While for many the golden years are the perfect opportunity to develop a green thumb, a Pietermaritzburg pensioner has taken this pastime a step further and earned herself a PhD in “soil science”.

Seventy-year-old Patricia Wallis of Pietermaritzburg, who studied what is formally known as molecular soil ecology, was capped by the University of KwaZulu-Natal this week.

According to the university, the average age of Wallis’s fellow students who graduated from its college of agriculture, engineering and sciences was 20.

“One of my peers was actually in my practical class as an undergraduate,” Wallis said.

Wallis’s dissertation examined the effects of land use and management practices on the microbial diversity of soil.

She said the work was a “pleasure”.

“There’s growing concern around the loss of biodiversity. But usually the focus is on plants and animals, when farming practices are causing problems underground. I looked at sugar cane and maize fields, pastoral lands, bacteria and fungi in the soil. The chemistry of the soil changed, and had an effect on crop production. More and more fertiliser is needing to be applied.”

Wallis retired as a genetics lab technician in 2003, but unwilling to “sit in a wheelchair” or be confined to crocheting, she became a student again in 2004, working towards a Master’s degree.

The mother of one said she had never intended to study towards a PhD, but her husband and son teased her that she was the only one in the family without such a title.

Wallis said she had felt “stunned and overwhelmed” at her graduation ceremony.

Asked about her plans, she responded that she was taking it one step at a time, and for now was focused on the two papers she needed to write. - The Mercury