Mhlangabezi Mdutyana. Picture: Lerato Maduna
Mhlangabezi Mdutyana. Picture: Lerato Maduna

UCT graduate becomes South Africa’s first black observational ocean biogeochemist

By Harvest Thwala Time of article published Dec 14, 2021

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University of Cape Town graduate becomes South Africa's first black observational ocean biogeochemist.

Mhlangabezi Mdutyana is a UCT PhD graduate-in-waiting. On Tuesday, Mdutyana will join hundreds of UCT graduates as they receive their degrees during a virtual graduation ceremony.

The first-generation graduate said he feels honoured however, universities in SA still have a huge role to play in nurturing black researchers.

“I am beyond honoured. However, this also comes with an intrinsic responsibility on my part to help develop more black scientists in this field. I believe that UCT and other universities have a huge role to play in this process. They need to do a lot of work to attract, nurture and hold onto black researchers in scarce skills disciplines,” He said.

Mdutyana hails from the dusty roads of Polar Park in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. In a statement he said, he is the son of a domestic worker and a security guard.

The young man couch surfed his way through the first year of his MSc to make ends meet; and had his socks knocked off when his master’s was upgraded to a PhD.

“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.”

“Receiving word that my Master’s would be upgraded to a PhD was unbelievable. Ask anyone, this doesn’t happen in a hurry, and here, out of the blue it happened to me. I was in complete disbelief,” said Mdutsyana.

He explained that ocean biogeochemistry is the field of science that studies the carbon and nutrient transformation that occurs through biological, chemical, and geological processes. So, an ocean biogeochemist investigates the role marine organisms play in cycling carbon and nutrients in the upper ocean.

In his research, he 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. To reach his conclusions, he spent time aboard the SA Agulhas II research vessel in the Southern Ocean and collected seawater samples from up to 500m deep to perform the necessary experiments.

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 come from disadvantaged communities.

“Supervising postgraduates will set the foundation for this important work. Therefore, planting my feet firmly in academia seems like a likely choice,” he concluded.

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