A passion for research

Ethel Phiri developed an interest in science at a young age and today her interest in research includes genetics, biodiversity, ­conservation, invasive species and their influence on ­ecosystem functions, and climate change.

She was born in ­Nelspruit, Mpumalanga, and attended four primary schools in the province because her ­family relocated several times.
After completing matric she enrolled for a bachelor of ­science degree at the University of Johannesburg, then known as Rand Afrikaans University, majoring in botany and biochemistry.

She graduated in 2002 and the ­following year completed an ­honours degree in botany, with plant biotechnology and medicinal plant use as additional courses.

She worked at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, Johannesburg, for a year before ­travelling to remote Marion Island in the South Atlantic on a sub-Antarctic expedition.

There she spent 13 months studying towards a ­master’s degree in ­science ­specialising in sub-Antarctic ecology through the University of Stellenbosch. She was awarded a South African Association for the Advancement of Science medal for the best original research in 2009.
Phiri works part-time as an ­academic writing consultant at the university’s Writing Laboratory, helping students to improve their ­academic and scientific writing skills—all this while working towards a doctorate in zoology.

What sparked your interest in science?
I suspect I was inspired after I ­germinated a bean in cotton wool when I was in primary school. For years after that I tried to germinate almost every seed I came across.

Was there an event or person that persuaded you to pursue your career?
I am naturally curious but I also had the best grade 10 biology teacher in Mrs Andrews. She played an important role in stimulating my ­interest in ­chemical signals in plants and ­animals, which is why I chose ­biochemistry at university.

What is your field of science all about?
It is about the genetics and ­biogeography—the historical ­distribution—of crabs living in freshwater or aquatic habitats, rivers and lakes, in the Afrotropical region.

The basis of my research is to use genetic techniques to find the ­historical time period in which crabs may have inhabited specific fresh­water habitats in this region.

I am using this information to trace their dispersal ­patterns in order to infer the ­historical ­distribution of their ancestors, which may have ­originated from the sea.

How can young people get into your area of specialisation?
Together with a passion for the life sciences, they need to work hard at school and do maths and science to be accepted into a bachelor of ­science programme at university.

At university they can choose courses such as genetics, biochem­istry, biotechnology, botany, zoology and molecular systematics, among others.

What is your message to science ­teachers and learners?
Teachers should make use of the resources they have, however ­limited, to encourage learners to become interested in science and ­technology.
If resources are not ­available, teachers should be ­inventive to make science fun for the learners.

In addition, they should teach with passion, because this is what sparks an ­interest in the minds of young people.

Science is great because —
It helps us to understand details often overlooked in our daily lives. For example, although bacteria are often regarded as bad, we enjoy yoghurt because someone discovered how to put bacteria to good use. Through the application of science and technology, hearing aids were invented.

What do you do in your spare time?
I enjoy photography, the outdoors—hiking and cycling—and ­watching nature DVDs and television shows.

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo reports for the Teacher newspaper, a Mail & Guardian monthly publication. Apart from covering education stories, he also writes across other beats. He enjoys reading and is an avid soccer and athletics fanatic. Thabo harbours a dream of writing a book. Read more from Thabo Mohlala

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