Dr Lucretia Ramnath graduates with her PhD in Microbiology and her family by her side.

The Desire to be a Scientist

During Dr Lucretia Ramnath’s schooling at Danville Park Girls’ High School, she knew she wanted to be a scientist.

This desire led to her pursuing a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. During her undergraduate studies, Ramnath realised she wanted to become a microbiologist.

‘I think having a passion and curiosity for your chosen field of study motivates you to continue studying further,’ said Ramnath. After completing her undergraduate degree, Ramnath went on to do her honours research where she discovered a novel bacterial species growing in the Sua salt pan of Botswana. This finding inspired and motivated Ramnath to pursue her master’s degree.

After successfully graduating with a masters, she set her sights on undertaking her doctoral studies.

In her research Ramnath investigated the microorganisms present in Eucalyptus wood (used to produce pulp and paper) and determined how one could use enzymes produced by these microorganisms to benefit the wood pulp industry.

‘The use of microorganisms and molecular techniques has infiltrated every avenue of science imaginable, making it a very diverse and interesting field to be in. Especially at this time in our earth’s history, with the effects of global warming and pollution, we are always striving to reduce our carbon footprint and preserve the planet as best we can. Turning to green energy and bio-processing may be our salvation. Microorganisms may be small in size but they impact our lives in a big way, and on a daily basis,’ said Ramnath.

Ramnath’s research allowed her to develop a specific cocktail of enzymes to degrade sticky deposits naturally present in the pulp. The sticky deposits reduce the quality of the pulp produced and cause the breakdown of machinery at the pulping mills, resulting in a loss of revenue. The method of enzyme treatment developed is an environmentally friendly and economical alternative to the traditional method of treatment which uses chemicals. Reducing the amount of chemicals used to treat pulp will reduce the amount of waste generated by this industry. In addition, if the wastewater is treated appropriately, it may be recycled back into the mill, thus reducing this industry’s dependency on municipal water.

Professor Ademola Olaniran, Dean of the School of Life Sciences said: ‘Lucretia’s passion, dedication and commitment to research since her BSc Honours year through to her PhD studies is commendable. Her smiles and calmness even when confronted with challenges in her research demonstrates her resilience and determination to fulfil her dream. Her PhD research is relevant to providing a safer and cheaper alternative for pulp treatment to address some of the challenges associated with the use of chemicals. Congratulations to Dr Ramnath and her supervisors on this great achievement.’

School of Life Sciences lecturer, Dr Roshini Govender, said: ‘Lucretia’s personality, character traits and drive to be a scientist allowed her to overcome the challenges of her ambitious project. She not only impressed with her skills as a scientist: molecular biologist (cloned and expressed two genes coding for esterase enzymes), biochemist (production and characterisation of several enzymes); wood profiler (wood extractives), cocktail designer (special cocktail of enzyme catalysts to prevent pitch formation during pulp production) and lab manager, but provided us with tasty treats from her successful experiments in the kitchen.  She has strong leadership qualities, is an excellent mentor to junior scientists and has a bright future wherever she goes.’

Ramnath, is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI) in Mount Edgecombe where she is looking at molecular breeding of sugarcane for commercialisation.

‘SASRI is one of the world leaders in sugarcane research and I am excited to be a part of it,’ said Ramnath.

Ramnath’s studying experience can be summed up as, ‘It was one of the most difficult challenges of my life, but definitely the most rewarding.  The sense of accomplishment you feel when you complete your PhD is indescribable. Not to mention the pride you feel when someone calls you doctor.’

Ramnath expressed her gratitude to the National Research Foundation (NRF) for supporting her throughout the postgraduate studies.

When Ramnath is not researching, she enjoys baking, reading, travelling locally and internationally.

Words: Leena Rajpal