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NWU’s youngest PhD law graduate sets academic record

Dr Nicolene Steyn.

Dr Nicolene Steyn.

Published Jul 23, 2021


Durban – Setting a new record and shattering glass ceilings amid a pandemic is Dr Nicolene Steyn, who is the youngest PhD graduate at the North-West University’s (NWU) faculty of law since its merger in 2000.

“I never imagined I’d ever be afforded the profound opportunity to obtain a PhD degree, not to mention being the youngest to do so at the NWU's faculty of law. It’s inspired me to further apply myself as best as I can and to not only pursue a career in legal research, but to conduct research that will be impactful, particularly concerning the nexus between law and technology,” says Steyn.

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Steyn, a post-doctoral fellow at the South African Research Chair: Cities, Law and Environmental Sustainability and the faculty of law in NWU, completed her PhD studies in 2020 at the age of 25, within two years of registration.

From a young age, Steyn realised that she wanted to make a difference for her family and held on to the hope that pursuing her education to the best of her abilities will offer opportunities to do just that.

“I worked hard in school and enjoyed every moment. The awards and accolades didn’t matter too much to me, but only confirmed what I needed to know – I was doing my best and my best is what was needed to make a difference,” says Steyn.

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While attending high school in Zeerust, North West, Steyn was approached by a foundation known as "Ouers, Onderwysers en Oud-leerder Stigting", which assisted students who were top academics from financially constrained households to obtain tertiary education.

“In my matric year, the foundation assisted me in applying to the North-West University and I had received a bursary from the Mahikeng campus of NWU. I spent my first year of law studies there. I transferred to the Potchefstroom campus the following year.”

In her third year and weeks after celebrating her 21st birthday, Steyn’s father died from a stroke, which she said changed her life forever. With a heavy heart, she returned to university the following week and obtained her Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree the following year with a distinction.

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Steyn discovered her love for legal research while writing a LLB mini-dissertation. Afterwards, she started her Master's degree through a research dissertation degree at the NWU, and worked as an academic assistant and a research assistant to Professor Christa Rautenbach at the faculty of law. Steyn completed her two-year LLM degree within one year and received the vice-chancellor's bronze medal for "Most Outstanding Master's Student – Law".

“It was then that my miracle happened,” says Steyn. Rautenbach introduced her to Professor Anél du Plessis, who had just been granted a research chair by the National Research Foundation (NRF).

“She was looking for PhD candidates and graciously offered me an opportunity to be part of the prestigious South African Research Chair: Cities, Law and Environmental Sustainability (Cles) and I joined the team in 2019.”

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Cles provides legal scholarships and research skills development for sustainable urban development in South Africa, the broader African region and beyond.

According to Du Plessis, Steyn completed her PhD thesis on the highly relevant theme in a mere two years which is exceptional in the field of legal studies.

“Nicolene worked on her PhD in her capacity as one of the first post-graduate students in the NRF Cles, established in 2019. During her studies, Nicolene had shown immense dedication and self-motivation, and also presented at national and international conferences. She’s an exceptionally smart young woman and takes interest in complex legal questions. I’m convinced that we will read much more about Dr Steyn in years to come,” says Du Plessis.

Having kindled a deep appreciation for the intersections of law and technology during her undergraduate and LLM research on international humanitarian law and drone warfare, Steyn turned to the topic of “The realisation of the constitutional water right in South African cities through intelligent water management technologies”.

“The topic was especially challenging since, at the time, I had no experience in environmental law or urban legal studies. During the pandemic, I decided to complete the writing of my thesis that same year, which seemed to be an apocalyptic time.

“I felt the biggest sense of relief and accomplishment the moment I submitted my thesis, especially since completing my PhD within two years felt like an impossible feat to begin with. Finding my purpose as a researcher and academic in law has truly been a tremendous gift.”

Steyn’s next goal is to obtain professorship before the age of 30.

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