How I was shaped by the uncertainties of my PhD

A cartoon of a woman astounded by a large book growing from a mangrove tree

Source: © M-H Jeeves

A growing idea for a book

When you imagine a coastline in the tropics or subtropics, what might come to mind are coral reefs, sandy beaches and probably a crystalline, turquoise water. But nearby there is a unique ecosystem that is often overlooked and yet is important for the health of the marine environment – and for humans as well. Mangrove forests are found in coastal brackish or saline waters in muddy or rocky soils of the tropical and sub-tropical coasts, where the sea meets fresh water. Five years ago, I would have never thought that one day my PhD would be based on this tangle of groves, entangled with uncertainties. But it would eventually disentangle my potential.

I must admit at the beginning I was hesitant – not only about working on this research topic but about pursuing a PhD in general. I always wanted to secure my dream job as a forensic scientist in my country after my MSc. But the lack of job opportunities led me to apply for a PhD scholarship to survive (please don’t judge me). My PhD research was on the pharmacological and phytochemical profile of two important mangrove plants that grow along the coastlines of Mauritius Island – Rhizophora mucronata Lam. and Bruguiera gymnorhiza (L.) Lam. These had never been studied for their pharmacological properties and chemical compositions.

The first few months in the lab were not so exciting for me as things were not going according to my plan – I was experiencing career grief and felt lost. As the months went by, I decided that I should stop mourning not being able to land my dream job and start being grateful for receiving a PhD scholarship. I gradually developed an interest in my project and published my first review paper.

Everything was going smoothly with my experiments until the Covid-19 outbreak. This virus brought disruption, doubt and doom. My whole plan on what I had to study in more depth, the deadlines I set and what I hoped to achieve were all overturned. Again, things were not going according to my plan. The conference that I was supposed to attend got cancelled. The research week where I was supposed to present my work got cancelled. Things were totally not in my favour (as many other scientists across the globe found as well). However, I was firm about keeping my research going as I had started to really enjoy what I was doing.

The first few days in lockdown were pure torture. I don’t like remaining idle without doing something productive. I felt like I was in a movie where a pandemic had transformed everyone into zombies, and I was simply waiting for it to happen to me. To say I was paranoid would not be an exaggeration. However, I quickly turned my bad days into good days.

To keep busy during the lockdown periods, I collated a huge amount of data from existing literature to better understand the different species of mangrove plants. I was able to turn this into a book entitled Mangroves with Therapeutic Potential for Human Health, published last September. If the lockdown hadn’t happened, maybe the idea of writing a book would never have kicked in and I would not have developed a deeper appreciation for mangroves.

I am ready to embrace more uncertainties in the future

Mangroves have a lot more to offer for public health and deserve to be studied further. Unfortunately, I live in a country where funding for research is scarce and lab facilities are not adequate. The plants I studied – R. mucronata and B. gymnorhiza – showed promise as a source of agents for managing skin-related diseases, microbial infections, hyperglycaemia and Zika virus. I believe that with the help of chemists across the globe with more sophisticated equipment and better lab facilities mangroves can become potential scaffolds for designing drug leads.

Tackling challenging scientific problems requires an array of laboratory techniques; tackling real-life problems that come your way requires faith; and tackling both of these problems simultaneously requires a good plan, commitment, focus, sheer will and, most importantly, patience. I am proud to say that, despite all the odds, I have produced a high-quality thesis with 12 publications and a book directly related to my PhD.

I am glad I have worked on mangroves as I have unravelled their hidden powers; the PhD in turn has helped me discover my own hidden powers. I am ready to embrace more uncertainties in the future, as beneath the layers of uncertainties resides the discovery of one’s own potential. Things that were not in my control made me a book author, a PhD holder in medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry, and a confident opportunist. I want to face more uncertainties so I can find out what else I am capable of.