College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

UKZN staff member, Dr Kristy-Lyn Barry.

Years of Commitment Earn Chemistry Tutor a PhD

Dr Kristy-Lyn Barry can now add the PhD title to her resumé after working in UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science’s augmented programme teaching chemistry to disadvantaged students as a senior tutor for 15 years.

Barry was an academically gifted student, graduating from UKZN with a BSc summa cum laude and her BSc Honours and MSc degrees cum laude.

UKZN had been a natural choice for Barry as she wanted to remain close to home. She was interested in studying chemistry and geography but unable to major in them, so she chose chemistry and chemical technology.

During research for her master’s degree she investigated the influence of ligand substituents on the substitution reactions of platinum (II) diammine and terpyridine chloro complexes.

Then in 2007 Barry was offered the opportunity of upgrading her master’s degree or joining the working world.

Deciding to contribute to her household, Barry took on contract employment with the augmented programme and got married in 2008, laying down the dream of wearing the red gown for what she assumed might be forever, although she always dreamt of achieving her PhD.

In 2015, after being a senior tutor on a permanent basis for almost seven years, she decided to take up studies towards her PhD – despite having two young children – and embarked on the journey, supervised initially by Professor Orde Munro and later by Professor Matthew Akerman.

She conducted cytotoxic and mechanistic studies of novel Phenanthroline-derived Oxovanadium (IV) complexes, which involved synthesising and checking the purity of the complexes and how these interacted with DNA as potential agents in cancer treatment protocols by creating hydroxyl radicals that bind to DNA resulting in a redox process that results in the cleavage of DNA, which kills off cancer cells. The complexes would be particularly useful in treating triple-negative breast cancer, which currently has few treatment options and disproportionately affects women of African descent.

One complex showed particular promise in its toxicity to breast, cervical and brain cancer cells over healthy cells, with great potential for future research.

Support through the University Capacity Development Programme (UCDP) as well as the National Research Foundation Thuthuka Framework funding and backing from the School of Chemistry and Physics (SCP) as part of a credential upgrade process, meant that Barry could purchase equipment and chemicals and access teaching relief to complete her PhD while carrying on working.

Collaboration with Professor Raymond Hewer’s Biochemistry research group allowed further biological experiments to be conducted. Her supervisors also provided funding support for equipment, laboratory running costs, and for conference attendance and training, providing invaluable development opportunities for Barry.

Challenges included fitting long experiments around her lecture timetable, accessing facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, and technical difficulties with experimental apparatus, however she considered herself fortunate that load-shedding did not hamper her efforts then as current Stage Six schedules would have in today’s world.

With her PhD complete, Barry is on track to become an independent researcher and has had results from her research published in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s RSC Advances journal. She is committed to continuing her career in academia, having found inspiration in teaching in the augmented programme.

‘You accept students who don’t qualify for mainstream programmes but are more than academically capable, and in a different environment with different resources, they fly,’ said Barry.

She credited her colleagues and national support structures for women in science for making her studies possible, thanking particularly her supervisors Munro and Akerman, and colleagues, Dr Muvhango Rasalanavho, Mr Craig Grimmer, Dr Bheki Xulu, and Mrs Caryl Janse van Rensburg and fellow research group students, as well as Dean and Head of the School of Chemistry and Physics Professor Ross Robinson. She said her mother, sisters, husband and children were beyond proud of her. ‘I could not have completed this journey without God and the prayers said for me by my church and my family.’

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan