When settling on a name for SAYAS was nearly as difficult as writing its constitution!

By Caradee Y Wright

…well, not quite, but in October 2011, when the young academy was launched with its first 20 members, plenty of decisions still had to be made. 

This despite the fact that the hard work had begun months before in 2010. Professor Bernard Slippers wrote a letter, dated 25 May 2010, to the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) saying, 

“an exciting global movement is gaining momentum to establish forums for the engagement and promotion of young scientists in the form of young scientist academies” and “I believe South African science and society can also benefit greatly from the establishment of a national Young Academy of Sciences….”

With support from the Inter-Academy Panel, the Global Young Academy (GYA) had just been launched as an umbrella body to young academies such as the oldest at the time, the Junge Akademie in Germany. The GYA was supporting the development of national academies and their support included a type of blueprint for how to go about it.

ASSAf agreed and convened a small founding committee of academics / researchers from different institutions, including ASSAf staff member at the time, Dorothy Ngila, to plan the establishment of a Young Academy of Sciences in South Africa. I was fortunate to sit on this planning committee and then go on to be nominated as a member of SAYAS. I then served two terms as Co-Chair from 2011 to 2013 and assisted SAYAS with the application to the Oppenheimer Foundation for funding support.

Aldo Stroebel, Dorothy Ngila, Caradee Wright, Bernard Slippers and Voster Muchenje at a SAYAS new member induction ceremony.

Beside trying to answer the critical question of what purpose would the Young Academy serve in South Africa, much deliberation was given to its name:

  • YASSAf – Young Academy of Science of South Africa – nope, too similar to ASSAf and we wanted our own identity. Plus it did not sound very good!
  • YASSA – without the ‘f’. Hmm……..
  • SAYA…..
  • SAYAS – South African Young Academy of Science!

[Later, once we were established it took 29 iterations of a logo to decide on the one…..]

With amazing support from ASSAf, SAYAS was founded on the 10 October 2011 and twenty excellent young scientists, nominated by their institutions and selected by a special panel including one of the founding committee members, united to be the first cohort of SAYAS members.

The early days’ activities included introducing SAYAS to the then Department of Science and Technology headed by Minister Naledi Pandor and beginning the search for funding to sustain SAYAS’s future.

The nitty-gritty stuff we all gruelled over were edits to the constitution (thank you to the lawyers for their endless support with these amendments) and putting together a strategic plan of exactly what SAYAS should be doing, why to do certain things and how to mobilise members, resources, funding etc. to do so. 

Not even a year into our formation, we won a bid to host the General Assembly of the GYA. In 2012, young scientists from all around the world convened in Johannesburg and together with SAYAS members, showcased their science as well as the activities of the Young Academies. Three highlights for me were having Minister Pandor declare the General Assembly open; the tour of the Cradle of Human Kind; and the Declaration of Sandton written by the GYA and SAYAS members (parts of the writing were done on the bus to and from the fieldtrip). The Declaration was published twenty years after the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development and urged for an even greater push for sustainability.

Personally, my first five years as a member of SAYAS were extraordinary. I worked with some top academics who also happened to be amazing people and became good friends. The Executive Committees of SAYAS that I served on taught me a new meaning for work ethos and we got stuff done! Yet at the same time, we laughed, we shared stories and managed to make it all fun. One of my favourite photos of all times captures this magic element of SAYAS – a photo in honour of SAYAS member and esteemed meat scientist who worked at the University of Fort Hare, Professor Voster Muchenje. 

I helped start a science club in Ga-Rankuwa and watched youngsters leave school and later go on to graduate – they always stayed in contact. I led the healthcare judges panel for the regional and national science expos several times and encouraged learners as young as thirteen to follow their STEM[i] and social science dreams. In my academic career, through SAYAS I grew a network of scientists, both in South Africa and around the world, on which I still rely today. And I connected with the world of Academies globally – producing a five Academies[ii] report on Air Pollution and Health which we handed over to the United Nations in New York in June 2019. And most recently as an author of a NASAC[iii] report on human health climate change in Africa. I believe that if you are willing to work for SAYAS, SAYAS will work for you.

[i] Science, Engineering, Technology, Mathematics

[ii] U.S. National Academy of Science, U.S. National Academy of Medicine, Brazilian Academy of Sciences, German National Academy of Science Leopoldina, Academy of Science of South Africa

[iii] The Network of African Science Academies

Facing the fallibility of the human body

Wednesday 8 September I had woken up reminding myself to chat to Anson for tips on having an MRI, as I was scheduled for one the next day. Anson was the ideal person to reach out to – not only had he experienced his fair share of MRIs over the past year following his diagnosis with head and neck cancer, but he is also a dear friend, colleague and mentor. Professor Anson Mackay was one of my three PhD supervisors, and based at UCL, he was my primary point of contact during the split site component of my PhD that I had spent at the Environmental Change Research Centre at UCL in their Geography department. Since completing my PhD, Anson has become my most valued mentor, an enthusiastic research collaborator, and really a very dear friend. 

As someone who is far more comfortable hiding away from fear than facing it, I managed to ‘forget’ to contact Anson throughout that day. The idea popped into my head every once in a while, only to be squashed by the next conference talk that I hopped onto Zoom for; I was in the middle of the SSAG/SAAG Conference that week, presenting two papers, and mentoring a large group of my postgraduate students who were presenting for the first time at an academic conference. I didn’t even think I had that much to fear – the MRI, MRA and Doppler were very much a precaution to rule out anything sinister. I have struggled with my thyroid this year. I have an autoimmune thyroid condition – Hashimotos thyroiditis, which is treated by replacing the thyroid hormones that are under-produced by your body. At the beginning of January, these thyroid levels were being quite dramatically over-replaced through over-medication and an acute thyroiditis, resulting in a range of unpleasant symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Following the subsequent reduction of my dose of thyroid replacement hormones when this was detected, it took about 3 months to reach normal range, and a further 3 months to start to feel myself again. The first three months coincided with the very stressful preparation and teaching of an all-online module to our first years, as the second wave of COVID-19 was in full force. There was no time for sick leave, and I just pushed through, one day at a time. Back to the present, at the 9-month mark I was still struggling with occasional dizziness, and hence it made sense to do an MRI (and MRA and doppler of the carotid artery) to check that there wasn’t anything more sinister behind it. I was largely convinced there was not. 

I saw Anson’s name pop up in my inbox that evening – and as I saw it, I remembered again to ask him for tips. His email, although partly discussing possible projects and PhD cosupervision, was also letting me know that the CT scan he’d recently had showed abnormalities. My heart sank. He was still optimistic in that email that it could be a red herring, and gave me some really excellent advice on how to stay calm in an MRI. 

I did manage to stay calm, and thank goodness the MRI, MRA and doppler came back clear. I did wonder briefly, while lying in the MRI, whether my productivity and success was perhaps just an Amelia Sheppard-type brain tumour (Grey’s Anatomy fans would understand). Fortunately not. Anson, however, was not as lucky. After fighting and overcoming neck cancer in 2020, and subsequently running multiple ultramarathons, he has just been diagnosed with a new primary cancer – this time of the lungs. I received a text from him to let me know last week, shortly before he started publishing on his cancer blog again. The news is devastating. To me personally, but also because I can only just begin to understand what this has felt like for him and his partner David. I am scared – one of the most important and influencial people in my life has cancer for a second time; this time far more difficult to treat, and so he’s looking at what life with cancer will look like, rather than the path to eradicate it. We have so many projects planned, projects that involve helicopter trips to South Africa’s highest peak, road trips through Lesotho to collect samples, and so much data to analyse. I have so much still to learn from Anson – about diatoms and isotopes, about academia, and about life. I need to keep reminding myself that I will still have time to learn from Anson, we just might need to both pace ourselves a bit better.

It also all feels so terribly unfair. Anson has run ultramarathons in the past 18 months! The feeling of illness being unfair is one I feel in relation to Anson’s diagnosis and my own health challenges – a year ago I was pushing myself too hard, working long hours, taking on too much, and struggling to effectively handle stress. All very standard in academia, and indeed often glamourised. I had been doing this my whole life. It is no surprise then that I would eventually have had to face the fallibility of my own health, and at the beginning of the year it was scary not understanding what was wrong and whether this was all just my thyroid. However, 9 months later I have taken a 5-month sabbatical (albeit still a busy one with many research deadlines, and commitments to various societies), gone on at least a 2km each day (most days 3.5km, some days 8km), developed a better sleep cycle, reduced my workload to something a little bit more manageable, started doing Yoga regularly, and eaten a more balanced diet. Yet I still struggle with my health fairly often; I still don’t quite feel myself as reliably as I used to, and can’t just push myself to handle the next thing that lands on my plate. It feels unfair – I am taking things slowly, I am paying attention to my health, and I still don’t feel quite right. I don’t know how to feel that way again, and while I do want to feel reliably healthy, perhaps I shouldn’t want or aspire to go back to doing every and anything. 

Life throws curveballs at us, and the lessons aren’t always clear. Sometimes bad news is just bad news, and if this year has taught me anything, it is to sit with the fear, the loss, the devastation and just feel it. As difficult as that is. And then learn – how to make work more sustainable, how to enjoy each day, and how to become the best parts of the people I most look up to.