A new kind of scientist

I had some time to reflect on my career after the Science Forum South Africa meeting at the CSIR in December last year. Before I began my postgraduate journey, I thought that pursuing a PhD was all about equipping me with the skills I needed to do a job or more specifically to be a scientist. Back then I didn’t understand what a scientist really was.

While the movie Outbreak did give me an idea, some of my teachers and even my dad painted a completely different picture. To them, a scientist worked in a lab, wore a white coat and did really complicated experiments to test hypotheses. Scientists didn’t venture out, they only cared about publishing and, where they could, they stayed away from the limelight. Over the years I have met some scientists like that but there weren’t many.  Was this the career I really wanted to follow?

Yes. My love for science and the need to satisfy my curiosity overpowered any stereotypes that might have discouraged me. Fortunately, as I started on this journey, I learned very quickly that a scientist was nothing like what was described to me—unless you wanted to be that kind of scientist. Being a scientist was so much more.

Why was I thinking about this after the Science Forum? For anyone who hasn’t been to one, I encourage you to attend. It really is something special. The forum brings together scientists, journalists, policymakers, business people, etc., from around the world, to discuss the importance of science, technology and innovation for development of the African continent. It also seeks to unify the African science community so that we can work more closely together to build a better continent for everyone.

The scientists I observed at the forum weren’t wearing lab coats, they weren’t hiding in their labs, and they weren’t sitting in a corner huddled over a laptop. The scientists I met were leading panel sessions and science talks. They were asking questions of other scientists, policy makers and business people. Some scientists weren’t scientists anymore — at least in the strict sense — they were starting their own companies, managing others, running communication firms, doing PR, advising ministers and so on. These scientists were different.

While the training of scientists hasn’t changed too much over the years, there are a number of critical skills, general and field dependant, which one will acquire. Outside of science, companies have found many of these skills useful for other tasks. Ever analysed large amounts of information with some comparative work? You might want to look at becoming a market research analyst. There are many more examples where training in STEM can be used for a variety of jobs—old and new.

SAMSUNG CSC
Mulalo Doyoyo: an engineer and researcher from Limpopo who is a business owner, inventor and lecturer
Mamphela Ramphele
Mamphela Ramphele is a South African doctor, struggle icon, academic, top business woman and author.

 

Elon Musk
Elon Musk is a South African-born Canadian American who studied Physics and became a business magnate, investor, and philanthropist.

 

As scientists we are rather lucky. There aren’t many careers which offer the same kind of flexibility and allow you to diversify. Being a scientist is not a dead end (nor is the path there straight). I have found that as a scientist— a microbiologist, in my case—I have been given more opportunities than I could have dreamed of. Yesterday, I took part in a science communication competition. Today, I have written a blog piece. Tomorrow, I will lead a discussion inspiring young scientists. The day after that, I will carry on my experiments. In a few years, I might lead a panel discussion on policy change in Africa at the Science Forum as CEO of my own private consulting firm; or perhaps I will be on a tropical island somewhere celebrating my Nobel Prize(!). As a scientist, we don’t need to keep our science in the lab, there’s a wide world out there that needs a new kind of scientist.

 

Building a cohesive world

“Dream,” by Mathapelo.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 9th HOPE Meeting in Japan, with 110 delegates. This was quite an educational and exciting opportunity. Apart from learning about the culture and people of Tokyo, which included writing in Japanese, we had the chance to interact with Nobel Laureates. Through their unwavering consistency, these researchers achieved major scientific discoveries.

A Nobel Prize medal that belongs to Professor von Klitzing.

They, of course, gave us lectures on their Nobel winning work, but we were also given the opportunity, in small group sessions, to have discussions with the Laureates. These included their mindset, postgraduate journey, challenges and triumphs. They highlighted their need for consistently seeking knowledge, asking and answering questions differently, as well as resolving problems. They key driver to their success was the environment they were in at every stage of their lives.

The need to create relationships with people not only assisted them in growing as individuals, but also fostered their involvement in intercontinental research.

Team K

And we had the experience of true team-work and thinking with those who can challenge you. We we placed in teams, comprising exceptional doctoral and post-doctoral students from the Asian-African-Pacific regions. WOW!!! My passion was truly galvanized by this group of individuals. All teams arrived at similar conclusions: if we don’t work together, our progress as a world will be tainted. And, if we resolve mundane or even global problems, do the people who can use these solutions have access to them? We need to create platforms that ensure that science is not restricted to formal publications, but is distributed to societies through platforms they regularly have access to.

Photoshoot

Each delegate also had the opportunity to present their work. This was done in the form of a 60 second presentation and poster! If you haven’t done this before, you have no idea how hard it is to condense your life’s work into a single minute…The works covered ranged from chemistry to out of this world science (astronomy). I left the meeting feeling that the future is indeed bright in the hand of the young people I met there.

As we thrive to become individuals in a world full of pressures, in addition to inner drive, it is through the relationships we build that we are propelled into becoming better beings. Most of the idioms that carry us through the perils of life, mostly talk about giving rather than receiving. A Chinese adage I often reflect on speaks to “the life of a candle never getting shortened by giving light to another”. We cannot evolve as individuals and society without the aid of people that we come along in our path. On the whole, South Africa – at its best – is a true reflection of this example. Ubuntu: working together, encouraging each other and effectively bringing change to our world.