Youth Month 2021: Qhamani Mandlana

Youth Month 2021: Qhamani Mandlana

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are Advancing Knowledge, Transforming Lives and Inspiring a Nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young dreamers and achievers who are affiliated with the NRF through their work or studies.

Mr Qhamani Mandlana is a Master’s student in Conservation Ecology at Stellenbosch University.

He is funded for his Master’s studies through the DSI-NRF SARChl in Social-Ecological Systems and Resilience held, by Professor Oonsie Biggs.

This is his story…

I grew up in King Williams Town in a small village called Ngcamngeni, Eastern Cape. I went to public school most of my life. When I completed my matric in 2015, I applied for Higher Education at different universities in various fields. The love I had for Nature, more specifically animals, motivated me to pursue animal-related studies and hence I enrolled for a BSc Animal Sciences degree at the University of Fort Hare in 2016. During my undergraduate years, I was lucky to receive financial support from NSFAS until I graduated.

During my final year, my enthusiasm for nature was piqued by a Wildlife and Ecology module that I was doing at that time. To see how nature is continuously deteriorating due to human actions led me to think of any possible solutions and strategies to manage nature and the benefits we get from nature more effectively for future sustainability, and at the same time, improve and protect the livelihoods of the people. I applied for an MSc opportunity that explicitly focused on changes in structures and functions of social-ecological systems which is what my research is based on.

Deciding whether I should pursue an MSc on animals (livestock) or nature-related studies were my biggest obstacle. However, I was motivated by doing what I love. So, I decided to do MSc in Conservation Ecology, a path that I envisioned for myself as I was growing up.

What is your area of expertise?

My research focuses on agricultural regime shifts in Southern Africa. Regime shifts are long-lasting shifts or changes in the structure and function of social-ecological systems that often occur abruptly and unexpectedly. These changes have a substantial impact on ecosystem services such as crop production or food regulation that directly impacts humans’ wellbeing. I specifically focus on invasion-related regime shifts, looking from a social-ecological perspective. Regime shifts have substantial impacts on nature and the benefits we get from Nature because they often occur abruptly and unexpectedly.

How can your research/work advance knowledge, transform lives and inspire a nation?

As mentioned in the preceding section, regime shifts have significant changes on the structure and function of ecosystems. The core impacts of my research are to provide a synthesis of regime shifts that have occurred in agricultural system drivers and consequences for ecosystem services and human wellbeing. As my research focuses on changes caused by alien invasive species in grasslands, alien invasive species have caused significant changes to human livelihoods. I am hoping that my research will contribute towards understanding how socio-ecological systems can be managed more effectively for future sustainability and to entrench landscape restoration to further degradation, and at the same time, improve and protect human livelihoods.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

My proudest moments thus far was when I entered the Old Mutual Agri Student of the Year competition in 2019 and became the finalist in that competition. I was not the winner, but I was grateful for the opportunity to present my skills amongst other students from various universities in South Africa.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic (and national lockdown) change the way you work/study? How did you adapt to the “new normal”?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the approach of my work. I started my MSc right when the lockdown started. It was hard to keep up with my work and having to work remotely with my supervisors was a bit of a challenge at first. But like everyone else, it has forced my ability to cope with unknown technologies within a very short timeframe. This has been a challenge in many ways but it has also been a learning opportunity to improve my skills in the virtual world.

What is the best advice you have ever received (and from whom)?

I suppose the best advice I have ever received was from my friend who told me to get up every morning with determination if I am going to go to bed with satisfaction. Frankly, the advice changed the narratives of how I see things.

What, in your opinion, are some of the best ways to get youngsters interested in science-related careers?

A key source of motivation for students to be interested in science is to help them realize their dreams for work and life in the science industry. Those dreams and aspirations, in turn, do not just depend on students’ talents, but they can be hugely influenced by the personal background of students and their families as well as by the depth and breadth of their knowledge about the world of work. To an important extent, schools can replicate positive benefits linked to first-hand exposure to the working world through programmes of career development activities, particularly where they include work experience in science-related careers. Effective career guidance encourages students to reflect on who they are and who they want to become, and to think critically about the relationships between their educational choices and future life.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I would like to be an NRF-rated researcher.

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