Chemistry in and out of the laboratory for postgraduates Laa-iqa and Marwaan Rylands

12 Dec 2018 - 09:00

Marwaan and Laa-iqa at Laa-iqa's graduation (June 2016)

Husband and wife duo Marwaan and Laa-iqa Rylands will both graduate with postgraduate Chemistry degrees from the Science Faculty on 14 December - Marwaan with a PhD and Laa-iqa with a MSc. They met while studying Chemistry at UCT and have their sights set on making a career for themselves in this field.

Laa-iqa was born and raised in Cape Town. She was raised by her grandmother and is the eldest of six siblings and is the first person in her family to graduate from a university. Marwaan is originally from Lavender Hill, Cape Town and is the first person in his family to be awarded a PhD. Laa-iqa’s MSc project involved synthesising compounds that were tested for their antiplasmodial activity, while Marwaan’s PhD research focused on the development of a new bioluminescent molecule.  Both research projects were different but they both had to design and synthesise new compounds. This aspect of chemistry research is something that they both enjoy and it played a large role in their respective decisions to continue studying.

Why Chemistry?

Laa-iqa - always enjoyed science at high school, but she never really knew what you could do with a BSc degree. In her first year, she was exposed to the variety of different science courses, she particularly enjoyed all the chemistry practicals, which sparked her interest. That interest grew steadily and she found herself genuinely enjoying lectures and practicals so much that she eventually applied for vacation work in the Chemistry Department. Her experience during vac work further encouraged Laa-iqa to study chemistry and to continue her studies in the field – further incentivised by the fact that that is where she met Marwaan! 

Marwaan said it was love at first sight - he fell in love with organic chemistry and the Chemistry Department. He spent ridiculous amounts of time reading organic chemistry textbooks and learning its history. He was really fascinated by the subject and could not see himself having gone any other route.  In addition to the discipline itself, Marwaan and Laa-iqa met people in the department whom they really respected and admired and this played a significant role in their decision to continue studying.

What they have enjoyed about their studies:

Laa-iqa and Marwaan enjoy the fact that the chemical sciences are so diverse and that there are so many different fields within chemistry as well as the different applications.   Laa-iqa particularly enjoys the practical aspect: stirring things together in a flask and creating something new with new potential applications – which she finds amazing.  Marwaan really enjoys finding the connection between theory and practice and is inspired by how that manifests itself in the chemistry labs.   Studying came with many opportunities for both Laa-iqa and Marwaan and they said that they appreciate that they were both afforded many opportunities which they  would not have gotten had they not continued studying.

The challenges of their studies

During their undergraduate degree, both Laa-iqa and Marwaan found the transition from school to university challenging and they struggled with their courses.  Marwaan describes how the change from school to university was a shock to the system where they had shaky foundations.  They commented that they both came from similar backgrounds and because of their schooling and background, they felt they entered University ill prepared to undertake a degree in science. Fortunately, they both had good support systems which really helped through first year and assisted them in becoming better students, with a clear picture of the direction they wanted to take and what they wanted to achieve.

What was it like to be studying at the same time? 

Laa-iqa and Marwaan got married four years ago, when she had just completed her undergraduate BSc degree.  She comments that in some instances, she thinks it was actually better that they were both studying together: they could support one another and since they both were in the same department (and the same lab) they could relate and understood the challenges that they each faced. If one of them had to work late, they would both stay and work late, so most days were productive ones. Laa-iqa says that they love spending time with each other and because they enjoy what they do, they would often (and still do!) bring home chemistry.  She says they discuss reactions and problems with each other and they love that they can share that part of themselves with each other. Marwaan commented that they tried to manage their time as best they could: balancing their studies with other aspects of life. They spend a great deal of time together and bring chemistry home -it is not something they try to remove or limit from their personal lives. He describes how they often consult each other when they have had an interesting result or reaction and how amazing it is to come home to someone who fully understands.

Where to from here? 

Having both racked up student loans, work is a priority to pay the loans back. Laa-iqa was recently employed by a pharmaceutical company, Fine Chemicals Corporation (Aspen) as a research chemist. Marwaan is currently applying for post-doctoral positions and hopes to continue with chemistry research and teaching: his ultimate goal is to teach organic chemistry, so he is working toward that goal.

They have sacrificed a great deal of time away from family to finish their degrees, so would like to spend some time focusing more on their families who have supported their journey, and continue to do so.

Laa-iqa and Marwaan say they are exceedingly grateful to their chemistry lecturers and supervisors,  who really inspired them to pursue their chemistry degrees and supported them in many different ways.  Ultimately, they would like to encourage other students interested in postgraduate studies (from any and all backgrounds) to study further. They commented that they know first-hand about the many limiting factors facing prospective students, but their experience has shown them how a good education can empower people and open doors, thereby improving one’s life and the lives of their family.