From motherhood to a PhD

Dr Zesizwe Ngubane. | Supplied

Dr Zesizwe Ngubane. | Supplied

Published May 26, 2024


Durban — Completing a PhD is not easy, especially when you have to give birth during the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus while conducting your research.

Zesizwe Ngubane, 38, is the acting head of the Department of Civil Engineering on the Midlands campus of the Durban University of Technology (DUT). She was elated when she finally graduated with her Doctor of Engineering degree at the DUT 2024 Autumn Graduation ceremony.

Ngubane started her PhD in 2019 and her topic centred on developing a comprehensive framework for managing water pollution in catchment areas.

“Covid-19 was my biggest obstacle. Two of my three supervisors were based in Sweden, and not being able to take international trips was a blow. We needed to adapt to keep our communication.”

But communication during the pandemic was not the only obstacle.

“As fate would have it, I also had a baby on March 5, 2020, the very day Covid-19 was discovered in Maritzburg; my sister read me the story while I was in the labour room. When the lockdown was imposed, I had to stay with my then 9-year-old and my two-week-old sons. This meant I had to cope with home-schooling a 9-year-old, conducting research, and taking care of a baby too.

“No one could visit us. Many of my friends and family members met my son on Zoom. My partner worked in a hospital in northern KZN and couldn’t come home due to restrictions but also because he feared he might bring us Covid-19. Funny enough, he did test positive while he was asymptomatic.”

Ngubane found it challenging to cope with her newborn baby and her research but persevered.

“At some point, I really didn’t know how to juggle the three. What helped tremendously were the words of reassurance from my supervisor, Prof. Ekaterina Sokolova, who made me realise that the baby is only going to be a baby for so long, and progress in the PhD is any little step I take towards it.

“Eventually, I’ll find balance but don’t spite one over the other. And I did! Hearing these words from a female researcher gave me so much hope, and I think there’s something about learning that something is doable that gives you the right push. In 2022, we welcomed our daughter; however, balancing this time was much easier than two years earlier. Also, her coming seemed like a symbol of an end of something, in the case of what I can see, it was the end of Covid-19 restrictions.”

Dr Zesizwe Ngubane. | Supplied

Ngubane said she overcame her challenges by allowing herself to be taught by others, accepting help, and learning to strike a balance. The support and reassurance from her supervisors were instrumental.

“They helped me understand that progress, no matter how small, was still progress, and that balancing my responsibilities was key. I also relied on help from family and friends, which made managing home-schooling, research, and childcare more feasible.

“The road to finishing my PhD while raising my kids was undoubtedly challenging, but it was also a journey filled with invaluable lessons. One of the most difficult parts was balancing the demands of academia with the responsibilities of motherhood. Juggling coursework, research and writing, with the needs of my children required careful planning. Additionally, managing my time effectively became crucial, especially with multiple children of different ages who each required attention and care.

“However, my children were my motivation to keep pushing forward, and their presence reminded me of the importance of setting a positive example for them.”

The academic from Pietermaritzburg said she chose her research topic because of her deep concern for the health and well-being of women and children in less advantaged areas.

“These communities often face significant challenges in accessing clean water and adequate sanitation, making them particularly vulnerable to water pollution and its associated health risks. By focusing on developing a comprehensive framework for water pollution management, I aim to contribute to improving the quality of life and health outcomes for these vulnerable populations.

“My research highlights the vulnerability of the less fortunate who directly depend on the river, emphasising the impacts of human activities on the environment and the cyclical nature of pollution. By identifying pollution sources and engaging stakeholders, it promotes practical and sustainable interventions to mitigate contamination in a catchment area. The research recommends best management practices that include infrastructure improvements, and community involvement to reduce waterborne diseases and long-term health risks.”

She was also inspired by her childhood rural setting of Swayimane.

“I grew up in eMbhava. From an early age, I understood the critical role a river plays in less fortunate areas, providing essential resources for recreation and general livelihood. Even when the water is contaminated, these communities often lack alternatives and must find ways to cope.

“Around the age of 10, we finally got tap water in my area. My grandmother, always welcoming new and easier ways of doing things, ensured we were among the first few houses to get it. Before this, we relied on a small stream for our water, and my mother, being innovative, would harvest rainwater during the summer to reduce our trips to the stream.

“This experience gave me a unique perspective on the challenges faced by these communities. When I see women carrying laundry and buckets to the river, I know exactly what that means. It's this personal connection and understanding that drives my research. When the water is contaminated, someone needs to take action, and that’s the motivation behind my work.”

On her graduation day, she was filled with joy for what she had achieved through the toughest times. She hopes to inspire all mothers with her story.

“For mothers studying while caring for small children, my advice is to prioritise self-care, work smart and accept help. Establish boundaries between your academic work and family responsibilities, and communicate openly with supervisors and family members about your needs.

“For me, my graduation was the moment where I truly embraced the significance of my accomplishment, realising that it was bigger than just myself,” said Ngubane.

Sunday Tribune