This week in our women’s month feature we celebrate Ms Nomathemba Majola, an early career researcher from the Genetics Division. Nomathemba obtained her MSc in Plant Breeding from the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN). She is currently finalising her PhD with a focus on plant breeding and seed production and technology.
We asked Noma a few questions about her life and research. Enjoy!
Q: Why did you decide to study genetics?
The branch of Genetics is fundamental to all areas of biological study. My main focus is on plant breeding which employs the application of genetic principles to produce plants that are more useful to humans. I had the desire to solve food security issues and directly impact the economic and social quality of life for people. Plant breeders play a central role in addressing these grand challenges by enhancing food, feed and fibre quality globally.
Q: In your own opinion, why is genetics important?
Genetics and Plant breeding contributes to the development of better varieties of plants to make these new varieties more resistant to pest and other negative impacts of climate change. Now that we have problems of water scarcity and desertification, we need new varieties of plants that can survive the limited amount of water and nutrients and still provide a sustainable food supply. This is where genetics and plant breeding comes in, to provide a solution to the present problem of drought.
Q: Please tell us more about your research focus and how you decided on following this research path?
My research focus is on plant breeding and crop improvement of legumes specifically on the Bambara groundnut crop. Deficiencies in key mineral elements and nutritional qualities pose a very serious constraint to human health and economic development in the country. Bambara groundnut is an important source of protein in many developing countries, including South Africa. However, this protein may not be readily bio-available because of the presence of anti-nutritional factors. There is an urgent need in identifying parental lines with high yield, and high nutritional values and identify anti-nutritional factors with a low concentration towards the development of new cultivars. I am very passionate about food security and I chose this crop since research in South Africa is rather peripheral and there are no known improved varieties on the market for high yield and high nutritional quality.
Q: What would you say are the highlights of your career so far?
The first time I saw my first author publication in a scientific peer-reviewed journal.
The first time I travelled abroad to present my science at an African Plant Breeders Association conference.
Q: Please give us a glimpse of your most recent research and why it is exciting.
My current research involves breeding improved Bambara groundnut genotypes for increased yield, nutritional traits and reduced antinutritional factors for sustainable production in South Africa. This is accomplished by evaluating the diverse Bambara groundnut accessions across several locations to determine grain yield potential, stability and adaptability and by developing breeding populations through targeted crosses of genetically divergent, high yielding and nutritionally enhanced genotypes to determine heterosis, general combining ability (GCA) and specific combining ability (SCA). This is very exciting because through targeted crosses we are combining characteristics of different plants producing a new combination of genes with the desired traits.
Q: Describe a day in your life.
As an early career researcher, most of my days are spent in the field conducting experiments and analysing data for my doctoral research. Each day involves a different selection list of activities. Amongst the most exciting moments are when I get a chance to “get my hands dirty” and do some field trials. The big part of my week is spent on writing up my thesis for my PhD, attending research meetings, and preparing for the undergraduate teaching and administration that goes with it.
Q: What attributes do you think a scientist should possess in your field of study?
Patience and resilience
Excellent research skills
Perfect analytical skill
Q: What maxims/beliefs do you live by?
I believe that success is not always about greatness. It is about consistency. It is consistent hard work that leads to success. I always remind myself that a dream is not big enough if it does not frighten me and in whatever I do, to do it 100%.
Q: Who is your role model/mentor and why?
Prof Maryke Labuschagne, a professor of Plant Breeding in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Free State and is also leading the NRF SARChI Chair in Diseases and Quality of Field Crops. She has received a prestigious ‘Country Lifetime Achiever Award’ from Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government Programme for her commitment and continuous contributions to food security through Plant breeding. I believe food security is one of the key factors for stability and prosperity in the continent. According to me, she is the mother of Plant Breeding in South Africa.
Q: What words of wisdom do you have for aspiring researchers, especially women and girls?
Give yourself time to find your true passion and remember sometimes it will find you. Most importantly, always ensure that you bloom where you are planted and take advantage of the opportunities presented. Persistence and perseverance can be very rewarding.