The art of learning

Let me stop you right there. I’m not going to give you tips on how to ace your next exam, or the best method for memorising chemical formulas. Instead, I’m going to share with you one of the now-best experiences of my life, and from that, I’m sure you’ll get the “lesson” (see what I did there?).

Can you imagine studying the sun for 4 years of your life, and then, suddenly changing course to study the planet Earth? Seriously, who would be silly enough to do that? Me. I am said person. Although in my case, I studied biochemistry for 4 years and then suddenly decided to switch to cancer biology in my PhD. Crazy right?

“Yes, you’re crazy, so why make this switch in the first place?” After completing my Masters, I desperately wanted a change in my life, and I knew that it had to start with my PhD. I was always two-minded between biochemistry and cell biology. Since I experienced biochem, I decided to give the other field a shot (also, cancer research is really cool!). After being lucky enough to land a cool cancer project along with an empowering supervisor, the hard part began. I mean, how do you get a TERMINAL degree in a field you have absolutely no experience in (excluding the one or two undergrad practical’s)? You LEARN.

“So, she’s changed from biochemistry to cancer biology…Is that a big deal?” YES, in biochemistry I only dealt with proteins and the only time I worked with cells was to get my protein. On the other hand, EVERYTHING in CELL biology revolves around cells. Besides reading papers, designing experiments and the occasional pity-party, that’s about the only similarities between these two fields in terms of techniques.

Of course, I knew this would be a challenge, but oh boy was it the biggest challenge I ever experienced. Let’s start off easy:

  1. The proposal: From the years of scientific research experience, writing up a project proposal wasn’t too difficult considering I knew the basics to get me started. However, entering the field of cancer research was TOUGH, to say the least! I had dozens of papers and no clue where to start. Between you and I…I still can’t believe I pulled off that research proposal.

“How would you rate your experience?”

2/5. Not happy.

  • New team: Leaving my old research team was another toughie. During my first year of research, we usually came in a group to meet our new lab mates, so I was always comfortable knowing I had my usual peers around me. This time, it was different, it was just me, and yes, I was quite nervous about meeting these new people. But this experience turned out better than I had expected. Without having anyone to lean on, I was forced to become more extroverted than normal and within my first week, I was already feeling both comfortable and welcomed in my new setting. I realised how capable I am of breaking into new environments and forming relationships with those around me.

“How would you rate your experience?”

3.5/5. Feeling great.

  • Lab work: I’m not going to sugar‑coat this part. I killed my cells, I contaminated my cells, I used a colleague’s WHOLE bottle of media (by mistake OF COURSE), I incorrectly made-up cell stocks for the entire first month, and the list goes on. I laugh about it now, but at some point, during those times, I really felt like giving up. There were days where I questioned whether switching my field at this point in my academic career was the right move.

“How would you rate your experience?”

1/5. I’m crying myself to sleep.

Present day: Fast forward a couple of months and I’m proud to say that I am still here, standing tall. So, let’s re-evaluate those experiences, shall we?

  1. The proposal:

Achievements unlocked: The ability to read, understand and communicate science in more than one field (which I am currently proud to be using as a freelance scientific/medical writer 😊)

  • New team:

Achievements unlocked: Self-reliance, the ability to network and form interpersonal relationships, strengthened team-player skills.

  • Lab work:

Achievements unlocked: Training on new lab techniques, alternative data analysis methods, exposure to multiple lab environments. P.S. My cells are now healthy and alive.

So, whether it’s a new job, field of research or complete diversion from your usual activities, there is always one constant challenge, that is, to LEARN. It’s always tough at first, but the lessons prepare you for an amazing future. Of course, I still have a lot of challenges on the way, but as long as I continue to learn, then I have nothing to lose, right?

On academic detachment and relational research

A few months ago, I started a postdoctoral position at the University of Cape Town. Becoming part of an environment of active and supportive(!) scholarly exchange made me realise how much I had conditioned myself to work independently so far in my still rather pubescent academic life. While that is not a bad thing per se, I firmly believe that research is inherently relational. It is a form of knowledge production that requires a stimulus beyond stoically practicing data collection and writing in the ways we have learnt to be academically sound.

I have technically been working ‘from home’ for quite some years now. Doing my Masters by dissertation meant that I was only on campus for departmental seminars and irregular meetings with my thesis supervisor. This was after I had done a six-week qualitative research project on refugees in Cape Town and practices of dreaming for my Honours degree, which had given me an appetite for more in-depth research. I missed being part of academic life during my Masters but was really excited to conduct my first long-term ethnographic fieldwork. It allowed me the time and space to immerse myself in a topic for much longer – this time doing research on suburban neighbourhood surveillance groups. I would get a degree for spending my time observing, interviewing and writing – I was thrilled! And it really was a great experience at the time, even if not without ups and downs. I established my routines and enjoyed being able to do so without being impeded by class schedules and other academic obligations.

After embracing my degree certificate for my work, which, thankfully, had not felt torturously laborious for the most part, I worked for a health research organisation for three years remotely. Even though the topics I got to research interested me, my junior status and the fact that the project I was hired to work on did not materialise had me working on bits and pieces of other peoples’ projects. There was therefore no substantial, stimulating exchange with colleagues beyond brief Skype updates. When the situation did not change and funding became even more limited, I pursued my PhD on Tinder dating – another opportunity to spend A LOT of time talking to people about a topic that fascinates me.

I have always embraced a sense of independence. As a younger girl, I envisioned myself growing into a journalist when older, travelling around the world, covering all kinds of exciting topics. The anthropologist I grew to embody instead has roamed the world much less than I would have liked – mostly for funding reasons. I have, however, still managed to go out and explore the very themes I felt strongly about. It has taken a moment, but I feel like I’m getting closer to positioning myself in academia and thinking of myself as a ‘digital anthropologist’ – whatever that may actually mean. Especially through writing many an application in search for a postdoc, summarising my interests concisely over and over helped with that.

Having my first ‘proper’ (as in, fully paid) position pursuing my own research interests and now being part of a lively even if still remotely operating academic environment makes me feel the last years of academic detachment. Particularly so after the past 1.5 years of COVID-19-enforced remoteness. I am hungry for fieldwork and even more hungry for exchanging ideas with other scholars. Scholars, that is, who harbour a collaborative rather than a competitive sentiment – something that is not to be taken for granted.

I got a strong sense of what a collaborative spirit can do when attending my first hybrid workshop on UCT campus the other day. The big screen was not working and the five of us who were present in person were all still looking at our respective computer screens with our facial expressions hidden behind masks. And still, it was a very different feeling from following the same meeting from my kitchen table. The workshop went on for more than three hours, but I felt enlivened by the mere physical proximity of colleagues with whom I could exchange thoughts on our projects located within the same research cluster. It may have been the combination of the ability to share our progress and insecurities within this space, working on a similar research topic and having been deprived of unmediated support for a long time that made for this animating effect.

For me, the takeaway from these experiences is to, yes, embrace the autonomy research allows me when it comes to going to a certain field and approaching a topic in an exploratory manner – even though this autonomy in always also impeded by funding, institutional expectations and the pressures to fit moulds in academia. And the way things have panned out for me also cautions me to value not just my relations to the people I work with when conducting research but also academic environments that offer me space to develop frameworks to think with. Even if it is sometimes hard to admit, at the end of the day, none of it can be done alone.