Victory at long last! UP graduate Victory Sumanu overcomes odds to obtain PhD in Veterinary Physiology

Posted on May 10, 2024

Recent PhD graduate Victory Sumanu is now the proud holder of a doctorate in Veterinary Physiology from the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Faculty of Veterinary Science. Her success is made all the sweeter when you consider the uphill battle she faced on her academic journey as a result of not only COVID-19 restrictions but other challenges she encountered along the way.

Surprisingly, when she set out as an undergraduate student at Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria, becoming a veterinarian was not part of the plan.

“I never applied for veterinary science, but Ahmadu Bello University recommended the course and I gradually fell in love with it in my second year,” she explains.

Sumanu chose to further her postgraduate studies at UP because it’s the only institution where veterinary science is offered in South Africa and it’s where “the availability of research funds to finance a novel project is quite high”, she says.

Her thesis – titled ‘Mitigating the adverse effect of heat stress in broiler chickens using Saccharomyces cerevisiae and ascorbic acid’ – explored ways in which to help reduce reliance on antibiotics and synthetic growth promoters, thus promoting healthier and more environmentally friendly poultry farming practices.

The study found that using the probiotic Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a feed additive commonly known as brewer’s yeast, as a growth promoting agent was effective – after 35 days, Sumanu found that the broiler chickens weighed 2.7kg after being fed the probiotic. Additionally, the probiotic acted as an antioxidant agent by mitigating oxidative gene damage in the treatment group of broiler chickens. Ascorbic acid (vitamin C) was also able to reduce the expression levels of heat shock protein 70 in the birds, helping to alleviate the effects of heat stress.

After receiving the email confirming that she had passed her dissertation successfully, Sumanu reflected on her less-than-smooth journey towards obtaining this achievement.

“I was meant to commence my PhD degree in 2020, but I could not come to South Africa due to COVID-19 restrictions until January 2021,” she recalls. Her studies were delayed by a year as a result.

On 11 January 2021, she visited the Faculty of Veterinary Science at Onderstepoort, where she was warmly welcomed. Sumanu still considers the staff there as family. She met Hettie Rossouw, part of the support staff in the Department of Anatomy and Physiology, who she says has been like a mother to her ever since.

“From that day, she took me in as her daughter and has always been there for me, come rain or shine.”

Sumanu later met her research team, which consisted of her supervisor, Professor Joseph Chamunorwa: Head of the Department of Anatomy and Physiology, who she describes as “a kind-hearted, gentle soul and a guru in veterinary physiology”. He has become her pastor and father figure. She also needed a biostatistician to co-supervise her research project.

“I was so excited to be supervised by Prof Vinny Naidoo, Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Science,” she says. He is an erudite scholar who contributed immensely to the study.”

Prof Marinda Oosthuizen, Deputy Dean of Research and Postgraduate Studies, also co-supervised Sumanu’s project as it needed a molecular biologist to be part of the study.

“Before coming to UP, I’d heard a lot of great things about her: how good a researcher she is, what a good listener she is, how she shows love and care to postgraduate students, and lots more,” Sumanu says. “All this made her my role model.”

However, in April, Sumanu’s health took a turn for the worst, and she had to undergo major surgery. She recalls Rossouw caring for her throughout her recovery until she was healthy enough to return to her studies.

“When I was fully recovered after a month, I continued my journey to success,” she says. “I was always the first to enter the department and the last to leave.”

COVID-19 restrictions then resulted in the closure of the campus, but Sumanu never gave up.

“I was always praying for everything to go back to normal by the time I had to commence my research, but things were still tricky at the time. In June, we lost a student at res who sadly passed away at home.”

Despite the chaos that the world was faced with, Sumanu continued making strides in her research.

“I studied hard to understand my area of research,” she says. “I also ensured that everything I needed for my research was in place by August. I ensured that the laboratories where my samples would be analysed were ready for me, and I received laboratory training so I could analyse my samples. I also informed the lab technicians of my study plan. I was just doing the most I could do at the time.”

In January 2022, Sumanu completed the laboratory analyses, which was part of her research. Soon after that, on 19 February, she got married and, shortly after, fell pregnant with twins, who were born in January 2023. However, her new roles as wife and mom did not stop her from making progress in her research.

“When I got help with the babies, I’d quickly run to my desk to write articles and draft the thesis,” she recalls. “It was not easy, but my hard work helped me to finish within record time. Now I’m not just a veterinarian, but also a PhD degree holder.”

She says that this PhD is merely a stepping stone to more: “I’m not settling for less – there are still many achievements to attain in my academic career.”

Sumanu looks forward to a bright future in her area of specialisation in veterinary physiology.

“Veterinarians with speciality in physiology are scarce as most vets are into the diagnostic aspect,” she points out. “I look forward to seeing how we can improve animal production through alternative means like therapeutic agents – which serve as anti-stress, antioxidant and/or growth promoters to prevent the consumption of animals and their products with drug residues (and could lead to resistance over time in humans) – and to ensure that farmers maximise profit.”

Her message to the younger generation is to be focused and determined.

“Do not give up on yourself – you can be the best. As for young girls, do not give in to peer pressure; align your mindset to greatness because your mindset determines you. When you are great, you attract great things.”

- Author Mmaradikesa Prudance Minyuku

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