Ms Athandwe Paca.

Ms Athandwe Paca, a PhD candidate in Chemistry in the School of Chemistry and Physics (SCP), is the recipient of a UKZN Doctoral Research Scholarship; one of the University’s most prestigious awards for postgraduate students awarded from the University’s own funds to a maximum of four top PhD candidates to enable their research.

‘I am very honoured to be a recipient of this scholarship,’ said Paca.

‘Receiving this scholarship is a great milestone for me and is a confirmation that my sacrifices are not in vain. I believe that with great passion and diligence, the sky is the limit, and this award will enable me to progress further in continuing to achieve greater heights in my academic career,’ she said.

Paca said that the scholarship would assist her with living expenses and allow her to focus on her PhD studies, which involve research on the development of novel functionalised hybrid core-shell microgel nanocomposites as therapeutic agents for cancer treatment. These microgels are among the most promising nanomaterials applied in drug delivery systems, and Paca’s work supposes that metal-containing microgels could be engineered to deliver and release drugs in a regulated manner to prolong their activity in a biological environment.

Paca, who graduated summa cum laude with her Master’s in Chemistry in April 2018, published two papers in the journals of Nanomaterials and Materials Chemistry and Physics from the thesis that she completed within a year. She focused her Master’s research on the synthesis, optical and structural studies of iron sulphide nanomaterials, exploring methods of preparing these materials to tune their unique optical and structural properties for biomedical applications.

Paca says that her previous work has honed her skills and enabled her to make the most of the material involved in her PhD project.

Paca expressed her gratitude to UKZN for this recognition of her academic achievements, saying that she is proud to be a part of the institution.

‘I will continue to apply the same diligence and represent UKZN through publications and other research outputs,’ she said.

Ever since visiting the annual science festival in Grahamstown as a teenager, Paca has been passionate about science and has cultivated a sense of curiosity about the field of chemistry. She completed her BSc and Honours at Rhodes University and the University of Fort Hare respectively before joining UKZN.

She received National Research Foundation (NRF) Innovation Scholarships in support of her Honours and Masters research.

Paca’s long-term goals include becoming an academic and leading her own research group focusing on drug discovery to address diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS that are an economic burden on South Africa and rely mostly on first-world countries for drugs and treatments.

Paca anticipates that her PhD work will present new opportunities, and aims to use the time to establish the foundations of a prosperous career in research.

‘I’m eager to take advantage of the facilities and expertise this institution has, and I also want to contribute with my own expertise and interests,’ she said.

Words and Photograph: Christine Cuénod