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Newsletter 6

10 years in the making: Caro Kapp’s PhD journey

Life realises itself in unexpected ways. Caro Kapp’s PhD journey is true to that. By Kyra Rensburg

“In high school, I didn’t think I was smart, so I wasn’t planning on studying hefty degrees at university. I applied to do jewellery design at CPUT.”

But in matric, Kapp and other students were called to the school office and told they were all “distinction candidates”. “This surprised me. I remember doing vectors in physics and not understanding it. I still don’t.”

One day in high school, while struggling with concepts, the science teacher stood in front of her desk and said to the rest of the class: “Some people are just too stupid to get it. They will never understand…”

Kapp got four distinctions in matric, changing the course of her future.

Her academic journey started towards the end of her undergraduate years at Stellenbosch University (SU) in the BScAgric programme with Viticulture and Oenology as majors. She wanted to pursue a postgraduate degree but did not get into honours for Viticulture and Oenology.

Following a conversation with a Conservation Ecology and Entomology student, she met with associate professors Pia Addison and Antoinette Malan about possible opportunities to further her studies.

This led to an Honours in entomology and an MSc in Nematology – where she focused on soil health using nematodes as bioindicator – a study field she continued in 2014 when she started her PhD.

The research topic, “The role of nematode community structure and function as bioindicators of soil health in South Africa”, was new at Stellenbosch University and brought up more questions than answers, so Kapp and Prof Malan wrote a project proposal to do more research in this field.

“The initial proposal changed a lot, but the basics were to see how soil amendments (like cover crops and mulches) change soil health. We wanted to understand whether it makes it better or not.”

Her biggest challenge was that she was the only one in the department researching free-living nematodes. There was no one to talk to.

“One of the lessons I learned…if you want to do a PhD, you need a good support structure.”

Sherlock Holmes

In 2018, Kapp had to start paying her student fees. Alongside Prof Addison, she started managing BlueBug, the insect identification service at Stellenbosch University. “It’s a lot of fun, I feel like an insect Sherlock Holmes. Getting bugs, investigating, and identifying them, I like that.”

But working full-time and doing a PhD are daunting tasks. She struggled to find a balance. Time management became particularly challenging. “I tend to hyper-focus when I work. Suddenly I had to focus on several things at the same time. All equally important. Everyone gave advice. Just sit down and write, but it was difficult for me.”

Then Covid struck. The workload increased and further delayed her PhD efforts. Everything became too much for her. She was depressed and realised something had to give.

“I started therapy and discovered that depression wasn’t my problem. I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, of which depression was a co-morbidity.”

The pieces of her life came together. Struggles she as a child and at school, suddenly started making sense. For instance, why she struggled to start with a new project when she was busy focusing on something else. Her problems with time management. “The diagnosis was all new to me, but it helped me figure out how to deal with obstacles, plus, how to start writing my PhD.”

During the first week of October 2023, Kapp was informed that she had to finish her PhD before the end of the year, or she would not be able to graduate. She got sent home on a mission. “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t do anything else. You don’t exist. We don’t want to see your face in the department. Go finish this thing.”

Eight and a half weeks later, the “whole thing” was written up and she submitted her colossal research in December 2023.  Kapp officially graduated on 26 March 2024.

  • Kapp’s academic journey was partially funded by Hortgro Science.
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Caro with Prof Antoinette Malan

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