When I began my tertiary education, I must admit I had no idea where I would be today. The girl from the dusty streets of eMalahleni surely had coal in her hands, determined to turn it into diamonds. There are many of young people yearning to feed the fire inside of them, wanting to harness it and do the unimaginable. I can see it in the faces of the anxious and excited first-years milling around campus; I can see it amongst the postgrads arriving at institutions early, worrying about deadlines, experiments, chapters to be submitted. What, then, stops us? What leads so many of us to just give up on our grand dreams?

I think it’s a wall; a mental block.

My dream is to ensure that the environment is preserved for future generations, and it might seem strange that I use a stripy little fish, dressed in a Kaizer chief’s jerseyzebrafish-adult, to achieve my dreams. These small fish are quite useful in that they assist scientists to determine whether chemicals will be toxic to people and other organisms. In actual fact, it is their eggs that are used. The fish produce large numbers of these transparent eggs at a time. Being able to look into the egg, seeing the embryo’s heart beating, blood flowing and turning into a proper fish within five days, is what makes them so special. When conditions are less than ideal, the rate at which the eggs hatch, their deformations and ultimately death, are a clear indicator of harmful chemicals and environments.

Zebrafish development
Zebrafish development

Although very useful, breeding these little zebrafish was not easy: they swim quite rapidly, with my first attempt resulting in snail eggs, which I mistook for zebrafish embryos! Learning that their living conditions including, temperature, amount of day and night, as well as the presence of flowers were important, took me a while. Even more surprising was coming to know that the female preferred two males, battling it out over her! Resilience was important in my year-and-a-half struggle to getting my first 200 eggs!! And most of this struggle happened “behind the scenes” with no-one watching my every more; it’s the stuff that you don’t write about in papers or even discuss in presentations… Which reminds me of another trial I had to overcome –my first oral presentation!!! It was awful, probably because I was extremely nervous and afraid of presenting in front of unfamiliar faces and experts in the field. Let’s just say I was relieved when it ended! Granted, with time, improvements have been made lol…

In hindsight, one would say that higher education does not only build you on paper, but also in character. Participating in research has required me to completely get out of my comfort zone. Much of that growth is built on what I do when no-one is watching, when no-one is there to pat me on the back or help solve a problem. But my point to you is, you need to make this choice — to be what you’ve always imagined you could be — even when you’re alone in the lab or behind the computer. This could be the greatest gift you give yourself. 

It is true that no goal that is worth it is achieved easily… Now that the diamond is in my grasp, it is time to polish it into an even more priceless jewel.

A WATER HUNGRY NATION: Yearning for fire-pool downpours from heaven

We must pray for His divine intervention!!!… But we must not pray like those who do not have faith…” While you may think that this is a sermon, it is a cry from the Minister of Water Affairs to the nation to pray for the heavens to open up, the rains to kiss the barren African soil. I must say that while this approach amused me, it is astounding that in 2017 we still experience water shortages – there is water available.

Let us be frank in that these issues culminate from historical recklessness of a nation vying for economic growth. Still trekking towards development, the country relies heavily on mining, coal power and agriculture to sustain the economy. Our progress is, ironically, messing with our most basic of human needs – the need for clean water. The Olifants River, which meanders through the Mpumalanga Province, lined with mining operations and coal power stations flanking the banks, serves as an appropriate example. Massive crocodile and fish deaths were reported in 2006 in the Olifants tributary running through the Kruger National Park; shortly afterwards, the same was reported at the Loskop Dam. The areas affected by this tragedy are national heritage key-points, highlighting the importance of resolving these issues.

The quality of our water is a tremendous issue – humans, plants, and animals rely on clean fresh water, and researchers who investigated the Olifants River tragedy could not pin-point the cause of all these mysterious deaths. So, what is to prevent the tragedy from repeating itself elsewhere?

Crocodile and fish mortalities reported at the Kruger National Park, as well as Crocodylus niloticus and C. gariepinus with white and brown spots in fat (from Olifants gorge on Mozambique border and Letaba confluence)
Crocodile and fish mortalities reported at the Kruger National Park, as well as Crocodylus niloticus and C. gariepinus with white and brown spots in fat (from Olifants gorge on Mozambique border and Letaba confluence)

In efforts to find the cause of these mysterious deaths, the research I have undertaken through my  Master’s into Doctoral studies is aimed at assessing the risk and levels posed by persistent organic chemicals at the Loskop Dam, using zebrafish as a model system. Preliminary findings have revealed high levels of these compounds and their contribution to the toxicity of the system.

This 18th year of the twenty-first century is marked as one where I get closer to the answers that have boggled many a scientist and national parks authorities. Why are our aquatic organisms dissipating, who and what is responsible, how is the wider population affected by these incidents, what can be done to prevent and revive the ecosystem!? Through the eye of a fishy needle, if you will, I will highlight some hard-hitting truths… And perhaps the final chapter of my thesis will be named REVELATIONS, rather than CONCLUSIONS!!!