Youth Month 2023: Thembelihle Joyce Mbele

Youth Month 2023: Thembelihle Joyce Mbele

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.

Ms Thembelihle Joyce Mbele is a Master’s student in Botany in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of the Free State, Qwaqwa Campus. She received funding from the NRF for her Honours studies in 2020.

How did your journey start?

I was born in 1998 in Ezingolweni, KwaZulu-Natal. I have two siblings, an elder sister and a younger brother. My mother passed away in 2004 and I was raised by my amazing father and sweet grandmother. I attended Izingolweni Primary School and Ezinqoleni Junior Secondary School, where I completed my matric in 2015 at the age of 17.

Growing up, I wanted to be a teacher. When I was doing matric, I completed the CAO form but was, unfortunately, not given the offer for an Education degree. I did, however, receive an offer from the University of Zululand (UniZulu) to do Botany and I accepted. The plan was to do PGCE after completing my degree and becoming a teacher as I initially wanted. After my degree, I had an offer from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) to do PGCE and an NRF bursary to do Honours at UniZulu. Even today, I can’t explain why I chose Honours instead of PGCE but for some reason, I did.

After Honours, I wanted to do a Master’s but did not get NRF funding for 2021. In August 2021, I got an internship at SANBI. I applied for NRF funding in 2022 and was successful, however, I was happy as an intern and gained much experience in the field of research as SANBI is a research institution. I applied again for funding for 2023 as this time I was willing to leave the internship because I already had 17 months’ experience and knew exactly which field of botany I wanted to master, which is invasion biology. Although I did not get NRF, I was lucky to be awarded a SANBI bursary for 2023 so I registered at the University of Free State where I am currently doing my Master’s in Botany.

Although being a researcher was not my childhood dream, I am happy with my decision. I realised that I might have wanted to be a teacher because that was all I knew, I was not aware of other available careers.

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

NRF made me discover my passion. If I had not received NRF funding to do Honours, I would probably be a teacher now and would never have known where my passion really lies.

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

Yes, Covid-19 happened in 2020 when I had just started my Honours. I was so worried when the national lockdown went beyond 21 days. In July, the Head of Department advised us to restart our Honours the following year (2021). I could not allow myself to lose a whole year so I took a decision, applied for a permit to enter campus, went back and continued with my work. I was working day and night to make sure I finished and on 05 December 2020, I submitted my final project.

The lesson I learnt from this is to never take whatever someone tells me but to sit down and have a conversation with myself, look at all the possibilities and make my own decisions about matters that concern me and my future.

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

For my research, I am working on the Cortaderia genus which is comprised of 24 species of perennial tussock grasses, commonly known as pampas grass, mostly originating from South America. Two Cortaderia species, C. selloana (Schult. & Schult. f.) Asch. & Graebn. and C. jubata (Lemoine) Stapf. have become invasive outside their native range, particularly in New Zealand, the United States and South Africa. There is limited clarity regarding the distribution and genetic integration and diversity of these species in South Africa, which may hinder effective management. Although the National Regulations forbid the trade of pampas grass, the continuing popularity of pampas grass inflorescences for home décor and special events is of concern and inflorescences are still being sold through retail and informal trade.

So, I aim to study the invasion status of pampas grass in South Africa and distinguish between different species across their invaded range using molecular techniques.

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

Cortaderia species were legally allowed to be sold in South Africa, under the condition that their seeds were sterile. Nevertheless, the trade of these cultivars was recognised as problematic as there was no formal process for verification of Cortaderia seeds’ sterility in the market. By conducting seed germination trials obtained from horticultural traders and naturalised populations, the study will provide knowledge on the sterility of Cortaderia species which will help guide management options and provide a basis for and development of movement-based management protocol.

Genetic analyses of invasive species have been used to identify source populations, the potential to spread, and to estimate the number of introductory events that a species may have undergone. A genetic study of Cortaderia will confirm which species are present in South Africa, whether hybridisation is occurring, and guide a future biocontrol programme in selecting appropriate biocontrol agents.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

The first one is my ability to complete my Honours in record time with marks that allowed me to do Master’s and apply for funding, regardless of all the challenges that had the potential to prevent me from finishing.

Also, the three popular articles and one scientific article I published when I was an intern.

  • Mbele T.J, Vukeya L.R and Mokotjomela T.M. 16 March 2023. Plant spotters to the rescue. Veld and Flora. March Issue 109(1). Pages 30-31.
  • Mbele T.J and Mokotjomela T.M. 08 December 2022. SANBI co-hosts the 17th Kimberley Biodiversity Research Symposium. SANBI NEWS:
  • Mbele T.J and Cele T. 04 August 2022. Supporting job creation and sustainable livelihoods through clearing of the emerging alien species: a case study in the Eastern Cape, Free State and Northern Cape provinces. SANBI Gazette Issue 9. Page 41.
  • Mbele T.J and Mokotjomela T.M. 07 March 2022. The booming invasion risk of Cortaderia (pampas grass) in South Africa. SANBI Gazette Issue 7. Page 15.

Lastly, being able to register for Masters. It makes me feel like my dreams will be coming true sooner than I had expected.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

In future, I would like to be an NRF-rated researcher or work at the university as a lecturer as I will still be doing research and supervising students with theirs. I want to be well-known in the field of biological invasions and possibly become a professor one day.

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