Introducing South Africa’s first woman to graduate with a PhD in Chemistry from UFH

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Pamela Rungqu from Bathurst in the Eastern Cape has blazed the trail by being the first South African woman to graduate with a Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry from the University of Fort Hare.

 The daughter of a domestic worker and a former store manager, Pamela who was born fourth of five children is also the first graduate in her family. She graduated last Friday during the three-day May Graduation ceremonies.

“I was born in a small rural town where I completed my Primary and High School. We had no Physical Science teachers, no laboratories and no computers in our schools.”

Despite the lack of a physics teacher, Pamela developed an interest for chemistry while she was in Grade 11. “I became fascinated by the study of the composition, structure and properties of matter and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in the field.”

“However, without a physics teacher, I knew it was not going to be easy and that I needed extra help. While in Matric I attended a Winter School Programme in Port Alfred, about 14 km from Bathurst. With the assistance from the lessons and tutoring sessions from the winter school, I was able to scale through and pass with flying colours.”

Pamela passed her matric with distinction and applied to Fort Hare to study for a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Computer Science in 2008.  “I chose Fort Hare based on its rich history and the quality of graduates it has produced.”

"At first, life on campus took a lot of adjusting. I had to learn to use a computer because I only had the theoretical understanding and had no practical knowledge.”

Despite the disadvantages she experienced at the start of her education during her primary and high school years, Pamela was able to study Chemistry to PhD level.  

Her Honours, Masters and PhD study Supervisor, Prof Opeoluwa Oyedeji said: “Pamela was such a dutiful and responsible student proving that determination and focus was the key, not her background.”

According to Prof Oyedeji, Pamela was his first Honours project student in 2012 when he joined the UFH Chemistry Department. “At the time she joined my research group there was no bursary for her, nonetheless, she was focused and completed her Honours degree. She graduated and proceeded for her Master and Doctoral study with me as her project/ research supervisor.”

“Fortunately, we had a joint NRF-Indigenous Knowledge System (IKS) funding project on medicinal plants used by traditional healers in the Eastern Cape for 2013-2015. She was among the students that benefitted from the funding along with Sasol stipend which enable her to complete her MSc with much ease.”

During her MSc degree, she published two articles:

1.      Rungqu P, Oyedeji OO, Avoseh ON, Aremu SO, Nkeh-Chungag BN, Songca SP, Oluwafemi SO, Oyedeji AO (2016). Anti-inflammatory activity of the essential oils of Cymbopogon Validus (Stapf) Stapf ex Burtt Davy from Eastern Cape, South Africa. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, 2016: 1-6.

2.      Avoseh O, Oyedeji O, Rungqu P, Nkeh-Chungag B, Oyedeji A (2015) Cymbopogon Species; Ethnopharmacology, Phytochemistry and the Pharmacological Importance, Molecules 2015, 20, 7438-7453; doi:10.3390/molecules20057438.

On completing her MSc study, she immediately registered for her PhD in 2016, which was funded fully by Sasol.

Her PhD research is centered on the chemical composition, analgesic and anti-inflammatory activities of two Pelargonium species and Hypoxis species for medicinal use. Her findings suggest that the essential oils from the species collected can be used for pain management and arthritic inflammatory conditions, therefore, validating the plants’ use in traditional medicine for pain and inflammation.

During her PhD journey, she traveled to Mauritius and the USA where she presented part of her findings.  She has also published a book chapter from her thesis and is currently writing five manuscripts from her dissertation.

Pamela says she hopes her accomplishment will serve as motivation to young girls and boys who come from a similar background as hers.

“I am excited and also in disbelief that a child from a rural school, like me, will become the first South African woman to be conferred a PhD Doctor of Philosophy in Chemistry from the University of Fort Hare. This is validation that your background does not limit how far you can go and what you can achieve in life. ”