Cape Town – The COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on students when it hit the world in early 2020, with many postgraduate students having to extend their studies, and some even losing all hope.

FBIP-funded postdoctoral fellow Dr Tersia Conradie says it was “not easy”, yet she managed to pull through with the “right mindset and tons of focus,” but also not without the support of family and friends.

Tersia matriculated in 2010 at Hoërskool Jeugland, Kempton Park, and started her undergraduate studies at Stellenbosch University in 2011.

Initially, she saw a future in forensics, but in the second year of her BSc degree, she fell in love with microbiology.

“I was lucky enough to get a spot in the honours programme, and as you would say; the rest is history,” she says, looking back on her academic path.

For her Honours and Masters, she worked on developing a feed additive for laying hens, using a pigment-producing bacterium.

‘Support group’

At first, Tersia was not sold on pursuing a PhD, but after taking a break from academic study for a year, she decided to start her PhD on a completely different topic, namely Acidobacteria in fynbos soils.

“Working in a microbial ecology lab is very rewarding for me and I get to learn new skills along the way. From isolating difficult-to-culture bacteria, taxonomy, metagenomics, and also learning from my fellow lab mates about working with fungi,” she says.

The 30-year-old, who currently resides in Stellenbosch, says doing a PhD can be a very lonely and difficult road. “You are likely doing something that your supervisor knows nothing or very little about, and if you do not know the ultimate goal of your study, it can take its toll on you,” she says.

What helped her through the tough times was the support of her partner, family and friends. “You need a ‘support group’ close to you – other people that are not part of your research group.”

Fortunately, she could always discuss her ideas with her supervisor who provided advice wherever possible – some of her ideas failed (a lot, she says), but the ones that worked made the journey worthwhile.

FBIP fellowship

Tersia was awarded a competitive Foundational Biodiversity Information Programme (FBIP) postdoctoral fellowship. The two-year fellowships will allow them to continue their research and gain skills and experience in the foundational biodiversity field.

The fellows are also expected to contribute to capacity development through acting as mentors and transferring skills to postgraduate students within their respective universities.

Tersia took some time to tell us about her studies and how they will make a difference:

“At the moment I am working on several projects, ranging from agricultural soil to honey bee gut health and water from hot springs in the Western Cape…

For my main study, I am working on developing a soil health assessment tool that farmers can use to assess their soil. Soils are extremely valuable when it comes to agriculture-based economies, food security, and human health.  Nevertheless, healthy soils are diminishing globally. There are many tests one can use to determine soil health. Some are helpful and informative, others not so much. The test one decides to use depends on what you would like to know about your soil. Hopefully, this assessment tool will help farmers correctly interpret their soil health, and not confuse or overwhelm them”.

Career aspirations

Tersia enjoys being challenged and finding innovative solutions. She says her ideal work situation would be one in which she can apply her aptitude for research and love for teaching.

“I also find that I enjoy collaborating with fellow scientists in other fields of study, and hopefully one day, I will be able to run my own lab and lead a research team,” she says.