Youth Month 2023: Siphosenkosi Mbonani

Youth Month 2023: Siphosenkosi Mbonani

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.

Mr Siphosenkosi Mbonani is a PhD candidate at the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Science at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS). His journey with the NRF started in 2015/16 as a DSI-NRF intern. Thereafter, he received NRF funding for his Honours and Master’s studies. Currently, his PhD is funded through the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Invasion Biology. He also received an international travel award from the CoE for his PhD work on invasive cactus species in Africa in 2022.

Recently, he was selected as a recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Foreign Exchange Program in 2023/24 (also funded through the NRF) to conduct research on the population genetics of terrestrial invasive species in South Africa at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, USA.

How did your journey start?

I was born and raised in Soweto where I also did my primary and secondary school. I am forever grateful to my teachers and family members who did not believe in the myth that township schools, no matter how poorly resourced, cannot produce useful and accomplished citizens.

Growing up, I have always been passionate about nature and the environment. I started with my undergraduate BSc degree at Rhodes University in Grahamstown (now Makhanda), and I majored in Biochemistry and Microbiology. Thereafter, I took up an NRF-funded internship in 2015 with the Biological Control Research group at the University of the Witwatersrand under the supervision of Prof Marcus Byrne. This is where my passion and enthusiasm for the biological control of alien invasive plants and scientific research grew; I subsequently completed an Honours degree with the same research group in 2016.

In 2019, I completed my Master’s degree where I was investigating the molecular ecology and population genetics of the invasive Opuntia engelmannii, or small round-leaved prickly pear, a succulent invasive shrub that was introduced to South Africa as an ornamental plant more than 350 years ago.

I have also completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Science education at the University of Johannesburg (with distinction).

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

Through my affiliation with the NRF, I have collaborated with some of the brightest minds in my field. I have met internationally renowned scientists and I have contributed to teaching and learning at first-year level, third-year level, and at Honours for numerous undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Science at WITS.

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

Studying at an institution of higher education requires sacrifice, coupled with hard work. And it doesn’t come cheap. Like any postgraduate student, project and experimental failures, financial constraints and self-doubt are some of the obstacles that I had to overcome. It was only through those obstacles that I learnt that hard times stimulate growth in a way that good times don’t.

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

My research interests focus on the management of alien invasive species in Africa, specifically South Africa and Kenya. These species cause considerable environmental problems in ecosystems and often lead to socio-economic problems, while also affecting the structure and functioning of the ecosystem. Subsequently, these species are listed as the second largest threat to South African biodiversity.

My study species, Opuntia engelmannii, has invaded pastureland in the Northern Cape, amongst other provinces in South Africa. Dense infestations of Opuntia engelmannii lineagesdisplace native flora, which results in negative ecological impacts in the country. If there are no control measures in place, O. engelmannii could potentially decrease the population size of at least one native species and can reduce the productivity and capacity of commercial and subsistence grazing.

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

Through my research, I have provided information that will be useful for agricultural practices by improving the development of control methods for an alien invasive weed classified in Category 1 of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (10/2004) (NEMBA).

Additionally, controlling this weed will improve the conservation of water resources that would otherwise be consumed by the alien invasive plant. In this way, this research seeks to achieve sustainable environmental management of one of the most detrimental weeds not only in South Africa but also Africa. The outcome of my research is of national and global interest as it is aimed at addressing global concerns about invasive species and, subsequently, biodiversity protection.

I have contributed towards extending the boundaries of scientific research beyond South Africa with some of my work having been done on invasive Opuntia populations in Eastern Kenya.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

Obtaining my four qualifications; being recognised in conferences as the best presenter; and being recognised by the Faculty of Science at WITS (two times!) as a teaching assistant for my positive contribution to enthusing interest in biodiversity awareness in budding South African scholars. Also, publishing my research work in international journals and receiving the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship are some of my proudest achievements throughout my academic journey.

  • I have authored and co-authored two high-quality publications in international academic journals, one of which appeared in Weed Research International as an editor’s choice research article for 2022 and has been cited numerous times since September 2022.
  • I have published one abstract with the South African Journal of Botany and two additional publications are in press.
  • I have completed one research technical report on the risk analysis of alien cactus species in South Africa as a lead assessor, and this report has been published by the South African National Biodiversity Institute.
  • Throughout my postgraduate studies, I have presented at seven conferences, three annual research meetings, and numerous cacti working group meetings.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I envision myself as an emerging leader, showing global relevance in invasion biology, and an internationally renowned invasion biologist, thereby putting South Africa on the map in the global fight against invasive species and, subsequently protecting the South African biodiversity.

This work is licenced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 ZA) license. Please view the terms for republishing here.

Related Posts