07 December 2023 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Charl Devenish
Six from Natural and Agricultural Sciences receive PhDs at December graduations
Six academics in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences walked across the stage in the Callie Human Centre to receive their much-deserved PhD qualifications. Pictured are, from the left: Dr Bennie Botha, Dr Lindie von Maltitz, Dr Leon Kruger, Dr Anathi Makamane, Dr Megan Welman Purchase, and Dr Marike Stander.

Today, after years of hard work, a group of PhD graduates in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS) stepped onto the stage in the Callie Human Centre with a sense of accomplishment and excitement to receive their doctoral degrees. The graduates covered an array of topics in their studies – from the use of virtual reality in health-care education to the well-being of sheep. 

Avoiding cybersickness

Dr Bennie Botha, Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Informatics, created a framework for use in immersive virtual clinical simulations by virtual reality users (students), software developers, researchers, and educators. According to him, this can help to avoid cybersickness – much the same as motion sickness – a condition that can occur when an individual's perception of motion conflicts with their visual senses.

“The result is a more inclusive immersive virtual reality experience for students who would otherwise not be able to engage with this technology and reap the benefits it can bring to their education,” says Dr Botha, who wants to establish a global footprint and advance the use of all types of virtual reality in an African context.

He submitted his thesis: A framework to prevent or minimise cybersickness during immersive virtual clinical simulation.

Agricultural extensionists of the future

Dr Lindie von Maltitz, Lecturer in the Department of Agricultural Economics, conducted two studies in her research. The first was to determine the crucial skills and competencies that agricultural extensionists need in their modern-day workplace. The second focused on the available undergraduate curricula offered in South Africa, which fail to address these critical skills and competencies. She found a list of skills and professional competencies that are not sufficiently covered in the available curricula, and some are lacking entirely.

In the last chapter of her thesis, Skills and competencies of agricultural extension professionals in South Africa: implications for higher education curricula, Dr Von Maltitz provides recommendations on what to include in curricula at higher education institutions that will equip the agricultural extensionists of the future to excel in their profession and contribute to agricultural development. “I am excited to contribute more to curriculum development, especially in the field of agriculture in general. Farming with my husband for the past 20 years has allowed me to obtain first-hand experience in farming and agri-business. I have walked the road, and I am still walking it. I teach by bringing theory into context with real-life situations that I have personally experienced,” she states.

The well-being of sheep

Society often questions how we treat the animals we eat. Dr Leon Kruger, Lecturer in the Department of Animal Science, delves into this question through his research, titled: The effect of temperament and stress on production and immune response in sheep. His study explores, among others, the impact of short-term stress on production performance in sheep, the effect of stress on immune response post-vaccination, and the relationship between a sheep's temperament and stress.

“The focus is not just on doing what's perceived as best for the animals, but on applying practices that limit stress. We so often hear of marketing slogans such as grass-fed or grain-fed or Karoo lamb. Just imagine how the consumer would appreciate a slogan such as stress-free reared. It is not that far-fetched,” he believes.

Dr Kruger’s future research plans include investigating stressor effects associated with livestock auctions, examining the entire process from loading on the farm to unloading on the new farm. “I also want to compile a species vocabulary, analysing specific sounds that animals make in different situations. I want to describe the sound of an animal and link it to a situation, for example, the sound a ewe makes shortly after she lambs,” he says.

Adapting to climate change

Dr Anathi Makamane, Junior Lecturer in the Department of Sustainable Food Systems and Development, says the realisation that her research findings have spurred a tangible project aimed at increasing the capabilities of extension workers is immensely fulfilling. “Being part of a community dedicated to sustainable agriculture and witnessing the transformative impact of research outputs underscores the profound satisfaction derived from this journey,” she states.

Her thesis, Capacity of extension and advisory services in supporting farmers to adapt to climate change in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, sheds light on the critical role that extension workers play in assisting farmers with climate change adaptation. “My research outputs have translated into a practical project that aims to enhance the capacity of extension workers, ensuring that they possess the requisite skills to support farmers effectively,” explains Dr Makamane.

“Looking forward, my future goals involve the continued pursuit of research that directly contributes to the betterment of agricultural practices. Beyond this, I aim to engage in broader conversations on sustainable agriculture, collaborating with stakeholders to advocate for evidence-based policies that can benefit farmers nationwide,” she adds.

Managing potential environmental risks

With her PhD, Dr Megan Welman Purchase, Scientific Officer in the Department of Geology, explored the stability of iron-cyanide minerals found in the waste material of gold mines, commonly known as gold mine dumps or tailings facilities. The title of her thesis is: An investigation of the iron-cyanide mineralisation in gold mine dumps.

She says the implications of her work are of great significance for society. “Understanding the stability of iron-cyanide minerals helps in assessing and managing potential environmental risks associated with gold mine dumps. Moreover, the revelation that natural microbes can play a role in remediating cyanide contamination suggests a more sustainable and eco-friendly approach to addressing environmental concerns related to mining activities. This has the potential to positively impact both the environment and communities near mining sites,” Dr Welman Purchase explains. 

The article has been cited by international authors at least three times since its publication, demonstrating its value to a global audience.

In future steps, Dr Welman Purchase would like to delve deeper into and understand these gold mine tailings facilities. “Additionally, I plan to investigate the specific conditions under which these natural remediation mechanisms are most effective, paving the way for practical and scalable applications in mining and environmental management,” she states, excited to be involved in science that can make a difference.

Improving soil erosion conservation efforts

With her thesis, Dr Marike Stander, Lecturer in the Department of Geography, delved into the intricacies of soil erosion with her research. Concentrating on a catchment in the Eastern Free State renowned for erodible soils, her analysis of sediments unravelled their origins.

Highlighting the far-reaching consequences, Dr Stander says that “soil erosion has detrimental effects on agricultural productivity by degrading arable land quality, but also that sedimentation in water bodies diminishes reservoir storage capacity with a myriad of adverse effects on aquatic environments”. She adds that a profound understanding of soil erosion processes, coupled with identifying and quantifying sediment sources, can pinpoint conservation efforts. “For agricultural land, it means sustaining productivity and food security, and for water resources, it holds value in planning reservoir placement, optimising water storage and ensuring healthy aquatic environments,” she explains.

In line with global initiatives, she adds, “Healthy soils play a pivotal role in achieving many of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDG), since it links to safeguarding terrestrial ecosystems, reversing land degradation, and promoting sustainable agriculture, to name but a few.”

“It is rewarding to contribute to the often-overlooked global environmental issue of soil erosion. The potential to make even a slight impact on the environment and society is meaningful and fulfilling,” she says.

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