College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Triumphing Against the Odds for an MSc in Physics

A commitment to bettering his life earned Mr Musawenkosi Doctor Buthelezi his Master’s in Physics for his research on the effect of Argon and Helium-Neon (He-Ne) lasers on melanin machinery in pigments, which could be significant for aspects of medicine such as the treatment of cancer cells with low laser pulses.

Buthelezi matriculated from Thubelihle High School near Newcastle. His favourite subjects were Mathematics and Physical Science, leading him to pursue studies that challenged his logical thinking, required problem-solving skills and encouraged comprehension rather than memorisation.

He enrolled in Physics at UKZN, an institution he chose because of its international recognition and because it is situated in his home province. The supportive environment at UKZN, and its staff’s attentiveness to students kept him at the Institution all the way to master’s studies, when he benefitted from the supervision of Professor Naven Chetty.

Despite beginning his studies with few computer skills, the introduction to computer skills offered by UKZN to new students after orientation helped him start off on the right foot. He said the experience of studying at UKZN was positive because of the resources made available to students, including tutors, well-equipped facilities and computer lans. Residence became a home away from home, and he found support when he needed it.

The location of the University and the international nature of the Discipline of Physics meant Buthelezi was able to interact with people from all over the country and continent, enhancing his learning experience.

‘Many cosmetic applications these days, such as laser hair removal, blemish removal and evening out the skin complexion, use lasers; however, not many take the actual colour or pigmentation of the skin into account,’ said Buthelezi.

He set out to determine how different human tissue behaves under varying levels of radiation. He created synthetic “phantom” brain and prostate tissue with the same absorption and scattering properties as authentic human tissue, and exposed them to Argon red laser and He-Ne green laser light to determine opportune levels of scattering and absorption, improving on the results of previous studies on the topic.

He hopes his research will contribute to some aspects of medicine, including improved treatment of cancers through less invasive therapeutic procedures, and improved information in the public sphere about the benefits and dangers of lasers.

Buthelezi completed his master’s while working as a physics laboratory technician at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley, where he applies the skills and knowledge acquired at UKZN, demonstrating the value of the competitive education he received.

Undertaking master’s studies taught him the value of taking time to plan before executing a task, and understanding the work at hand. He found discipline essential to reach his goals, and learned to be determined and persistent. Encountering challenges that included the loss of a laptop and valuable data, as well as a vehicle accident while he was studying, taught Buthelezi to persevere.

‘When things go wrong, you need to come back the next day with a good attitude, and never lose sight of your goals,’ he said.

Balancing full-time work with his studies was challenging, requiring him to do much of his research on weekends, and spend his vacations in Pietermaritzburg. Shortly before graduation, Buthelezi’s brother passed away, and he said he will feel his absence as he graduates.

‘He has overcome tremendous adversity to achieve his MSc, and his work has been characterised by his tenacity for betterment of his life,’ said Chetty. ‘This achievement speaks volumes for his growth as an individual.’

Buthelezi thanked Chetty, and his co-supervisor Dr Bamise Adeleye for their support and encouragement, and for ensuring the quality of his work by providing appropriate and thorough guidance. He expressed gratitude to Mr Mpumelelo Hlongwane in the Discipline of Physics for providing accommodation in Pietermaritzburg when he needed it. He thanked his mother in particular, and the rest of his family for their support. He also credited his daughter, born during his studies, for motivating him to complete what he starts.

Buthelezi is considering pursuing PhD studies, saying he hopes to live up to the middle name of “Doctor” bestowed on him by his parents.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied