Vusi Chiloane pulled off a rare academic hat-trick when he completed his third University of Pretoria (UP) degree in a row cum laude (with honour). What makes his feat even more impressive is that while studying he was also managing a hereditary condition which was causing his eyesight to deteriorate.
Chiloane, an organic chemistry scientist at the National Metrology Institute of South Africa (NMISA), received his cum laude master’s degree in biochemistry during the recent UP autumn graduation season. He had previously received his BSc and honours degree in the same discipline from UP. And to top it all off, at his graduation on 9 May Chiloane also received the Labotec Prize awarded to the student who obtains the highest mark for their MSc dissertation in biochemistry
“Science is an incredibly powerful tool with far-reaching applications in all facets of life,” he said after his recent graduation. “Yet I only occupy a small fraction of the vast scientific discipline. My occupation in organic chemistry has shown me how science is indispensable for proper functioning and maintaining a thriving global food economy, as it informs food safety, nutrition, and regulations.”
Chiloane is no stranger to awards: he received SRC academic colours in 2019, the Lasec Biochemistry Prize as the best final-year student in biochemistry in 2018, and a Golden Key award – for which the top 15% of university students and graduates around the world are eligible – in 2016.
He has tried to never let anything deter him from reaching his goals. He was born with a hereditary condition which predisposed him to a gradually thinning and irregular cornea, which affects how light enters his eyes and ultimately damaged his vision. “Since this is a progressive condition, it became a significant issue with age. I was advised that my eyesight was deteriorating and would likely require a corneal transplant unless attended to almost immediately. Fortunately, my vision was still relatively acceptable throughout my degree, with assistance from prescription glasses. With the help of my honours and later MSc supervisor, Dr Precious Motshwene of the Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology, I had an ophthalmologic procedure to curb the disease progression.”
Praise from supervisor
Chiloane thanked the lecturers who helped him at every step of his academic and health journeys. “Dr Motshwene’s scholarly counsel was invaluable in seeing the completion of my degree. His strict adherence to the scientific method and ensuring the research follows a clearly defined, logical path at such a junior level moulded my approach towards research, and continues to guide my career in science. His supervision is not only limited to academia but goes the extra step to ensure his students are not facing external, strenuous circumstances that may negatively impact their academic performance.” He also thanked co-supervisor Désirée Prevoo-Franzsen for her support.
Dr Motshwene praised his student, emphasising Chiloane’s commitment and passion for excelling in science and life. “Vusi is humble and works hard. There is no task that is too big for him. He could grasp complex scientific topics in a relatively short space of time, which was a demonstration of his intellectual capacity. He listened when corrected, and accepted feedback positively,” Dr Motshwene said.
Chiloane’s MSc project focused on developing analytical methods to determine physicochemical chemical properties (moisture and particle size distribution), proteins, and amino acids in cassava, maize, sorghum, teff grain, and corn-soya. “These staple foods are important sources of energy and nutrition in the developing world, because they are easily accessible. Furthermore, they are relatively less restrictive to produce compared to animal sources of food, thus serving as an essential source of income. This highlights the importance of investigating the nutritional offering of staple foods and properties that would improve their marketability and profitability.”
He said there were many reasons why he chose UP as his academic home, but one stood out: “I believe the University of Pretoria to be an objectively superior academic institution, which would encourage me to perform at my level best to match the high standards set by the University. Looking at my academic transcript thus far, I would say UP has met my expectations.”
‘UP offers a holistic learning experience’
Chiloane, who was born and raised in rural Mpumalanga, said his upbringing was often punctuated with challenges one would expect growing up in a rural environment. “However, my mother always ensured we were provided with the little available. She strongly advocates for education, and would make difficult sacrifices to see us through school. Her efforts and continued support enabled my sibling and I to earn a tertiary education.”
He concluded by recommending the University of Pretoria to prospective students as a top academic and research institution. “The University offers a holistic learning experience combining theoretical and practical components to produce well-rounded and capable students. It affords students the necessary resources to succeed in their chosen degrees. I began my studies without a laptop but managed to study for my exams and complete my assignments on time because computer labs, internet access, and library material were easily accessible.”
He also cited UP’s Ready for Work programme, which introduces students to a formal work environment, thus equipping them with the necessary skills to thrive in a real work environment after completing their qualification. “The University is also equipped with highly skilled personnel who offer valuable academic support and guidance that has resulted in the success of many. UP’s rewarding environment recognises talent, athleticism, and academic excellence through awards and prizes, which greatly motivate student performance.”