NRF Women's Month 2022: Tholakele Cele

NRF Women’s Month 2022: Tholakele Cele

Women’s Month 2022 is celebrated under the theme of “Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future” and links to the achievement of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) of Gender Equality by 2030. The NRF is committed to supporting women to advance their careers and establish themselves as researchers and, to this end, has developed a range of funding instruments aimed at supporting emerging female researchers.

Mrs Tholakele (Tholi) Cele is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Agriculture at Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT) and a PhD student in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at Rhodes University. She received support through the NRF’s Black Academic Advancement Program (BAAP)* from 2019 to 2021.

What impact did NRF funding have on your career?

I joined MUT as a lecturer in 2008, already having my Master’s degree. I spent the first ten years trying to develop myself as an academic and raising my children. I have always wanted to conduct scientific research that would benefit both commercial and small-scale farmers in my surrounding communities. The lack of laboratory resources at my institution and a heavy workload made it very difficult for me to achieve that while being a full-time employee. Being part of BAAP provided me with the opportunity to conduct my research work on a full-time basis at a world-class research institution, the South African Sugar Research Institute. The NRF paid for a replacement lecturer which allowed me time to conduct my research work.

A lack of resources at one’s institution should not be the reason one is not engaging in research. NRF funding provides opportunities for collaborations between historically advantaged institutions (HAIs) and historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs). My research involves two universities at the different spectrums of research production and a world-class research institution. A young black female scientist, a former student of the Department of Agriculture at MUT, gained three years of academic work experience as my replacement and now she’s pursuing her PhD studies.

What has been your study/career journey: how did you end up where you are today?

Growing up, I always wanted to be a nurse – so much so that I spent one year not studying after completing my matric because I was not accepted where I had applied to study for nursing. Even though I was selected to study for the Diploma in Rural Resource Management at the then University of Natal, I did not take up that offer – it was not nursing! Looking back now, I realise it was not because I liked being a nurse (of course I would have made a terrific nurse because I like helping people) but I wanted to be a nurse because that was one of the very few careers I was exposed to. It was either a teacher, a police officer, or a nurse and being kind-hearted and a science student, a nurse it was!

There weren’t many role models one could look up to and learn from. I was 17 years old when we first had electricity and bought a battery-operated television set. Luckily for me, I attended a summer programme in 1994 called the “Joint Selection Programme for Science and Applied Sciences” at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and got a glimpse of the other science careers that were out there. In 1996, I enrolled for a BSc degree but had to register for Maths Foundation (one extra year) because although Matric marks were high, my Mathematics marks were terrible.

Had I not failed Population Genetics III in the last semester of my junior degree’s final year, I wouldn’t have furthered my studies. I remember how scared I was to tell my mom that I would not be finishing my degree that year. I was so worried I almost got hit by a car TWICE that day. I felt I had let them down as they had pinned their hopes on me completing my studies and getting a good job. You see, I was one of the very first people to go to a university in my township and the very first in my entire family – a family seriously struggling financially. My mom was a domestic worker and my father worked in a textile factory.

That incident meant I could not graduate together with my peers, so I enrolled for my Honours degree in Microbiology and registered my failed subject as an elective. By the time I graduated with my junior degree, I had completed my Honours degree and registered for my MSc in Crop Science, a move that would unleash my love for agricultural research and teaching.

I used my Microbiology training for my first job as a Research Assistant at the Nelson Mandela Medical School’s HIV Pathogenesis Laboratories, then moved to work as a Researcher at the Agricultural Research Council – Small Grain Institute for three years. From there, I moved to take up the Lecturer post in the Department of Agriculture at MUT in 2008. Fourteen years later, I am a Senior Lecturer completing her PhD studies at 45 years of age.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

My research is focusing on finding a sustainable and environmentally friendly solution to the detrimental sugarcane pests and pathogens. I am looking at isolating and characterising endophytic bacteria antagonistic to sugarcane pathogenic Fusarium and Eldana. These two have a mutually beneficial relationship that enables them to cause over a billion-rand in losses in sugarcane production annually and are a serious threat to food and job security in the sugarcane industry. Both inhabit the internal structures of the sugarcane, reducing the efficiency of the chemical control.

Effective biological control of Eldana has not been achieved due to several reasons, such as the failure of the introduced natural enemy to acclimatise and establish itself in the South African climate, amongst others. High production costs have been a major reason for farmers to sell their land for property development and one of the highest contributors to these costs is pesticide purchase. Curbing the negative impact of pests and pathogens without damaging the environment or exhausting the farmers’ finances contributes immensely to the resuscitation of the struggling sugarcane industry.

Why is your research important?

Fusarium species are serious pathogens in several economically important crops, therefore the results of my study have wide applicability. Fusarium infections are not only problematic to crops but can also cause health problems in humans and livestock because of the mycotoxins they produce. Some of these mycotoxins can cause cancer and foetal abortion. The endophytic and persistent nature of the bacteria we are working with are key to the potential success of our agricultural pest and pathogen control approach. We hope to obtain bacterial isolates that can be formulated into an efficient and affordable product that is easy to store and use – that way, small-scale farmers will also benefit from our findings.

I have published a poster (Proc S Afr Sug Technol Ass (2021) 93: 225-226) from part of my current research work and I am hoping to publish at least two scientific papers by the end of 2023. From my M.Sc. research, I have published “Comparison of osmopriming and seed coating with calcium salts for green bean performance under field conditions. I. Cotyledonal cracking” in the South African Journal of Plant and Soil.

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

It is okay to fail but it is never okay not to try. Every journey is different and sometimes it takes going through fire to unleash your true potential. Persistence and perseverance can be very rewarding. Give yourself time to find your true passion – sometimes it will find you. Do not box yourself in, a Microbiologist has a place in Agronomy and an Agronomist has a place in Entomology: who said you can only be “this”, and not “this” AND “that”?

Science helps us see that everything is intertwined and there are always different shapes and forms of gaps that need to be filled. Use the science to solve the problems you see in your communities; explore and create from what nature has to give. Explore the funding opportunities that are out there.

I wish I had believed in myself enough to know that I am good enough to start something great and meaningful. It is never too late to start. There may be a two-decade gap between my MSc and my PhD but the contribution is still relevant. My two teenage daughters are now my biggest motivators, I cannot fail them and the support from my whole family keeps me going. As long as there is someone willing to support you, always do your best.

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*The NRF’s Black Academics Advancement Programme (BAAP), established in partnership with the FirstRand Foundation, aims to promote the development of Black academics specifically, Black South African citizens and academic staff with disabilities, by accelerating the training of PhD and Post-PhD candidates to enhance their research training and accelerate their progression to become established researchers.

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