Looking back while pushing forward

Dear Kim,

So, you survived 2019, your first year of PhD! Well done, “future you” is proud! Looking back on your 2019 posts I can’t help but want to give you a hug, there were so many challenges you blogged about that many students related to, stories of mental health, challenges as a first-generation woman of colour in palaeosciences, being a woman in general in research spaces, the fatigue we experience, and the dreaded funding uncertainty. I am grateful that you used this platform to speak your truth, to discuss topics that you held so close to your heart, you spoke about what resonated with you and I know it resonated with so many others. I am grateful that you took a chance on this blogging competition and that you did not let your impostor syndrome stand in the way, I am grateful that you spent the year posting among women who would become lifelong friends. I am looking back at 2019 and I see so much solidarity and support for one another, there was compassion and encouragement and like your post on unity in women– you all banded together like ants (you should always be proud to be called an ant). I know that you will always appreciate your SAYAS opportunity. I hope that you found some balance and that you took better care of yourself, you need to remember that life doesn’t always need to go full steam ahead, sometimes it’s good to shut the engines off and enjoy the view in your stillness.

It is now 2050, 31 years after your last post! I am writing to you to let you know that things here are pretty good and that nothing you did was in vain. There are still challenges (as there will always be) but the groundwork that the generations before you, your generation and those who followed you have laid has helped us create the science you always dreamed of. First, I must tell you what’s been happening in your field! There are so many more hominin discoveries, right here in Africa made by some of your peers and colleagues, you would be so proud to see just how many young African women of colour are in the field (and seriously dominating it). They are in senior positions, heading upfield schools, institutions, collaborative projects and the field of palaeosciences has truly found its African roots and, more importantly, a respect for its people. We live in a different time, technicians are no longer unsung heroes, they are authors on publications, experts who are trained and upskilled to empower themselves, they now manage many sites and projects. More conferences are being hosted on the continent (even the really big ones that you complained about having to spend a few months rent on travel only to network for a week), I think people are coming around to the idea that the continent they once thought was covered in darkness is actually so full of light, potential and incredible scientists. You helped organize one of the first big conferences here in Johannesburg, just outside of the Cradle, you showed all of these anthropologists that South Africa is not just a stop on a data collection trip, it is a destination worthy of global attention. Since then, many students and researchers have visited to look at our collections and they continue to grow. You’d be so pleased with the innovation and novel science that the continent and her researchers are producing, we have world-class facilities that can host international teams, it is no longer a one-sided relationship with us having to go overseas. Now we see researchers scramble to come here, to be able to touch the fossils and conduct their science in world-class laboratories and facilities. Palaeosciences is no longer a field where jobs are a concern, researchers are employed at institutions (both local and international) and we have witnessed a revival of the museums you love so much, and more researchers are based there now!

You’ll be happy to know that #scicomm has been a focal point across all research fields, so many students and researchers are putting their work out there and the public is engaging. Because of this, we are doing better science, science with input from those we hope it benefits and those whose lives will be touched indirectly or directly by our research. There has been a surge in communications, now there are researchers on the news, using social media and debating in public spaces to ensure that all people have access to knowledge. The ivory tower is crumbling, there are still some who try to maintain it but there is power in the masses who are trying to build bridges instead of walls. Science is becoming more accessible, and we no longer celebrate ‘firsts’ anymore, instead, we see incredible people occupy spaces that we thought would never open to people who looked like us.

I must warn you; the change was slow and I know how impatient you can be. Trust me, it comes together, please do not lose hope, you need to keep fighting. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stay in academia, sometimes the change comes from outside. There are many ways to make an impact and you must do what’s best for you, mentally, emotionally and physically before you think of professionally. Our government has invested so much in building up PhD’s and improving our education system so that we start to close the inequality gap. I know that Fees Must Fall changed you, it changed the way you look at the world and indeed the way you look at yourself, it made you acknowledge your privileges but also the challenges you face as a woman of colour in the spaces you loved so much. I know it made you more alert, more empathetic and even more driven to change and challenge the status quo. We will always keep fighting for student rights because although you now sit in boardrooms and stand at the front of lecture venues, you were once a student who couldn’t pay her fees, that feeling will humble you for the rest of your life. You may not realise it but the entire #FeesMustFall generation are now setting the narrative of our country, the change was slow, the change was painful, but the change is here.

As I said there are still challenges because, in this life thing, they are inevitable, but hey, you inspired generations of fighters who are still shaking tables and breaking glass ceilings. Now your job is to learn from them, you are never too old to be a student of life, I won’t allow you to turn into one of those old gatekeepers who ignores the voices of a new generation, even if they are still whispers. You now have the power to make a real change, that comes from elevating others, remember that always!

Be proud of yourself, I know I am.

Love always,


The Magic of Museums


Museums are some of my favourite spaces, I find myself drawn to them, wherever I go, whether I am on holiday or on a trip for work, I always end up wondering into one. A year ago, the world watched in horror as the Museu Nacional, the largest and oldest museum in Brazil, went down in a blaze, fire consuming the building and the 20 million or so artefacts it housed. The museum was 200 years old and this tragedy prompted discussions in museum circles regarding issues such as repatriation and digitisation of collections. The loss was immense, and the global outcry highlighted just how important museums are, they serve as spaces for research as well as for learning, bringing communities together and curating heritage. To me, museums transport me back in time and renew my child-like wonder at the world around us, they make me proud to be South African, they restore a sense of appreciation in our natural world, in our history and in the possibilities of our future.

In September this year, I worked closely with fellow postgraduate students at the School of Anatomical Sciences at WITS on a temporary exhibit that celebrated our school’s centenary. The exhibit was hosted at Maropeng and I can tell you, it is no small feat organising one so kudos to museum staff members and curators who undertake this important job! Our exhibit ran for two weeks but took months to plan, we asked a lot of our postgrad students who had tutoring commitments, deadlines and research projects to work on, but they gave their time, energy and ideas to make it a success. At the end of the exhibit I thought that they would be put off public engagement and organizing temporary displays and exhibits for the rest of their lives but to my surprise, it ignited a fire in all of us. We were interacting daily with scholars, families, children of all ages and they were curious and showed a real interest in anatomical sciences. The exhibit was hands-on, we had microscopes, archaeological excavations, facial identification activities, there were activities on embryonic development and extracting information from skeletons that can be used to identify people and all of these activities were met with a level of excitement I can recall having as a child! In truth, I don’t think I have ever lost that excitement.

Museums are not just important because of what is housed within their walls, they are important because of how they make us feel. There have been studies and many articles on the positive effects of museum visits on our mental health. Some studies report that museums help reduce anxiety and stress and feelings of loneliness, simply put, museums make us happy. They also allow family bonding, I witnessed this first hand as I saw proud parents encourage their children’s enthusiasm, standing outside in the hot sun so that their children could have an opportunity to excavate a skeleton from a sand pit, waiting patiently while they placed bones in the correct positions and celebrating with them when they completed the task. I met a family who had come to our exhibit and whilst their daughters excavated, I spoke to the parents, both of whom are engineers by training. The father explained to me that the youngest daughter has been fascinated with archaeology and palaeontology for a few years (she was probably 9 years old when we met), so they’ve taken her to see the home of dinosaurs in Clarens and on this holiday they brought her to the Cradle of Humankind. Her dad asked me about career options, what she would need to study at school and how she can enter the field. I was blown away that they expressed such support for her interests so early in her life, it’s parents like hers that give me hope for more women to join my field! As we’ve discussed many times here at SAYAS, strong support systems are crucial.

As I mentioned earlier, I LOVE museums and have been fortunate enough to visit museums in Africa, North America and Europe. My favourite museum has to be the National Museums of Kenya where I attended a conference in 2016, it is massive and constantly buzzing with life. There are many schools and hundreds of students who pass through the gates every day, I think that made it even more amazing, the atmosphere was filled with excitement constantly.

lisbon museums

In 2017, I ventured to the USA to attend the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) meeting which took place in New Orleans (a complete dream come true) and true to my love for museums, I boarded a boat called the Creole Queen and went on a one-woman trip to a former plantation which now serves as a museum, this was an incredible experience although very solemn and humbling.


ripleysWhen I left for Los Angeles to work with my supervisor who is based there, I visited the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, I may be giving away my age here but I loved that show growing up! In 2018, I attended the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE) meeting with a group of researchers from South Africa. We spent a few days in the city of Lisbon where we visited many museums but my favourite was the Lisboa Story Centre, I enjoyed the simplicity of the exhibits and how modern the set up was, definitely something to do if ever you find yourself in the city!

International museums are a fun time but learning about your own country is equally entertaining and important. I have been able to see many of the natural history museums here because of my field of study, my personal favourites are: Iziko Museums (because you can literally walk under the skeleton of a whale), Ditsong Museums (because it is home to one of my favourite fossils Mrs Ples and one of my favourite curators Dr. Mirriam Tawane) as well as the Origins Centre (it is down the road from my house and they host many fun activity days as well as the most interesting public talks). There are many, many other museums throughout the country, a list can be found here and you can see what local museums appeal to you. Remember, museums need foot traffic in order to keep their doors open so your visit helps ensure that it stays open and inspires the next generation of researchers, teachers, historians and explorers.