“You can't get extraordinary results through ordinary effort. You need to go the extra mile. Be resilient and find that one motivation that keeps you going."
This is the advice from Claudia Ntsapi, who received her PhD in Physiology on Tuesday, 11 December 2018, at the Stellenbosch University (SU) graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Science.
Ntsapi grew up in the township of Eldorado Park, Johannesburg. While most of her high-school friends decided to complete their tertiary education in Johannesburg, she decided to come to SU instead after seeing pictures of the stunning campus.
“The first time I heard about Stellenbosch University was in Grade 11, through my guidance teacher, who studied Theology at Stellenbosch. He told us about the University and, when I saw pictures of the campus, I think I fell in love with the environment before arriving at the actual place and I just knew that's where I'm going. I didn't apply anywhere else. I just applied at SU knowing this is where I wanted to be."
After matriculating from Kliptown Secondary School in 2007, Ntsapi wanted to study Chemical Engineering but needed to improve her marks. She then heard about the bridging programme called SciMathUS, which stands for Science and Mathematics at the University of Stellenbosch. She successfully enrolled for the programme and did very well but soon realised that she actually wanted to study BSc, not Engineering.
“When I was in school, I didn't know there were so many different variations of science. I knew I wanted to do something in science and, when the SciMathUS programme gave us more exposure to this field, I knew that's what I wanted to do. The SciMathUS programme opened doors for me; it gave me a second chance and time to discover my true passion."
Ntsapi says that she never thought she would get to a PhD level. She is the first person in her family to receive a PhD degree, something her parents are very proud of. “My family has always been very supportive of my studies, even if they don't always understand what my research is about. Throughout my postgraduate studies, I've had to sacrifice many holidays with my family, but what kept me going was knowing that I was contributing to something bigger than myself."
Ntsapi's PhD research focused on the role of autophagy, the process through which our cells eat themselves, in Alzheimer's disease and how this process could potentially be controlled to help combat this devastating neurodegenerative disease. Ntsapi says that, during her MSc degree, which focused on Parkinson's disease, it was the important human angle to her research that motivated her to continue with research on maintaining brain health with age.
“Doing this type of research can be very lonely sometimes and you don't see results immediately or experiments don't always work, but you have to stay positive and keep going. I realised early on that there are actually people who are affected by the work that we do. Being part of the medical research field, is being part of something bigger than yourself. It is this realisation that became a driving force for me to continue in this field of research. I may not be the one who ultimately discovers the cure for Alzheimer's disease, but I feel that we all have a little piece of the puzzle to add to the bigger picture of solving the problem and eventually getting translatable results."
Photo by Stefan Els.