School of Life Sciences

Dr Preshanthan Moodley graduates with his PhD in Microbiology with the support of his family.

Master of All Trades

Award-winning filmmaker Dr Preshanthan Moodley obtained his PhD in the field of Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

Moodley, who hails from Richards Bay, in northern KwaZulu-Natal, moved to Johannesburg after completing his matric to study film-making at AFDA, the South African School of Motion Picture where he obtained his Bachelor of Arts Honours degree.

In 2008, whilst completing his degree, Moodley directed his first independent movie which was distributed in South Africa and broadcast on DSTV. He also produced and directed two seasons of a South African celebrity talk show titled Spill the Beans Over Coffee, which featured guests that included Isidingo actors, socialite and businesswoman Sorisha Naidoo, radio personality Darren Maule, actress Jena Dover and many others.

Two years later Moodley produced South Africa’s his first Bollywood-style film titled Yeh Rishta. He also accumulated many accolades, namely the award for Best Student TV Production in 2008 and an Indian Cinema Centenary Award in 2013. For most people this would be the makings of a successful career but not for Moodley.

He always had a passion for both filmmaking and science. After completing his filmmaking degree he decided to pursue his other passion. He chose the field of renewable energy because he believes that it is an arena that requires fast thinking and solutions to prevent catastrophe in the energy and environmental sectors.

Moodley joined UKZN in 2011 where he began his third degree, a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Microbiology which he completed in the allocated time. He went on to complete his BSc Honours degree and thereafter a masters degree which he not only completed in one year but also passed it cum laude.

Moodley completed a PhD in the record time of two years. He really does live by the adage, ‘Live as if it’s your last day on Earth.’ Moodley always had aspirations of completing a PhD and having completed many degrees (in both science and film), to be awarded his PhD was a dream come true. This enigmatic young man believes that everyone has a purpose. ‘The few of us that are fortunate enough to experience tertiary education should use this as a driving force to inspire those around us,’ he said.

Moodley’s PhD research focused on the microbial conversion of sugarcane leaf waste into bioethanol. It entailed developing novel pre-treatment strategies to enhance the enzymatic saccharification of sugarcane leaf waste and consequently examining the fermentation kinetics of bioethanol production.

The current energy crisis coupled with the detrimental effects of global warming was what motivated Moodley to pursue a PhD in this field, and ‘finding a solution to this that would make an impact on society was a natural choice for me, and this is why renewable energy is the avenue that I decided to pursue,’ said Moodley.

Global warming and depleting fuel reserves is something that affects every single person on this planet. Moodley’s research couples both the agricultural and energy sector, to utilise agricultural residues (sugarcane leaf waste) to produce bioethanol. His research has the potential to alleviate fuel prices and reduce the pollution caused by the burning of the unused sugarcane leaf waste.

Moodley is most proud to have completed his master’s degree cum laude in one year, completed his PhD in two years and six publications in high impact international journals. ‘I realised that science communication is an exciting field that has been recently gaining attention. I found that by combining my expertise from both my film and science, I have been able to produce scientifically sound videos for various purposes. In 2014, I produced an informative video about Ebola during the 2014 outbreak. I have also produced several high quality promotional videos for UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, providing insight to school learners about the various science disciplines UKZN has to offer.’

An ad-hoc lecturing stint in 2017 helped cement Moodley’s decision of going into academics. ‘I found it to be a liberating and enjoyable experience, and it would be another route where I could “inspire greatness”,’ said Moodley. He intends on commencing his postdoctoral research and thereafter he would like to pursue a career in academics and research. ‘A passion for your chosen field of study is extremely important. If you have this, hard work and dedication would naturally follow,’ said Moodley.

Moodley attributed his success to his PhD supervisor, Professor Gueguim Kana, who played an integral role in shaping him into a scientist. ‘His modern day approach to academics and research has inspired me and the route I would like to follow in life,’ said Moodley.

Kana wished Moodley all the best with his future plans. ‘I worked with Mr Preshanthan Moodley as his lecturer and supervisor at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. By academic performance, he is rated outstandingly among the top 2% of students I have worked with for the last 10 years. He is very hard-working, highly productive, eager to learn, reliable, committed and very respectful.’

Words: Swastika Maney