Inside a dimly lit office at the University of Cape Town’s Department of Oceanography, Dr Mhlangabezi Mdutyana sat down to talk about his achievements. There is an ease to Mdutyana’s voice, and a sense of disarming humility, but there is also an undertone of pride.
On Tuesday, 14 December, Mdutyana graduated from the University of Cape Town with a doctoral degree in observational ocean biogeochemistry. He is a first-generation graduate, and on Tuesday he made history as South Africa’s first black observational ocean biogeochemist.
Sinking deeper into his chair, Mdutyana told me, “I’m honoured to be the first black South African. But at the same time I’m disappointed that we are still, as a country, at a stage where we’re celebrating the first black person in a field, after 27 years of democracy.”
He stopped himself from speaking further. He would return to this point in detail later.
Mdutyana, who is 37, began his journey into academia 17 years ago, having won scholarships and bursaries. He first enrolled for an undergraduate degree in biology, which included modules of terrestrial and marine biology, at Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha, Eastern Cape in 2004. At the time, the institution was still known as the University of Transkei.
He spent his formative years in Willowvale, a small town in the Eastern Cape, after which his family moved to Polar Park in Mthatha, where Mdutyana attended Mpindweni Senior Secondary School. “I used to have to walk for two hours to school each day,” he said. “When there’s no money, one would have to walk.”
He’s the son of a domestic worker and a security guard. It is clear from the conversation that his two sisters and his mother – a gentle, hard-working woman who cherishes her son’s tenaciousness – are his whole world.
“She struggled; she broke her back trying to provide for us when we were young,” said Mdutyana.
While growing up, Mdutyana said he knew nothing about marine biology or the marine sciences. In fact, he said he didn’t know the field of oceanography existed until 2012.
“Growing up, we used to watch the ocean when the weather was really bad. As kids, we used to say the ocean was dancing or playing,” said Mdutyana. “That’s the only connection I had with the ocean, growing up.”
After graduating in 2007 he knew he wanted to continue his studies, and the following year he started his honours degree in plant biotechnology.
“As somebody who is the first person to graduate in your family, it’s easy to be content – I have a degree. When I got my undergrad, I could’ve just said ‘I have a degree’ and called it quits and gone to work.
“But there was a need to get my PhD. That was always the endgame for me,” said Mdutyana.
During his undergraduate degree, he had become intrigued with the field of marine biology. But he decided on a postgraduate degree in plant biotechnology, which he says is “completely different from marine biology”.
After completing his honours, Mdutyana began a masters degree at Nelson Mandela University in 2012, but dropped out shortly after enrolling as he needed to work to support his family.
“Ever since I graduated with honours, I’ve always tried to work and to support my family. It’s one of those things – you’ve got to take care of your family, right? It’s a lot of responsibility, but I cherish it,” he said.
At the time Mdutyana had seen an opportunity to do a masters degree in bio-optics with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). On a whim, he applied, and got shortlisted into the programme. Due to financial constraints, it didn’t work out at the time – but senior CSIR researcher Sandy Thomalla had kept his details.
In 2013, Mdutyana started a job as an environmental officer at SanParks in Knysna, where he spent two and a half years conducting general park management, and creating environmental awareness in the area.
“I love nature, and I spent a lot of time doing marine work there as well. I realised that I needed to return to marine work,” he said.
In 2015, near the end of his contract with SanParks, Mdutyana received an email from Thomalla.
“She said: ‘There’s opportunities, if you want – come’.”
In November 2015, after being awarded a scholarship from the CSIR, Mdutyana enrolled for his masters in marine biogeochemistry at the University of Cape Town.
His plan was to study nitrogen uptake by phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean, and there was one supervisor available to mentor him – Dr Sarah Fawcett, senior lecturer at UCT’s department of oceanography.
It was “new beginnings all round,” he said.
However, upon arriving in Cape Town, Mdutyana soon realised that his master’s scholarship was not enough to pay rent, buy food, pay for transport to and from campus and support his family.
“I realised after they released my funds that the money I was getting was not enough,” he said.
“We all know Cape Town is expensive, so I got here and I was like, oops, actually I cannot afford to rent a place, and still provide for myself and be able to pay for my sister’s schooling and give my mom money each month.”
He needed another plan, and shared his financial woes with a friend. To his disbelief, his friend offered him her couch for his first year of masters.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “You are here to study, right? Do that. The other stuff will be catered for.”
“I really appreciated that. I honour them every opportunity I get,” said Mdutyana. “I stayed with them for the entire year,” he said.
Mdutyana’s friend and her housemate lived in Thornton, so he needed to take two trains to get to campus each day. “One train to Salt River, and then another train to Rosebank.”
“You take a little discomfort to get where you want to go,” he added.
In 2015, Mdutyana did two research trips in the Southern Ocean in order to collect samples for his masters research. In July 2015, he had the opportunity to sample data in the Southern Ocean in winter.
“I didn’t know the importance of it at the time, everything was just new for me. But I realised later on that this was a very unique moment. It was probably the second or the third cruise South Africans have done in the Southern Ocean in winter,” he said.
He had the opportunity to go on a second cruise in December in the same year. The cruise lasted two and a half months, and sailed to Antarctica and South Georgia Island in the Southern Ocean.
“That was really epic,” said Mdutyana, reminiscing about his time spent on Antarctica.
After two years of masters, he began his PhD in January 2017. He said the conversation around the possibility of doing a PhD started in 2016, when Fawcett told him she would like him to continue his research.
“A PhD was always an endgame. So when [Fawcett] presented the opportunity to me I thought, ‘I’m taking it,” he said.
“Broadly speaking, my PhD research looked at the role phytoplankton and bacteria play in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said Mdutyana.
He explained that ocean biogeochemistry is the field of science that studies the carbon and nutrient uptake and transformation that occurs through biological, chemical, and geological processes in the ocean.
Mdutyana’s research looks at certain changes in the Southern Ocean, which is widely known for its nutrient, chlorophyll and iron concentrate imbalances, particularly in the upper ocean surface.
“What my research looks at is nitrogen uptake by phytoplankton and bacterial activities in the Southern Ocean, and we compare the winter and summer seasons and look at how different the nitrogen uptake is in the different seasons,” he said.
“In the Southern Ocean, phytoplankton growth is limited by very low concentrations of dissolved iron, instead of the common limiting nutrient nitrogen. This is important because it suggests that phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean are not operating at optimum capacity in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” he said.
“So we are constantly looking for better ways to understand the role of phytoplankton and nitrifying bacteria during carbon dioxide removal processes in the Southern Ocean,” added Mdutyana.
Underrepresentation in the sciences
Reflecting on his graduation as the first black South African to achieve the honour, Mdutyana said, “I am beyond honoured. However, this also comes with an intrinsic responsibility on my part to help develop more black scientists in this field.”
“For black people, we are vastly underrepresented in the field of science. Those who are there – even if they are great – we don’t see them. They exist in the background.
The ocean sciences is the most underrepresented field. There are no black people here. I mean, I’m evidence of that. I’m the first black person in South Africa to pursue this career.”
Mdutyana said his next task is to create awareness and raise interest among black South Africans in the marine sciences. He said he feels “an intrinsic responsibility to help nurture more black scientists in the field.”
He plans on remaining in academia, in order to “be involved in bringing up the next generation of black scientists”.
He added that he hopes to reach the point where he is able to have his own lab, which will help him to “bring in those black aspiring scientists and push that agenda of overtly focusing on black people and prioritising black people in bringing them up exposed to this field”.
Mdutyana has been awarded the University Research Committee’s Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Award and will kickstart his postdoctoral research fellowship in earnest in 2022.
The fellowship presents an opportunity to apply himself as a researcher who trains other upcoming researchers.
At the same time, Mdutyana would like to challenge universities and stakeholders in South Africa to invest more in science awareness campaigns for black South Africans.
“If you’re looking at transformation at a university level, we’ve already failed. Especially in the marine sciences,” he said.
According to Mdutyana, most disadvantaged black South Africans are unfamiliar with the marine sciences – an issue which needs to be tackled at a basic education level. He added that creating awareness and interest in the sciences is something that needs to be tackled in South African primary schools, extending into high school.
“I would like to change that narrative. So that we grow up as black people in South Africa and we know about the ocean sciences.”
Another issue is that the majority of South Africans cannot afford to spend seven years at university, said Mdutyana. “When you do that, you are looked at strangely by the community because you’re not going to have money to support your family. It’s as if you’re prioritising yourself and not your family. … There’s a disconnect between pursuing science as a black person, and making it a career,” he said. DM