COOL KID: Tiisetso “gym girl” Lephoto

Tiisetso Lephoto came second at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin as the best researcher in South Africa/Africa. Photo: Bongiwe Tutu

Tiisetso Lephoto came second at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin as the best researcher in South Africa/Africa.                                                                                                                                Photo: Bongiwe Tutu

While most people know her as the “gym girl”, Wits PhD student Tiisetso Lephoto (25) is also a One Young World ambassador and a Wits Golden Key member. Recognised as one of the new young and upcoming researchers in science by the Gauteng department of agriculture and rural development in 2013, she secured second place at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin for the best researcher in South Africa/Africa. Lephoto is a Wits aerobics fitness and training instructor and founder of TiiMoves.

What research are you working on for your PhD?
My project is based on trying to come up with ways to reduce the use of chemical pesticides. Since 2011, when I started with masters, I’ve been trying to discover nematodes; microscopic worms which can kill insects. So, instead of spraying harsh chemicals which can make us sick because our food has been highly contaminated, my project wants to come up with ways of reducing or eliminating the use of these harmful chemicals, and find biological control agents. That’s the healthier way of killing insects without harming people or animals in any way.

What influenced the role you play in aerobics today?
I joined an aerobics community programme. They taught us almost everything, and it became fun, like a dancing routine, so I incorporate everything into my aerobics routines. And it’s more like a God-given talent, that’s how it feels, I just think of steps in my head and I execute it.

What is the most fulfilling part about being an aerobics fitness and training instructor?
I started an NGO called YesWeAreMoving in 2011. My aim was to spread the culture of healthy living, so I started to organise aerobics marathons alongside academic tutoring under a programme called Katleho Pele Education. We help grade eight to 12 learners in Soweto maintain their studies and health. We have a marathon this Saturday at the Squash Complex on West Campus from 9-11am. I organise the marathons to donate and fundraise for orphanages. This year is aimed at collecting food, toiletries, and clothes. And with my own personal training company, TiiMoves, I encourage others, and help people to put nutrition together with exercise, and feel good in their own skin.

What is most central to your life’s philosophy?
I give back to the community, this is my philosophy; I believe the higher you go, you have to find a way to lift other people with you. I like seeing someone happy, it’s very fulfilling to share knowledge, to help someone, and then see them succeed. I always think, with so many things that I do, ‘God where will you place me?’ I’m passionate about science and I’d like to be one of the leading young researchers and discover something to save the future of agriculture. So, the future holds me continuing to research, help other young people, encourage them to pursue what they love, and maybe to do science. Everything needs to just be well. Wellness is everything.

A Rare Leap from Honours to PhD

Two biochemistry students received such outstanding results in their honours year, they will be skipping Master’s and moving straight on to PhD degrees.  

Bianca Dias and Bradley Peter (both 22) completed their honours degrees last year and received above 80% overall.

The head of the School of Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB), Professor Rob Veale, said the decision to exempt these candidates from master’s degrees was based on “holistic assessments” of their academic, laboratory performance and personal factors that could affect their performance at PhD level.

“The selection and registration of a higher degree candidate depends greatly on their relationship with their supervisors, as this allows the supervisors the opportunity for good judgment of suitable candidates,” said Veale.

“Although the final decision of exemption is made by the Graduate Studies Committee (GSC) of the school in question, the discretion of the supervisors in the decision process in a key factor.”

According to the Faculty of Science Rules and Syllabus, a student who has shown a level of competence that satisfies Senate in their research, writings, experience and professional standing during their honours year may be admitted as a candidate for a PhD.

Member of the GSC, Dr Yasien Sayed, said no student in the history of MCB had ever been afforded this rare opportunity before.

“It’s not to say the school has not produced academically excellent students in the past,” said Sayed. “The fact that past excelling students weren’t offered this opportunity may be attributed to lack of awareness of this rule by many lectures, supervisors and students alike.”

Dias’s research, which is supervised by Professor Stefan Weiss, is focused on the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Although I’m a little anxious about the year because it will be very challenging, I am excited about this opportunity, and pleased that the university has this much faith in me.”

Peter, who is also a classical ballet dancer, planned to do his master’s at a university overseas when he was approached with the offer by his supervisor, Professor Heinrich Dirr. He said the science faculty took this step because they wanted to train more students at PhD level.

“I think the university wants produce more independent researchers.”