When the world celebrated and recognised the role of women during the ‘International Day of Women and Girls in Science’ early this month, the University of Zululand (UniZulu) saw it fit to honour one of their own.
Dr Nontuthuko Ntuli , who has proved to be ahead of her peers in her field, is an outstanding scientist working in the UniZulu’s department of botany. Her success and commitment to the STEM has not only paved way but also continues to inspire many young women and girls who want to follow studies in science.
Dr Ntuli said she knew when she was growing up that science, particularly botany, was her first love. True to form, she studied it until she obtained her doctorate and since then she has become one of the revered and credible voices within the botany space. However, her aim all along was to use her knowledge and expertise to positively impact other people’s lives.
Dr Ntuli has a BSc degree in Biochemistry, Botany and Microbiology as majors. She continued with BSc Hons in Botany where her research area was on ethno-botany. Her MSc focused on taxonomy and genetics of selected food and medicinal plants. During her PhD studies, she looked into plant biotechnology of some indigenous and traditional leafy vegetables.
Currently, Dr Ntuli’s work entails lecturing undergraduate and supervising post-graduate students. She said what she enjoys most is to see her students under her supervision pass the undergraduate modules as well as graduate at postgraduate levels.
Dr Ntuli is continuing to work on the identification and characterisation of indigenous leafy vegetables as well as indigenous trees that produce edible fruits. The reason she focuses on this area is that these plants have, among others, high nutrient content; they are able to grow and yield successfully under adverse environmental conditions; in addition, they also need very low inputs when they are informally cultivated. However, current research mostly focuses on the edible plants, which are exotic to the country.
Talking about the challenges and rewards of her work, Dr Ntuli said her biggest and first barrier she had to overcome when she started lecturing was being shy and speaking softly, even though she needed to be audible because of the size of the classes, particularly at first-year level. “I also had to learn to socialise with people, especially when I was doing surveys with communities, which was very hard for me to do at the beginning,” she added.
Dr Ntuli is always willing to share important lessons as well as advise young girls and women who wish to pursue a career in science. “Regardless of your gender, race or creed, you will have attributes that make you unique and that will compliment your skill. It is all about seeing how best you can make it work,” she advised.
Dr Ntuli said that she is looking forward to witness several of her MSc students graduate, at least four PhD students. She also aims to be an NRF-rated researcher/scientist and to be a full professor. She has graduated five MSc students and one PhD student, whose study is currently underway.