Dr Nontembeko (Ntemsie) Dube, who graduated with a doctorate in Entomology at UKZN’s September Graduation ceremonies, recently posted a story in the #ImStaying Facebook group that highlighted the importance of supportive supervisors and mentors – an example of whom she found in Dr Costas Zachariades.
Garnering 15 000 likes to date, the post from 25 October drew more than 1 000 comments of congratulations from Facebook users who applauded Dube and Zachariades, both based at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in Cedara.
Originally from Ezingonyameni in the Eastern Cape, Dube, who did her undergraduate and honours studies at the University of Fort Hare (UFH), grew up without aspirations to study further, instead planning to work to support her family, including four younger siblings.
The high achiever, however, was encouraged by her principal at Sidinane Secondary School to consider university and was accepted to study pre-med at UFH.
In her first-year, Dube struggled without the documentation to access the financial assistance she needed as well as facing a challenging language barrier. She braided hair to pay her way and passed well. Still unable to apply for bursaries and therefore unable to proceed to study Medicine, she continued to second year in a BSc programme with the help of donations from her high school teachers and, eventually, funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.
Having chosen entomology as an elective, she found herself fascinated by medical and veterinary entomology. She majored in entomology and biochemistry and was selected as one of only four recipients of bursaries from the Department of Environmental Affairs to pursue her Honours in Entomology at UFH.
Dube was exposed to the concept of biological control in her honours year with the Working for Water team involved in the biocontrol of Acacia cyclops.
Despite the death of her mother, she graduated cum laude and was one of the top two honours graduates from her class selected for placement at a university to pursue masters study. Dube was assigned to work on the use of Pareuchaetes insulata for the biocontrol of the invasive Chromolaena odorata through UKZN, hosted at the ARC.
Zachariades, who mentored Dube during her masters’ work, went the extra mile to assist in her career progression and helped her settle in to Pietermaritzburg, motivating for her to be appointed as a researcher at the ARC, a position she has held for 10 years. Dube describes the support he gave to her, a young mother of two children and breadwinner for her younger siblings, as being like that of a parent.
Zachariades encouraged Dube to gain experience before pursuing her PhD, which enabled her to complete her research on understanding the fitness, preference and performance of specialist herbivores of southern African biotype of Chromolaena odorata and the impacts of this on the phytochemistry and growth rate of the plant in just two years and nine months. During her doctoral studies, Dube also worked with Professor Fanie van Heerden and was able to identify pyrrolizidine alkaloids in the southern African Chromolaena biotype, a first in her field and major milestone for Dube, who was the first Black female at the ARC Plant Health and Protection unit to achieve this.
Dube said she decided to post on Facebook about her experience with her supervisor because she believes in adopting an outlook focused on what is going right and on cultivating a positive attitude.
‘The more you show appreciation, the happier you are,’ she said. ‘I am not the first to break barriers, but there is always room for more good stories.’
Words: Christine Cuénod