School of Life Sciences

The late Dr Lucky Marufu graduated posthumously with a PhD in Biochemistry.

Posthumous PhD for Popular Biochemistry Student

The untimely passing of Dr Lucky Marufu weeks before he was due to graduate with a PhD in Biochemistry has led to an outpouring of tributes for the dedicated scientist from his discipline and beyond.

Marufu, who died in a car accident while returning home from a friend’s wedding in Limpopo province, had completed his PhD at UKZN on the spread of trypanosome parasites by the bite of infected tsetse flies in sub-Saharan Africa that causes African trypanosomiasisis or sleeping sickness in humans and nagana in livestock, especially cattle.

The disease is a serious problem in the region with millions of people at risk of contracting it while major financial losses are experienced when livestock is infected.

To contribute to reducing the disease burden of trypanosomiasisis or nagana, Marufu worked with major surface proteases (MSPs), developing important tools in the fight against the disease. Using molecular-modelling and molecular-docking studies, he examined the activity of the MSP-C enzyme in altering proteins located on the parasite surface that allow it to “change its coat” and evade the immune response of its host. He also identified potential drug compounds to inhibit this activity and through the production of MSP antibodies, developed an antigen-based diagnostic test for nagana.

Originally from Zimbabwe, Marufu was born in Chivhu, the fourth child in a family of two sons and three daughters. His O-level Biology teacher, who had a background in biomedical sciences, inspired Marufu to pursue a career in life sciences. He completed his A-levels at Seke High School, then enrolled at Midlands State University in Gweru where he completed his Bachelor of Science and Honours degrees in Biological Sciences.

Marufu was passionate about transferring knowledge and completed a teaching qualification after his honours degree, as well as doing an internship as a microbiological analyst at the Tobacco Research Board and then working as a laboratory technologist at the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Harare.

Marufu got an opportunity to complete his Master’s degree in Medical Biotechnology at Wageningen University in The Netherlands and achieved outstanding marks. He worked as a research assistant in Wageningen’s Department of Cell Biology and Immunology for a year after graduating, and explored PhD opportunities in Europe and South Africa before he made the decision in 2017 to join the laboratory of Professor Theresa Coetzer, South African Research Chair in Proteolysis in Homeostasis, Health and Disease.

Marufu’s research resulted in a publication in the Journal of Molecular Graphics and Modelling, with a second publication being prepared.

Marufu developed a rapport with his colleagues, supervisors and fellow students and is remembered for his reliability, humility, gentleness, helpfulness, kindness, encouragement of others, his committed Christian faith and dedication to his work. He formed friendships across the globe, and was perceptive about the challenges others faced.

While his work did not leave him much time for extracurricular pursuits, Marufu was committed to his faith and his church, and in secondary school he spent time learning and practising traditional dancing. He was an enthusiastic team player in his department, taking on responsibilities beyond his research in the Biotechnology cluster, and participating in team building events including the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Fun Run.

Intent on pursuing a career in research and academia, Marufu had been awarded a postdoctoral fellowship under Coetzer’s supervision after completing his PhD.

‘It was a pleasure and privilege to be Lucky’s supervisor,’ said Coetzer, who praised his wide reading around his research topic, his technical skills and his critical engagement with literature.

‘He worked very hard, productively and always with a smile. His kind and gentle disposition will be sorely missed,’ she said.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied