Physicist defies fate and earns Ph.D. the hard way

2009-04-22 00:00

DIAGNOSED with an eye condition that was supposed to leave him blind by the age of 16, Naven Chetty (27) was not supposed to graduate with a Ph.D., let alone one in experimental physics.

But the fact that he beat massive odds and graduated on Saturday means nothing is impossible.

Chetty is the first to say the road to success is not easy.

Born the eldest of two boys, Chetty came from a poor home and is the product of a disadvantaged school.

Growing up, he was never disillusioned that his father, who worked for a tea company and was the only breadwinner, could not put him through university.

While he was in high school, Chetty had to work hard to earn everything he got.

“I could never go into a store and point at a R600 pair of takkies and say I want that. In my house you had to work for your reward.”

Chetty said he has held three jobs since grade 11 just to be able to afford transport, books and other things he needs.

So when he managed to secure a full scholarship to Wits University to study medicine after matriculating, he thought he was set for an easier life. But a serious beating after being mugged in his first week of varsity sent him right back to where he started, with no money and no plan.

“It was my first time away from home, but I decided it was not what I had signed up for.”

Unilever soon became his lifeline and gave him a bursary to study engineering at the University of Natal, now the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he was recently appointed the dean’s assistant in charge of recruitment for the faculty of science and agriculture. “I’m a scientist who believes in God. I am a devout Hindu and everything I have achieved has been through prayer.”

This, he said, is what has got him through the difficult times in his life — like the fact that he was supposed to go blind. “I was diagnosed with a degenerative eye condition that resulted in me wearing those coke-bottle glasses — they were so thick — since the age of two-and-a-half. I couldn’t play sport and climb trees like every normal boy.”

Or the time in 2002 just before his June exam, when he lost his two uncles who died within 16 days of each other. And later that year before his final exams, when he was confronted with the news that his dad had been retrenched after working for the same company for 30 years.

In 2003, two days before his graduation, he suffered an electric shock while trying to fix a trip switch.

Again in 2007, the year he was supposed to submit his Ph.D. thesis, Chetty was involved in an accident when an unlicensed teen ran a red robot, leaving him in ICU and needing a four-month recovery to learn to talk and walk again.

“It has been one roller-coaster after another. Science helps me understand the world, but prayer helps me understand things in my life I have no way of explaining. I dedicate much of who I am to the stable grounding I received from my parents and my gran, who passed away recently.”

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