College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Science Access Programme Stalwart Secures PhD

Senior tutor in the School of Chemistry and Physics and academic stalwart in the science access programme on the Pietermaritzburg campus, Dr Muvhango Rasalanavho, has graduated with a PhD degree in Chemistry.

Muvhango – whose dissertation evaluated the nutritional and medicinal benefits of six species of wild mushrooms in South Africa (Amanita pantherine, Boletus edulis, Boletus mirabilis, Lactarius deliciosus, Russula sardonia and Termitomyces sagittiformis) – was supervised by Professor Sreekantha Jonnalagadda and Professor Roshila Moodley.

Said Jonnalagadda: ‘Muvhango worked on the characterisation and analysis of wild edible and inedible mushroom varieties in South Africa as a function of soil quality. Although mushrooms are common in our environment, not much work is reported in South Africa. He evaluated the mineral and nutritional content and the impact of enhanced minerals through fertilisation on mushroom species obtainable from the pine plantations in KwaZulu-Natal and published the work in reputed journals. His findings will be of benefit to the broader community. I wish him all success in his research career.’

‘From the mycochemical analysis of the indigenous species, Muvhango isolated ergosterol, glycosphingolipid, oleic acid, uracil and mannitol, which demonstrated moderate antioxidant activity. His study provides a scientific basis for the traditional use of wild mushrooms,’ said Moodley.

She added: ‘Muvhango and I started in the Science Access Programme at UKZN in 2002 and we have grown together as academics ever since. His tenacity and commitment, including driving across the countryside on numerous occasions to collect a handful of wild mushrooms, resulted in him producing a comprehensive database on indigenous wild-growing mushrooms in South Africa and has culminated in the successful completion of his doctoral degree. Congratulations Muvhango. It is indeed a proud moment for me as both your supervisor and as a friend to watch you reach this milestone. I wish you everything of the best as you continue to forge ahead.’

Muvhango’s academic journey began in the former “homeland” of Venda where he completed his schooling and went on to obtain his undergraduate degree at the University of Venda, after failing to secure a “permit” to study Dentistry at the then University of Natal as he was a resident of Venda. (Venda was founded in 1979 as a “homeland” by the apartheid government and continued as such until democracy in South Africa in 1994. The area is now part of the Limpopo province).

After his first degree, Muvhango continued with his studies part-time at UNISA, completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Teaching; an Honours degree in Chemistry at the University of Venda; Diploma in Business Management at Damelin; and an MSc and PhD at UKZN.

Muvhango’s dream of becoming a scientist began at a young age. ‘At primary school, my teacher asked us to choose our intended careers and I mentioned that I wanted to become a scientist without even knowing what it was but having seen the word in a textbook,’ he said.

His first high school did not even offer Science! ‘After spending a year in Standard 8 (Grade 10) with no Science tuition, my uncle advised me to move to another school which offered Maths and Science but I still had no idea why these two subjects were so important,’ he said. ‘Fast forward to the year 1988 and I found myself majoring in Chemistry and Physics at university and finally did Chemistry at postgraduate level.’

His urge to know and a desire to fulfil his dream of becoming a scientist while contributing new knowledge to future generations, has kept Muvhango motivated over the years.

Staff and students alike are drawn to Muvhango, whose spontaneous and infectious smile makes him super-approachable. It is no wonder that when choosing his PhD research topic he felt it was imperative that he addressed a humanitarian issue first and foremost.

Muvhango said his research results will assist communities to be aware of the nutraceutical importance of mushrooms consumed during summer or rainy seasons. ‘With the growing concern about food insecurity as well as the increasing environmental impact due to industrialisation, there is a need to know if mushrooms collected pose a health risk to consumers,’ he said.

With his PhD in the bag, Muvhango is currently concentrating on tutoring students enrolled through the Centre for Academic Success in Science and Engineering (CASSE) as well as gaining experience in the supervision of postgraduate students under the mentorship of respected academic, Professor Fanie van Heerden.

Words: Swastika Maney

Photograph: Supplied