By Davide Gaglio

I am sure most of you experience the lack of money that comes with being a student. While I was a masters student at the University of Bologna in 2006, I had the opportunity to work part-time as a postman. But when my short career as a postman unexpectedly ended, I would never have dreamed of doing a PhD in South Africa, or being involved in an extended academic family in the truest sense of the word.

During my farewell at the post office, I had a long chat with a girl that had just returned from a trip South Africa. “South Africa?” I said, “Yes… but which country of South Africa?” 🙂 🙂 Well, that was when I realised I needed to fill some gaps in my geographical knowledge, but I blame my high school teacher 😉

Soon after, I started to gather information on this fascinating country and I decided that South Africa would be my next destination! I rapidly looked for an opportunity as a field assistant in South Africa and ended up applying for a field assistant job for a project run by the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at UCT – mostly because I LOVE birds. But I had no idea how much the people here would make ornithology, academia, research and conservation come alive to my mind.

From August to October that year I spent a great time in the field and had the opportunity to get a glimpse of the “Fitz Institute”: the students, the post-docs, the staff members, the professors. I was particularly taken by the “Niven,” one of the most important libraries on birds worldwide. I attended some seminars there, and started to daydream about one day presenting my own research in that beautiful setting!

I was also intrigued by the social aspect of the Fitz’s people, particularly on Friday afternoons. Students, lecturers and other members meet at the pub most Fridays and discuss a wide range of topics (rugby, photography…but of course mainly birds!). I joined them on one such occasion, fresh from the field, hiking shoes still caked in mud. Over some well-deserved drinks, I became engaged in a delightful conversation about Oystercatchers, with the late director of the institute, Professor Phil Hockey. Would I have been able to chat so happily with such an august person if I’d known beforehand who he was? Probably not – I only discovered his identity after the pub visit. Phil unfortunately passed away 2 years ago. But informal meetings like this drives intellectual curiosity, and inspired me immensely. It’s probably a large reason why the Fitz is such a research powerhouse, and has been designated as a DST-NRF Centre of Excellence.

The Fitz promotes and undertakes scientific studies, primarily involving birds that contribute to the theory and practise necessary to maintain biological diversity and sustain the continued use of biological resources. Here is a photographic glimpse of the Fitz’s main research:

And a few years later…here I am…doing my PhD about one of the most, elegant, photogenic and mysterious coastal seabirds in southern Africa, Swift Terns!

However, being a foreign student, I have faced a few challenges. My family and friends are very far away and they are very much missed. Building new relationships is always challenging, especially when every year you have to renew your visa and you don’t know in which country you’ll be… or even if they will let you return! Moreover, to be socially involved is important for our species 😉 Since the beginning, I have been welcomed by the entire institute and step by step I’ve been privileged to make many friends, which share with me the same passions and dreams. Yes… I feel “like home”. Today, I like to call the institute and the people working there the “Fitz family”. Here I feel appreciated as part of a team, I can have long chats with the other students, be and wisely suggested by staff members when problems arise and am passionately guided by my supervisors. In the last few years, being proudly part of the Fitz, I did my part, giving talks about my research and the issues of our marine ecosystems to various bird clubs. I also wrote some articles to environmental magazines and attended a conference, where I was awarded runner-up with the best student oral presentation! Along with publishing scientific articles, semi-scientific articles … and recently representing the Fitz with Dr Rob Little at the launch of the 2015 National Science Week of the Department of Science and Technology at the North-West University’s Mafikeng campus.

Exciting opportunities for students arise from the passion of the people working in institutes like this. There is a wonderful sense of cooperation, which is shared amongst the different disciplines and academic roles. Many of my colleagues have become great friends, which is often a rarity. I am doing my best to make the most from my research in an institute which believes in my capabilities and I am sure the results of my PhD will make the difference! How you ask? Well, I will tell you next entry!

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