NRF Youth Month 2024: Summaya Dube

NRF Youth Month 2024: Summaya Dube

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.

Ms Summaya Dube is a Master’s candidate in Biological Oceanography at Nelson Mandela University. She is currently funded by the NRF and conducts her research at the South African Environmental Observation Network (NRF-SAEON).

How did your journey start?

I am from Rustenburg, a mining town where engineering seemed to be the default professional route for many. However, my interest in biology, particularly the subtleties of how organisms function and their structural complexities, has always stood out for me. Regardless of the then-current trends, I constantly listed Biological Sciences as an option in my university applications during my matric.

Finally, 2019 came around and I enrolled at Walter Sisulu University to pursue a BSc in Biological Sciences. This decision put me about 971.5 kilometres away from home. During the last year of my degree, I was introduced to the university’s Marine Science section. The ocean, with its many ecosystems, has always attracted me. Since joining the marine team, I have concentrated my research on marine biology, particularly marine plants and invertebrates.

I took a one-year break from my education to do an internship in 2023. After a long search and application process, I was chosen to join NRF-SAEON as a student at Nelson Mandela University where I currently study for a Master’s in Biological Oceanography.

Reflecting on my journey, I’ve always imagined myself as a scientist, motivated by curiosity and a desire to comprehend the natural world. In my current position, I believe I am continuing down the road that aligns with my goals.

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

My experience with the NRF began in 2021 when I applied for Honours funding. Unfortunately, I did not receive the primary NRF General funding for my Honours courses but I was lucky to acquire funding for my research project from the NRF via the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) Phuhlisa and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (NRF-SAIAB). This aid was vital, as it provided the required logistics for my fieldwork, including accommodation, food, and transportation. Without this assistance, I would have had major difficulties in gathering the necessary data for my research.

At the end of 2022, I received the opportunity to be part of the NRF-SAIAB summer school program where I was introduced to some amazing marine equipment: the Acoustic Tracking Array Platform (ATAP) and the Baited Remote Underwater Stereo-Video systems (BRUVs). This increased my knowledge of marine ecosystems and it showed that there are many ways to study marine life.

Fast forward to the present year, and I am currently receiving NRF funding for my Master’s degree in Biological Oceanography. At the age of 21, I am one of the youngest students at NRF-SAEON where I am working towards my degree. This opportunity is a crucial milestone in my academic journey, made possible by the NRF’s support and resources.

What is your area of expertise?

My current research focuses on zooplankton communities, looking particularly at the predator-prey relationship. The aim is to investigate, for the first time, the species composition, abundance and distribution of a major zooplankton predator, the Chaetognatha, in relation to their primary prey taxon (Copepoda). The objective is to better understand the spatial and seasonal cycles in co-occurrence.

The study will further endeavour to determine which environmental factors influence observed species trends. This study will make a significant contribution towards our current understanding of the role played by chaetognaths in shaping zooplankton populations in coastal pelagic ecosystems. 

Why is your work/studies important?

Zooplankton is a key component of the pelagic ecosystem due, inter alia, to its role in energy transfer from lower to upper trophic levels. Understanding spatial dynamics and time phases of zooplankton remains a prominent topic of coastal ecosystems research as it lends valuable insight into ecosystem health and functioning.

As an important food source, the composition and abundance of zooplankton is a strong predictor of stock yield of commercially important fish species, including anchovy and sardines. It is for this reason, among others, that many studies have placed their efforts in the investigation of crustacean (especially the Copepoda) zooplankton only. A knowledge gap remains with the lack of understanding of the dynamics of other zooplankton components, which directly interact with copepods (competition, predation), leading to a weak understanding of holistic ecological processes.

This study will benefit South Africa because fishing contributes significantly to South Africa’s economy through job creation, sustainability of coastal communities, and an increase in export revenue through the sale of seafood goods. So, by understanding how zooplankton communities, work we will have better knowledge of the food web in the marine environment.

What are some of your proudest academic achievements?

My academic experience has been filled with many proud moments, making it difficult to choose just one. I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a variety of programs and collaborate with exceptional organisations that have all contributed to my own development and sense of accomplishment. I’m glad for the numerous possibilities I’ve had at such a young age, and I look forward to having even more in the future. I strive to thrive not only in my personal endeavours but also intellectually, and I hope to continue to make substantial contributions to the subject of biological oceanography.

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