NRF Youth Month 2024: Dr Lindokuhle Dlamini

NRF Youth Month 2024: Dr Lindokuhle Dlamini

This year’s Youth Month is significant as the NRF celebrates 25 Years of Research, Innovation, Impact and Partnerships. These are the stories of the youth who have not only been impacted by the NRF but who also have an impact in their own spaces – and beyond! We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Dr Lindokuhle Dlamini is currently a PDP Postdoctoral Researcher at the South African Environmental Observation Network (NRF-SAEON). He received funding from the NRF throughout his postgraduate journey.

How did your journey start?

I started my schooling journey at Inhlube Combined Primary School and later moved to Ihawulethu High School in KwesakwaBiyela Emfule village where I grew up in Empangeni, KwaZulu-Natal. I went through grades 1 to 9 in these schools. In grades 8 and 9, my natural sciences teacher, Mr Delani Ndlovu, noticed how much I enjoyed his subject and how well I did in it. He suggested I go for a science stream for grades 10 to 12.

So, I switched to Aquadene Secondary School in Richards Bay, which meant I had to travel from Emfule village at 5:00 am and back at 6:00 pm every day for three years, but I stuck with it until I finished high school. At Aquadene, I got a lot of help from Miss Mbatha, my geography teacher. She saw how well I was doing in my final year and suggested I consider a career in environmental sciences. She even arranged for me and two other top students to visit a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist in the uThungulu District in 2011, which was a real eye-opener.

Encouraged by Miss Mbatha’s support and the experiences I had, I applied for a BSc in Environmental Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Luckily, I got in and sailed through my degree without any hiccups from 2012 to 2014 and in record time with no supplementary exam and I didn’t even fail a single module. I didn’t stop there. I went on to do an Honours degree and then a Master’s in Ecological Sciences at the same university between 2015 and 2017.

During my Master’s, I emailed Sue van Rensburg, a node manager at NRF-SAEON based in Pietermaritzburg, requesting part-time or volunteering opportunities so I can gain experience. She told me to focus on finishing my Master’s thesis but allowed me to assist one of NRF-SAEON’s biodiversity technicians who was doing a PhD at the time (now Dr Paul Gordijn). He is a great ecologist and I learnt so much from doing soil and vegetation data collection as an ad hoc research assistance.

After that, I landed an internship with NRF-SAEON in 2018 after finishing my Master’s degree, which opened up even more opportunities and collaborations for me. For example, I met French scientists who were starting a collaboration with the NRF-SAEON grassland node, and Dr Gregor Feig (who later became my PhD supervisor) who was establishing the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) landscape at the time, and developed my PhD topic.

In 2020, I took on a joint PhD program between the University of the Free State under Prof Elmarie Kotze’s supervision, and the Université de Bourgogne. This was made possible by a bursary from NRF-SAEON EFTEON’s Professional Development Program (PDP), using NRF-SAEON’s long-term Cathedral Peak Research platform and data. It was a challenging but rewarding journey that ended in 2023 after allowing me to spend time abroad doing research, marking a major milestone in my academic and professional life.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

As I mentioned earlier, all my advanced degrees and work experiences have been made possible thanks to funding from the National Research Foundation (NRF). The NRF supported my PhD through the NRF-SAEON-EFTEON Professional Development Program (PDP) Scholarship, funded my Master’s through the NRF Skills and Master’s programs, and also assisted with funding for my Honours through the NRF’s Innovation Honours program. Their support has truly turned my dreams into reality.

Through the NRF and NRF-SAEON, I’ve been able to pursue my long-held dream of becoming a young South African scientist. My goal isn’t just to contribute to the scientific community, but also to make a tangible impact on people’s lives by addressing issues such as education, poverty, and climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Thanks to this support, I’ve become the first person in my entire family to earn a degree and now a PhD. None of this would have been possible without the funding from the NRF and the resources provided by NRF-SAEON. The opportunities I’ve received haven’t just benefited me academically and professionally—they’ve also allowed me to support my family and give back to my community.

With the income from my internship and PhD funding, I was able to build a house for my grandmother in our rural hometown. Additionally, I started a small business called Lindo’s Eye Photography, which employs up to 10 people on a freelance basis for events photography and weekend photoshoots. Many of these individuals received training from me, helping them develop their photography skills. Furthermore, I co-founded an NGO called Lifetime Emancipation Association for Diversity (LEAD) with three other women. Our organisation focuses on educational outreach and promoting the principle of Ubuntu, which emphasises community and humanity.

Without the funding I received for my studies and internship, none of these achievements would have been possible, they would have remained distant dreams.

What is your area of expertise?

I consider myself an ecologist, with a keen focus on grassland restoration and stability, soil carbon dynamics, and soil biogeochemistry. My research is around understanding the drivers of ecosystem change, ecosystem conservation, and climate change mitigation.

I am currently a PDP postdoctoral researcher focusing on soil biogeochemistry within the NRF-SAEON grassland node and EFTEON. My current research is around characterising soil organic carbon to understand its nature and origin, grassland sequestration potential and carbon neutrality. This involves soil sampling and fractionation, as well as long-term measurement of greenhouse gasses released from the soil. This is a continuation of my PhD with collaboration between the University of the Free State and French researchers at Dijon, Université de Bourgogne.

Why is your work/studies important?

The work I’m involved in is crucial for our understanding of carbon emissions and how carbon moves through ecosystems. This knowledge is essential for managing grasslands effectively and for South Africa’s climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. What makes this research even more significant is the current global promotion of planting trees in grasslands as a “nature-based solution”. My findings showed that grasslands managed with fire, especially those in mountainous areas, store more carbon in the soil and release less into the atmosphere compared to forest-like systems. This insight is invaluable for decision-makers in South Africa when it comes to managing grasslands and using fire as a tool.

On a global scale, the dataset from my research is vital for models that simulate/estimate carbon cycling and for understanding the global carbon budget. By contributing to these models, we can better understand mechanisms driving carbon dynamics in ecosystems worldwide.

What are some of your proudest academic achievements?

I have several awards but getting my PhD and great comments from examiners remain the one amazing achievement and milestone.

  • Best Doctoral presentation: Southern African Mountain Conference 2022
  • Best Poster presentation: The Conservation Symposium 2019
  • Exceptional Masters in Grasslands Science Medal: Grassland Society of Southern Africa
  • 4th best platform presentation: SAEON-GSN Indibano

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