Youth Month 2022: Tsumbedzo Ramalevha

Youth Month 2022: Tsumbedzo Ramalevha

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the youth of the NRF who are working towards achieving the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young NRF-affiliated researchers who are helping to ensure a sustainable planet for all.

Tsumbedzo Ramalevha is a PhD student in Plant Functional Ecology at North-West University (NWU). He received funding from the NRF for his Master’s studies (2016) and worked as a botany intern at the South African Environmental Observation Network (NRF-SAEON) from 2019 to 2021. He’s currently funded by the NRF for his PhD studies.

This is his story…

I was born and raised in Mpofu village in the Makhado municipality, Limpopo. I went to Thwalima Secondary School and passed Grade 12 in 2008. My father was a traditional council environmental officer, monitoring how the community was utilising the environment (rivers, plants and animals) and reporting back to the chief. My mother is a herbalist/traditional healer who is knowledgeable about medicinal plants used in child healthcare, especially for infants.

I grew up herding cows, so I was exposed to the plants, rivers and animals of our community. In this way, I was able to relate to the stories my dad would narrate after a day of environmental monitoring. And when my mother talked about a certain plant found only in a specific area, I would often accompany her to collect what she needed.

Tell us about your academic journey

After Grade 12, I wanted to study Environmental Biotechnology but, due to a lack of support from the school and my family, I was not able to apply anywhere. I then tried my luck at universities around Gauteng. After a month of being turned away, my uncle, who volunteered to assist after hearing that I passed matric, informed me that the University of Venda was accepting late applications and that he knew someone there who might be able to assist. So I got a space to do Microbiology and Botany.

Growing up, I did not have any point of reference in terms of what I wanted to study. However, I noticed during my second year that I enjoyed Botany and the fact that I could discuss some parts of it with my parents who also encouraged me to work hard on it.

The NRF MSc scholarship enabled me to fully focus on my research as I had no worries about basic needs. I also attended several conferences as a Master’s student. The NRF internship was a welcomed opportunity as it gave me my first official work experience where I worked with exceptional NRF-SAEON scientists and other local and international scientists. During the internship, I was exposed to long-term environmental monitoring which opened my eyes to WHY we need long-term environmental monitoring projects and what goes into the planning and maintenance of such projects.

I am a student at the FERG (Forb Ecology Research Group) at NWU. This is the only lab group in the country that is focusing on anything forb, so for anything forb ecology, FERG is the perfect place to go. I am also a member of the SAEON-GSN, a network of students by students where we engage on anything long-term ecological research-related. I have also written a number of popular science articles that are easy to understand. I served as a judge for the Eskom Expo as a way to encourage learners to engage in environmental science. I mentored a number of students for Eskom Expo and the NRF-SAEON Kids Symposium where some won best prizes and other accolades. During my time at the University of Venda, I formed part of the student leadership and also organised postgraduate students’ presentations.

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

Being the first one to go to university meant that I did not have anyone at home to talk to about varsity life and the challenges associated with it. Most things to me were a trial and error approach where I had to learn through experience. I really struggled during my undergrad as I also touched a keyboard for the first time at varsity. My mother used to say that if the university has not expelled me yet, I still had a chance – I believed in this and gave it my all.

What I learned is that I need to work hard and smart and be clear in terms of what I want to achieve and where I want to go. I also learned to reach out for assistance or advice when I am not sure or don’t know something. During my first year, I had to wait until September to reapply for NSFAS which meant I couldn’t get the June results as I could not afford to. I had to start a garden where I was staying as my parents could afford rent but not groceries every month. This taught me to put my head down and work as I did not have any backup or any other thing to fall back on.

What is your research focus/area of expertise?

I have quite diverse qualifications. For my undergraduate degree, I focused on Microbiology and Botany; Honours: Plant Ecophysiology; Master’s: Plant Invasion Ecology, and now for my PhD: Plant Functional Ecology.

I am interested in Forb Ecology and I’m doing my best to learn as much as I can about forb species in my PhD, however, I am comfortable talking about or researching anything about botany. Maybe just to narrow it down: plant ecology.

The United Nations identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure “…a better and more sustainable future for all…” by 2030. Which of these goals are you addressing through your research, or in your personal life?

In my PhD studies, I am addressing SDG 15: Life on Land, as I am looking at how plants respond to being burned and/or eaten by animals through their belowground meristematic tissues and how that influences how the plants look above ground. So I am basically looking at how fire and herbivory (two main drivers of open ecosystem structure and composition) affect the ability of plants to regrow post being burned and/or eaten by animals and how we can use the knowledge to better understand fire and herbivory as natural disturbances and as management tools, especially with climate change likely to affect fire regimes and animal movement.

On a personal level, I am involved with the NRF-SAEON environmental education program which I was introduced to during my internship. This addresses SDG 13: Climate Action; SDG 14: Life below water; and SDG 15: Life on Land, as the program covers anything environmental (be it water, terrestrial or air).

What are some of your proudest achievements?

My first graduation and securing an NRF PhD scholarship. Winning the SAEON-GSN Best Intern Presentation was also a proud moment as it showed me that I am capable.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I aspire to be an NRF-rated scientist who is also heavily involved in science communication, environmental education as well as environmental policies.

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