Ntwae Moiloa
Photo: Annika Söderpalm

Never considered studying plants at an academic level


When growing up, Ntwae Moiloa would turn to traditional medicines for physical problems. He has always been interested in medicinal plants and how medicine men work but would prefer a more scientific approach based on facts.

Ntwae Moiloa is a doctoral student in systematic botany at the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences. He sees a doctoral degree as a door to both financing and public discourse.

“I am not aiming to become a professor. Instead, I’ll probably work administratively. Preferably at the National Research Foundation in South Africa, which works with such issues as financing and with initiating collaborations. There is a lack of trust between traditional medicine men and academia. I would like to contribute to improved communication between them. Medicine men are often older, while academics are younger and, according to the medicine men, that’s why they don’t know anything. I come from a village, speak the same language and have been treated using traditional medicine, so I think it can be easier for me to serve as a bridge between the traditional knowledge and the academic.” 

To become a PhD Student was not his original plan

In spite of his interest for plants, Ntwae Moiloa never considered studying them academically. When he heard about the doctoral position that he now has, he worked as a research assistant at an agricultural institution. He had never even considered that there might be uncertainty about what species a plant might belong to and hesitated to apply. At the last minute, however, he sent in the application and he had the interview over the phone in a taxi with people making noise in the background. Even so, he won the position! 

Plant.ID, the EU-funded project which includes his work, looks at using the molecular information in DNA to identify plants.

“Traditionally, plants have been classified by their appearance, but that can vary significantly depending on temperature and soil, for example. We use conserved parts of the plant’s DNA to see if the classification is the same. We may have to find a new name or adjust an existing name.”

PhD Student Ntwae Moila i a green House
Photo: Annika Söderpalm

Sweden makes it possible to develop his own ideas

In Sweden, there’s a strong tradition associated with taxonomy, not least thanks to Carl Linnaeus. There is also an openness for modern methods here, according to Ntwae Moiloa, who likes the Swedish academic environment.

“Here in Gothenburg, I have greater opportunities to interact with colleagues at an equal level. It isn’t as hierarchical as in South Africa. There, by definition, any ideas you have are bad since you are not a professor. Here in Sweden, I have a platform for developing my own ideas.”

As of June 2020, he has been a doctoral student for two years. As a results-oriented person, he can be frustrated that everything takes so long.

“In your research plan, you write what experiments you will do and when they will be finished, and then nothing happens! It is easy to feel unproductive and think that you don’t know anything while everyone else knows everything and gets results.”

Uses molecular methods in his work

His project is on the eight species of Silene found in South Africa. Silene is a large genus with many species also in Sweden, such as Silene dioica and Silene noctiflora. There’s disagreement on how many South African species there actually are. Ntwae Moiloa will study the question using molecular methods. He has made three field trips to South Africa to collect material. Young leaves and buds are best since they contain the most DNA. He hasn’t just collected fresh material. He has also visited a large number of herbariums in the country to obtain dried material.

“The plants are very fragile and also borderline threatened with extension, so it is often easier to use the herbarium material. I now have almost 500 samples that are awaiting analysis.”

Ntwae Moiloa

Is: Doctoral student in systematic botany
Born: Raised in South Africa
Age: 30
Interesting facts: Was active as an opera singer in South Africa. Applied to the Gothenburg Symphony Choir but was not accepted. His voice was a bit too rusty, he thinks. But he hopes to be accepted to the Gothenburg Opera’s choir and maybe you’ll get to hear him perform in May and October.