoral research fellowship in 2022.
His goal is to inspire young and upcoming black scientists and to contribute to nurturing and producing the next generation of exceptional black researchers “who look like me and who come from the communities I come from”.
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Picture: Pexels / UCT