From humble beginnings to PhD candidate 

7 August 2019

At the start of women’s month we would like to share inspirational stories of women in the TUT family who are living their dreams. As true leaders, they have triumphed and persevered to get to where they are today. 

In her element at work, #ShareHERstory's Tiisetso Mpai’s.

The e-TUTor featured #ShareHERstory’s Tiisetso Mpai, a PhD candidate from the Faculty of Science who has worked hard and beaten the odds to become one of the youngest scientists in her field.

Born and raised in Tzaneen, Mpai is the third child of four girls. Her single, unemployed mother struggled to support the family but Mpai refused to let her situation bring her down. She believed she could do anything she set her mind to. “If you want to dream big, your work ethic needs to be bigger than your hopes. From a young age, I knew what I wanted in life and was going to get it, no matter what,” she says. 

Mpai graduated Cum Laude for her Master’s degree in Plant Microbiology, for which she assessed nitrogen and phosphorus nutrition in Polhillia, Wiborgia and Wiborgiella species and the molecular diversity of their associated micro symbionts in the Cape Fynbos, South Africa. From this research, she has already published two peer-reviewed articles in the South African Journal of Botany. 

She presented her research findings at both local and international conferences and received the best oral presenter award at the 17th AABNF biannual conference held at Gaborone, Botswana in 2016. 

“I come from a rural village, so to have my work recognised internationally is the perfect example to illustrate to upcoming scientists from disadvantaged backgrounds that, with hard work and dedication, nothing is impossible,” she said.

Mpai is also a recipient of the 2018 South African Women in Science Award (WISA). When asked about receiving the award, Mpai said she felt humbled and grateful that her work was celebrated. “My colleagues helped to provide an enabling environment for me to do my work diligently. The award resulted from team work,” she said.

In her PhD research, Mpai evaluates the genetic diversity and taxonomy of root-nodule bacteria that nodulate endangered native legumes of the Cape Core Region, and their symbiotic effectiveness on tropical grain legumes. She hopes that her research will help to solve the problems of native plant extinction and low soil fertility.

Mpai also mentors undergraduate and masters students at the Faculty of Science.

At only 30, her achievements are something to be admired. She has presented her scientific results in Botswana, USA, and South Korea. She credited her supervisor, Prof Felix Dakora: “I wouldn’t be where I am, if it wasn’t for his unwavering support and guidance. I thank God for him.”

Her message to all women is: “Challenge yourself to be the best always; success is born out of beating life’s challenges.

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