The Star Late Edition
Hard work pays off for wildlife vet
HER love for wildlife and her concern about rhino poaching prompted Thembeka Mtetwa, who recently graduated with a PhD in veterinary science during the University of Pretoria’s autumn graduation ceremonies, to join this profession.
She shared her journey from public schools with limited resources to becoming a published academic.
Mtetwa, who is a lecturer in the Department of Anatomy and Physiology in the Faculty of Veterinary Science, said she remembered the first time she saw a rhino in the wild, and it took her breath away.
“When I became aware of the current rhino poaching crisis, I knew I had to do something about it. But to do something about it, I knew I had to be part of a research team that was undertaking important work that focuses on the welfare and survival of wildlife, particularly those animals threatened by illegal poaching, such as rhinoceros.”
This led her to work at the Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Research, Faculty of Veterinary Science.
Mtetwa said wildlife vets faced several challenges.
“One of the biggest problems is that when we, as wildlife vets, need to immobilise or anaesthetise rhinos that are threatened, for example, by poaching, and the drugs used can cause problems with their breathing.
“This can result in not getting enough oxygen into the blood. Ultimately the aim of my PhD research is to uncover the best ways to monitor oxygen in the blood when rhinos are immobilised or anaesthetised.”
Mtetwa said any student who hoped to obtain a degree needed the love and support of family, friends, supervisors and faculty administrative staff.
“My biggest supporter was my late grandfather, who was extremely proud of me even before I had accomplished anything. My parents and siblings inspire me with their love and support.”
She said they constantly reminded her to be confident in herself and her abilities.
She was born and raised in Soweto and matriculated from Letsibogo Girls High School.
“I went to public schools in Soweto, where there was limited or no access to resources, which became an obstacle when it came to reading and writing, and my research, public speaking and presentation skills.”
Despite the odds, Mtetwa not only went on to university, but excelled as an academic, has been published in international journals and now has a doctorate to her name.
She was also appointed as a lecturer for UP’s New Generation of Academics Programme, which was established by the Department of Higher Education to foster young academics.
“This appointment allows me to contribute to society through teaching and research,” she said.
Speaking about her academic journey, she said: “After completing my undergraduate studies, I became a National Research Foundation intern at UP, where I shadowed and assisted Professor Leith Meyer with research. He not only encouraged me to pursue postgraduate studies, but also ignited my love and interest for physiology and medicine.”
She then registered for a Master of Science degree in the Department of Paraclinical Sciences under Meyer’s supervision.
“My studies exposed me to a team of researchers, who were doing fascinating and diverse research on the effect of different anaesthetic drugs on wild animals in the Kruger National Park.”
This inspired her doctoral research. Her achievements have not come without challenges, such as time management and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
The Covid-19 restrictions also added to her sometimes uphill battle.
“I had to cope with being isolated from friends and family, and having to delay data collection for a full year due to the pandemic,” she recalled.
Mtetwa was appointed as a lecturer in the Department of Anatomy and Physiology at UP in February this year. She also undertakes physiology-related research.
Her dream is to establish a laboratory that focuses on oxygen transport in various species to enable researchers to detect, monitor, manage and improve blood and tissue oxygenation levels in mammals.
She listed “patience, resilience and confidence” as attributes that had assured her academic success.
“My ambitions and goals motivate me to keep working harder, and I accept criticism and failure as that allows me to learn and grow.”
She said learning to understand the benefits of delayed gratification and working hard to achieve her end goal had made her more resilient.
Her message for aspirant academics is: “Success does not depend on where you are from, your family or your friends, but on you and the goals you set. Have a growth mindset, focus, work hard and be patient, and the rest will follow.”