A Year of Blogging

In December 2021, I was selected from a number of South Africans to be one of the four 2022 science bloggers for the South African Youth Academy of Science (SAYAS). At first, I was shocked by the news of my selection into this wonderful team, and then I started to realise the impact I could make by talking about some of the most important issues in science. Fortunately, I would be able to communicate this through a platform that was already known and established, that is, SAYAS. So, what was it like being a SAYAS blogger? Is blogging an area I would like to venture further into?

Luckily for me, I had quite a lot of challenges and changes during this year, so coming up with topics relating to my personal science experiences was not too difficult. Additionally, writing, especially creative writing, is my favourite type of communication (yes, I prefer creative writing even though I’m a scientist). Blogging for me, felt quite therapeutic. It provided me with a creative outlet for my science “drama” and forced me to be more optimistic about some of the challenges I faced throughout the year. And of course, it was also fun! I thoroughly enjoy making content, whether it’s through a presentation or a written piece, that combines science with entertainment, and that’s exactly what I hope I achieved through my blogs and definitely with my Vlogs.

Before being part of the SAYAS team, I had never done a vlog. At first, it felt unnatural to be constantly videoing myself, from eating to driving to lab work. However, by my second vlog, I was very comfortable with both videoing and editing. So, that’s a great new skill I can add to my list. Thanks to SAYAS you might be seeing more of my face here and there! Additionally, these vlogs and blogs from other members of the team helped me learn more about other topics of research and helped me reach a realisation that MY topic is not the only important one in the field or, in the world.

Other than nurturing some skills through SAYAS blogs and vlogs, I also listed this experience on my CV and landed a part-time role in scientific writing. Additionally, this writing experience enhanced my science communication activities and interviews. So, all in all, being a SAYAS blogger not only provided me with a platform to “talk science” but also nurtured specific skills that could be used in science communication in corporate and non-corporate environments and in writing (scientific or non-scientific), which are both areas that I am continually exploring as a post-PhD career.

So, now that my SAYAS blogging experience is nearing its end, where am I headed? Well, since next year will be my final year of my PhD, I’m hoping to focus predominantly on my work. However, I hope to find a part-time or freelance opportunity which involves writing and talking science, as this would be a great way to earn some money and gain experience while completing my degree. Post-PhD, I aim to find a job in big pharma, or medical writing and, if all goes well, perhaps a role which combines my love for science and creative communications. Wherever my PhD takes me, I just hope its OUTSIDE of WITS, although I will always cherish my memories as a Witsie, I am definitely looking forward to the next chapter. I hope to keep my creative juices flowing by generating an online presence through more personal blogs, vlogs and science communication videos on Instagram. But most importantly, I would love to start working on a side business, one which actually combines both science and creativity. I already have the idea, but what’s an idea without the execution, right? So, perhaps we will meet again in the future and talk some science.

Now that my blogging days for SAYAS are over, what advice would I give to the SAYAS 2023 team? Simply be yourself and write about topics that matter and that other people can relate to. Also, market YOURSELF. You are a brand, so showcase your blogs and let everyone read them, friends, family, supervisors and colleagues. Write about your challenges and lows, not just about your achievements, because there may just be someone that needs your advice on how to deal with the same or similar situation. Alternatively, someone may just read about your challenges and could have a solution for you. So, be open, be yourself and be honest.

It has been a pleasure and privilege to be a part of the SAYAS 2022 team, I have learnt and grown through this experience. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity. And thank you to everyone who has read and supported my blogs. Also, a special thank you to Prof Jennifer Fitchett for her time, energy and leniency on my delayed blogs 😊 So, until the next time, that’s it from me.

For any science comm collabs/interviews/podcasts/projects please reach out: tasvidaya@gmail.com

The importance of “planning” during a PhD

I usually count myself lucky, because, in the programme I’m in at Wits, the maximum time it takes to complete a PhD is 4 years compared to many other universities and countries, in which a PhD is MINIMUM 3 years. NO THANK YOU. As much as I enjoy my work and work environment, I refuse to exceed the maximum duration of my PhD. Although, this is easier said than done. Let’s be honest, I don’t think anyone plans on extending their PhD, but given the circumstances, one has to be able to adapt, especially when studying towards a PhD. Nevertheless, apart from the uncontrollable forces (such as COVID-19) that keep you from reaching your milestones during a PhD, having a plan is the next best thing.

If you’re starting your PhD in the same lab, you worked in for your MSc, count yourself lucky. You don’t have to spend precious time being trained on new techniques, principles, equipment and so on. If you’re like me, I’m sure you already know how frustrating the entire process is (educational and advantageous…BUT frustrating). However, again, this is something you may not be able to control. Perhaps you’re in the same lab, but your PhD project is completely different to your Masters and requires just as much training and time. So, instead of focusing on these uncontrollable issues (which we tend to focus on the most!), you can focus on what you can control, and plan it!

Speaking about “uncontrollable issues” …let’s talk about South Africa’s biggest problem, load-shedding. Unfortunately, our country has been facing excessive load shedding during these past few months, and although costly, generators, inverters and solar panels seem like the best way forward to allow us to keep working consistently through the day, especially in the long run. During load shedding, we are fortunate enough to have a generator on campus, that is until the generator breaks down and we can say goodbye to all our hard work sitting in those -80°C freezers. Apart from that, when the generators are working, there are specific experiments or equipment that cannot be used due to the amount of energy it takes. So, load shedding definitely impacts the amount of work that can be done in a day. On the “bright” side, at least we have a load-shedding schedule so we can plan our days to some extent.

It’s imperative to start planning your experiments, setting realistic timelines, completing progress reports and scheduling presentations from the very start. That way, even if your plan starts to fall apart, you can always re-program your next few months. For example, I assumed that I would start my first batch of experiments in August 2021, and I will have completed those specific experiments by December 2021. Instead, there were a few issues with my cell lines, and I only ended up starting those experiments in September 2021 and finishing them off in the first week of Feb 2022. Although I deviated from my schedule, having it there and knowing that I was falling off-track motivated me to get work done. For me, that is the power of having a plan. It doesn’t keep you from falling behind, but it motivates you to keep going.

Doing a PhD means requires growing your project management skills. One other way to do this, besides your own personal planning, is to learn from your seniors. For example, a colleague of mine is involved in a pre-clinical trial, and since I will hopefully be involved in my own one next year, I was placed on this project by my supervisor. This allows me to experience the entire project while receiving training which would be advantageous to me when my time comes. I’ve also started to note down the most stressful parts of this project, such as the ordering of all the chemicals, flasks, drugs and mice, the advanced planning that is required, and some of the pressure points in the project. Having all this information and experience is like having a cheat sheet before my project starts. Apart from the experience of working on the project first-hand, I also listen and take the advice of my seniors in the lab. This includes tips on doing group experiments, prepping for future experiments, starting my write-up, and time management.

All these tips and plans are crucial for keeping me on track. I enjoy having a goal to strive for, but if I don’t achieve it, it only motivates me to keep going. And when you keep going, one experiment at a time, eventually, you’ll soon be able to see the finish line. Plan. Execute. Fail. Keep going!