#UPGraduation2022: Graduate overcomes sight impairment challenges to obtain master’s

Posted on May 24, 2022

University of Pretoria (UP) graduate Zak Claassen recently received a master’s degree from the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences in Bioinformatics cum laude, successfully overcoming accessibility challenges during his postgraduate studies as a result of him being blind.

His thesis focused on antibiotic resistance in the environment. “I chose this research topic because antibiotic resistance is one of the most significant challenges in healthcare,” said the graduate who is studying towards a PhD. “Yet despite its importance, resistance is understudied in the environment.”

Claassen studied the genomes (genetic information in an organism) of bacteria in different environments to determine whether they had antibiotic resistance genes. He then studied the patterns of those genes and whether they feature differences because of their environments. He also investigated bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria) to see if they carry resistance genes.

Speaking about why he chose this field of study, he said: “The genetic code underlies the functioning of every living thing on the planet. I chose to study it because it is a relatively new field that is still growing as new discoveries are being made, and I think it has the potential to become more important in future.”

During his undergraduate studies, he relied on screen reader software – which is a text-to-speech application – and digital scans and print-outs in braille from UP’s Disability Unit. The library also ensured that his textbooks were ordered in electronic format, which allowed him to read with the help of a screen reader.

UP graduate Zak Claassen

Zak Claassen's thesis focused on antibiotic resistance in the environment.

Conducting his postgraduate studies was no simple task. “It has been an interesting challenge,” Claassen said. “Most of the available programmes are designed without considering accessibility.” Many tools involved something visual or were not working on his screen reader, he added. “In some cases, I had to develop new scripts to do what most students could do easily with other available tools.”

Claassen, who hails from Pretoria, said that while he had a fairly conventional upbringing, it was not without challenges. His sight was affected as a result of an accident that occurred at birth. “My sight went away gradually and then came to a point where I could not see any longer, but I accepted it,” he said. He matriculated with seven distinctions from Prinshof School for the Visually Impaired in 2012.

For Claassen, achieving his master’s would not have been possible without the support of his supervisor and co-supervisor, Professor Thulani Makhalanyane, Department of Science and Innovation-National Research Foundation SARChI Chair in Marine Microbiomes and Doctor Rian Pierneef, Senior Researcher at Agricultural Research Council. 

“Dr Pierneef helped me to create visual representations of data [such as plots and graphs] because I had to demonstrate my research results. Prof Makhalanyane was also a great supervisor ­– he is incredibly organised and constantly tries to push his students. It also helps that he is well connected, so we are exposed to more opportunities.”

“I am extremely proud of Zak and his growth as a researcher,” Prof Makhalanyane said. “His thesis is a remarkable addition to the literature, and we are proud that he is a member of our group. Like any good scientist, Zak is highly driven and methodologically rigorous. He produces excellent results and is an amazing communicator. What stands out is his character; you can never have a conversation without sharing a few laughs.”

Read more #UPGraduation2022 stories

- Author Mecayla Maseka
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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