Mr Ntuthuko Zungu graduated with a Master’s degree cum laude in Biochemistry after an unconventional academic journey, which included two years of service in the South African National Defence Force’s SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) branch through its Military Skills Development System (MSDS).

Zungu’s parents funded his first year at UKZN but lacking funds for further study, he and his friends began exploring alternative funding mechanisms. Casting a wider net led them to the MSDS programme, which brought with it funding for further studies as well as the possibility of future employment.

Zungu met the acceptance requirements of being in possession of a tertiary qualification (or matric certificate), falling within the specified age range, and passing the psychometric and health/fitness assessments.

The two-year programme began with six months of basic military training. Trainees either pursue studies during their service, or are appointed as active force members. Given a choice of studying medicine or joining the SAMHS 7 Medical Battalion Group, which concerned chemical biological radiation defence, Zungu opted for the latter.

His two years in the SAMHS involved a regime that included physical training, attending classes and other duties depending on where his group was assigned.

‘It was a wonderful experience filled with a lot of valuable lessons and memories as well as invaluable networking across the country,’ said Zungu. ‘I enjoyed being introduced to the different languages and cultural practices in South Africa, the lack of divisions I observed, and mostly travelling to different parts of the country.’

His service enabled Zungu to continue on to his honours studies through sponsorship from the MSDS programme, and he remains a reserve member of the 6 Medical Battalion Group. He later received the GV Quicke Book Prize for Best Honours Biochemistry student. His masters project dealt with legume research – he investigated soil nutrition in grassland and savanna ecosystems that affects plant-microbe symbiosis, nitrogen nutrition and the growth of peas (Pisum sativum L).

‘What interested me most about this research was elucidating plant survival strategies under nutrient stressed conditions, and the potential impact that similar research could have on sustainable and healthy food systems,’ said Zungu.

Having completed his masters with distinction, Zungu is now pursuing PhD research on the topic of the effects of drought, soil nutrient deficiency and plant-microbe symbiosis on crop legumes. He aspires to a career in academia or research and development.

Also putting his skills to use in assisting others, Zungu is an active member of a non-governmental organisation Umthamo Wezinkanyezi, which focuses on youth development and upliftment.

The high achiever advised other students who aim to do well but face financial challenges to plan and consider alternatives, and to be inquisitive.

‘Different paths can lead to the same destination, and you can obtain transferable skills along the way, which could make you stand out from people who may possess the same qualification as you,’ he said.

Zungu credited his family and friends, and his supervisors Dr Anathi Magadlela, Dr Thandeka Khoza, and Dr Raymond Hewer, for their support during his studies.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied