PhD Graduate Completes Doctoral Team

Dr Laurencia Govender was awarded her doctorate at UKZN’s virtual Spring Graduation, bringing the number of full-time PhD staff members in UKZN’s discipline of Dietetics and Human Nutrition up to its full complement of seven.

Govender, who completed her undergraduate degree, postgraduate diploma and Master’s degree in Dietetics at UKZN, investigated the potential of the use of bambara groundnut and provitamin A-biofortified (PVA) maize and sweet potato for improving the nutritional status of rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal.

Working with communities in Swayimane, Tugela Ferry, Umbumbulu and near Fountainhill Estate, Govender demonstrated that PVA-biofortified maize and orange-fleshed sweet potato can replace white maize and cream-fleshed sweet potato, respectively, in selected traditional dishes of rural communities studied to help alleviate vitamin A deficiency.

Govender’s research, supervised by Dr Kirthee Pillay and Professor Mthulisi Siwela, formed part of a Water Research Commission (WRC) project on water use and nutritional water productivity of food crops for improved human health and nutrition in poor rural households.

She has published three manuscripts in high impact journals, one with support from the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) project, while also getting support from the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP) for conducting her surveys and acceptability tests.

Govender said the opportunity to work with a range of people on the WRC project and in the SHEFS and URP programmes had been a bonus. She described completing her PhD as challenging but also a good learning experience.

‘If you’re dedicated to doing something and put in the effort, you will get it right,’ she said.

Participating in a WRC project provided support that enabled her to network with other researchers, have her research presented at local and international congresses in South Africa and India, and see her work published not only in academic journals but also in the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers Resource magazine.

Before enrolling for her PhD, Govender worked as a clinical dietician at Edendale Hospital for six years and was an accredited training dietician for UKZN’s fourth-year Dietetics students. She completed her master’s  summa cum laude while working and despite being passionate about her professional work, her desire to learn continuously led her to enrol for a PhD and to take up a lecturer’s post at UKZN in March 2018.

Govender said she was fortunate to work in academia while completing her PhD as it provided a lot of room for growth and practical experience which would be useful to her in tutoring students. While dietetics chose her rather than the reverse, she was confident she was on the right path and was passionate about helping and educating people.

With an approach characterised by a belief in the importance of examining the source of problems nutritionally, Govender is an enthusiastic lecturer, and enjoys working collaboratively with other disciplines, saying that nutrition is not a stand-alone issue but requires integrated research efforts.

Dedicating her research to her late grandmother, who she says was a driving force behind much of her work, Govender also credited her supervisors for their attentive mentorship, saying she could not have asked for better support. She thanked Professor Albert Modi and Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi and their “green team” of researchers within the Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems for their contributions.

Govender made special mention of her fiancé, Mr Ishkar Danilala, for his vital support.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied