Youth Month 2021: Sizwe Tyhali

Youth Month 2021: Sizwe Tyhali

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 Sizwe Tyhali is a Master’s student in Microbiology at the Department of Biological Science, North-West University. He has received funding from the NRF since the start of his postgraduate journey.

This is his story…

I was born in the Eastern Cape in a small village, Mlamli, past the Sterkspruit town. My early childhood was spent in another village, Makheteng. Later, I was brought to Welkom, Free State. That is where I started my formal education ‘til Grade 5 and then moved to Pretoria, Gauteng, to complete my studies.

Most kids likely at one time have a dream of becoming a policeman, and I was no different. Throughout my early childhood back in the Eastern Cape, my dream was to be a top policeman who helps everyone in need. This, however, changed when I started my formal education at an English teaching school.

I became intrigued with sports and I was actively involved in athletics at primary school, but then again, I was still living my childhood dream. It was only when I moved to Pretoria that I was exposed to the endless career options available. I took a sudden interest in Medicine and swore to myself to become a doctor one day so I could solve the world’s diseases. In high school, I followed the sciences stream and through my introduction to Life Sciences, my career path changed. I now wanted to be the person who studied the actual diseases and informed the doctor on how to treat them – a SCIENTIST! My Life Science teacher, Mrs Kekana, moulded me into the person I am today. She completely sparked my interest and believed in my capabilities as a student.

I joined the North-West University in 2016 where I completed my undergraduate studies (Biology and Chemistry) and Honours (Microbiology and Immunology). In 2020, I embarked on my Master’s studies.

The first time I wore a lab coat was at the University of Pretoria’s Sci-Enza Science Centre, and I have never worn anything else! So, to summarise it all, I would say that I am exactly where I am meant to be, and I could not be any happier.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

Obstacles and/or challenges are ways of measuring one’s resilience or success. I have encountered a couple of obstacles, the first and most important one was the transition from Welkom to Pretoria. Having left a Sesotho speaking school and transitioning to an English/Afrikaans school, learning to properly command the language was a challenge. I learned English in just a year after arriving and that to me has been an indication of how easily adaptable I can become in a new environment.

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

My research focuses on antimicrobial resistance and phage therapy. Surveying the distribution of antimicrobial resistance genes and bacteria in our country and testing the potential of novel therapies to aid in the treating of life-threatening bacterial infections.

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

My research can advance our knowledge of bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, and how they could be useful in treating serious bacterial infections caused by bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Resistance to antibiotics is on the rise globally and there are only a few therapeutic options available for the treatment of disease caused by microorganisms. Phage therapy, the application of bacteriophages in treating bacterial infections, is a promising alternative to the use of antibiotics. My research is currently in alignment with South Africa’s National Development Plan 2030 in that it has the potential to transform the medical and pharmaceutical industry and improve the quality of human life and increase life expectancy.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

My proudest achievement was discovering my passion for photography. It has been a medium for me that I use to relieve the stress that comes with working in academia. It allows me to meet and interact with people of different cultures and backgrounds to capture their precious moments. I think everyone needs to find a medium they can use to combat depression and stress. You can view some of the pictures I have taken on my website or my Instagram at @nocturnal_elements.

The other achievement I am proud of was my induction into the Golden Key International Honours Society. It was a goal I had set for myself since high school and reaching the goal in the first year of my varsity studies was just remarkable.

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

Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic was an unfortunate global incident and really had a negative effect on life as we used to know it. My academic plan had to be scrapped and re-evaluated for 2021. All plans to conduct research in the laboratory were halted and only resumed earlier this year.

I am working towards the completion of my studies within the prescribed period but I am very aware of the pressures that come with the successful completion of the academic year. However, I will not let them compromise the quality and validity of my research. We all had to conform to the “new normal” and must strive for success, regardless. It is tough but with the help of my advisors, we have come up with a plan that aims at completing all the necessary academic obligations.

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

“You are very fortunate to be where you are right now. There are a lot of opportunities out there waiting for you to discover – take them! Grab them with both hands and do not let go! You are still young, and you do not have a lot of responsibilities, focus on building yourself academically and build a name for yourself. Do not limit yourself to South Africa, go out to the world and seek more knowledge and become a reputable scientist. Modimo O Teng (God is here).” – Prof Collins Ateba, North-West University.

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

Communities need to realise the importance of science centres and the services they provide to encourage children towards STEM careers. They provide fun, educational, and hands-on approaches to science experiments. If more awareness was raised about local community centres then information would be dispersed to a greater number of people, including community leaders, teachers, and parents, thus leading to the dissemination and assimilation of information. What is more interesting is that the science centres have their experiments and educational tools aligned to the schools’ curricula and do not deviate from what kids are being taught in school.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I have a set target of being an NRF Y-rated (or higher) researcher after my PhD studies and to become a notable researcher in the community.

I would also like to establish an efficient and cost-effective mobile laboratory to provide affordable diagnostic services to the farming community back in my hometown. Animal husbandry is a staple industry there and the animals feed a lot of families in the community. Through my postgraduate studies, I have come to learn and understand how animals are a point source of some of the highly infectious bacteria. Local farmers lose livestock due to diseases that affect the cows (which could have been detected and treated) causing them to lose thousands of Rands. I aim to fill this gap in the community.

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