Be part of the global and national “voice” of science: G200 YF, SAYAS, ASLP, GYA and other acronyms

In current global economic and political conditions, the role of socially responsible science is stressed for its importance. To my mind, it is every scientist’s obligation to join the global voice in the quest towards sustainable solutions and a better future for the generations to come. Without even realising I was doing it, I have been part of international movements the last four years that has made me hopeful for the future: young people with potential, dream and willingness to fight against all hurdles and challenges.

To start with and as a good academic that follows rules, the first time I use an acronym I should expand and define it, so G200 YF: G200 Youth Forum SAYAS: South African Young Academy of Science; GYA: Global Young Academy; ASLP: Africa Science Leadership Programme.

The first time I was part of an “acronym” was back in 2015 at the G200 Youth Forum 2015 that took place at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. To put myself into perspective, I was fresh out of my PhD, only four years after and I was an early career researcher. Having little to no understanding of the science community, having very little experience in multidisciplinary projects and of course, little confidence in myself, in retrospect, I realise I did not exploit the opportunity in full. I made my presentation, discussed about my paper, and participated in sessions relevant to my research field, met a few interesting people but that’s where it stopped. If I could turn back time, I would have been more active in my interactions and engagements; I would have raised my hand and taken more responsibilities that week; and I would not have been self-conscious to start a discussion with others.

A few years fast forward, in 2017, the SAYAS Call for members came into my hands (by the way it is open now for 2019 until the 31st of May). To be completely honest, my first thought was “how do they define science?” – The typical and continuous debate of the complementarity or competition between “hard” and social sciences. So, being a true academic, I spent time reading on the definition of science: here from the Oxford Dictionarythe intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”.

22338882_10155562553410211_1091434364456531834_o

Oh phew I am also a scientist!!!! I applied…and I got in. My first year started and I had made the most common mistake in these cases: I thought that being a member of an Academy is the destination and the end of the journey. Wrong! It is the beginning of the journey. In the last few years in SAYAS, I met inspiring individuals and I had discussions that challenged my traditional way of thinking. “Exploiting” in a way my passion to provide a channel for the youth’s voice to the society, I accepted to continue the effort of my fellow SAYAS member, Prof Aliza Le Roux, and took over the editor’s position of the SAYAS Blog.

A few months later, I received an email about the Global Young Academy (GYA). At this point, I should mention that without the support of my own institution I would not even KNOW of all these opportunities, let alone apply or being successful at them. Of course, reading about the GYA I realised that we are talking about a completely different game now. With a “when in doubt, apply” mindset, I applied and voila!, I got accepted. This time, I was more prepared and knew that this is the beginning of a new journey.

However, here also, I fell in the next most usual “trap”. I wanted to participate in everything; I wanted to hear about everything and have my say in everything; the working groups were many and all had (and have) so many interesting activities. Receiving all those emails overwhelmed me and unfortunately missing the AGM in 2018 did not particularly help me. An email to – then- GYA co-chair – Prof Tolullah Oni expressing my feeling of overwhelm and she knew whom I should talk to. And he was right here, at the University of Pretoria. Meeting Prof Bernard Slippers, one of the founding members of GYA, made a difference – a coffee for an hour and I put so many things in perspective. I still felt that I wanted to participate in every single opportunity given but now I had an idea on how to do so. And I promised I would NOT miss the next AGM!!!!

A few months later, Prof Slippers introduced me to the Africa Science Leadership Programme (ASLP) of Future Africa firstly as an observer in a meeting. The excitement and enthusiasm of the fellows that have been in the programme intrigued me. What have they seen that I had not? And that was enough for me to decide to apply. I was selected among the 20 people from all over the African continent that came together in March 2019 to discuss the future of the continent’s science community.

2019
The African continent’s potential is great! 

The programme changed me personally and academically. From a promotion of science point of view, we were introduced to leadership concepts and practices, science communication skills training, profiling of ourselves within a team environment, and a number of other tools.

54799877_10156823667720211_4155400899197403136_o

My colleagues have taught me so many things in this week and I am proud to call them my family – my ASLP5.1 family (as we were the 5th cohort of the programme). Changing our mentality from focusing on the problems we face into converting them into questions for pursuing possible solutions is not easy in the work environment nor in our private life, but the ASLP facilitators made sure all participants understand that value and will at least make an effort in the future. Our common vision of an African continent that becomes the place to be will forever stay within my heart.

Not even a month from an emotional “goodbye and see you again” to my ASLP family, I found myself in Halle, Germany for the GYA AGM in 2019. If I thought the GYA electronic communication and the ASLP were life-changing experiences, I had not seen anything yet. 200 people from all over the world joined “forces” to discuss issues of enlightenment, solutions for sustainable future, among others, and what’s more important: the group does not stay in discussions, all for action to take towards change. If that is not inspiring, I do not know what is.

 

To conclude, from this journey that hopefully, it has just begun, thus far, I have learned that scientists cannot complain that society and policymakers do not hear our voice. They will not hear our voice if we sit in our office and talk to each other. To maximise the scientific community’s impact, we need to organize ourselves and at the same time, we need to open the door to society to engage with us. Also, working alone and in silos does not work anymore – when did it ever work? The planet faces challenges that old-fashioned approaches have failed to tackle. Global and National Academies, whether young or senior, as well as programmes such as the ASLP provide the platform for collaboration, engagement and exchange of experiences and ideas. They also provide experiences that can widen one’s horizon and create open-minded and critical thinking scientists.

The constant hunt for research projects, writing proposals for research grants, the competitive nature of some colleagues, as well as the inherent nature of scientists are all reasons that the journey in academia can be a lonely one. But it does not have to – the sense of belonging when being a member in one or the other organised community can improve a scientist’s confidence. The interactions with people from different backgrounds and cultures that, however, have the same challenges, same aspirations, and the same need to change the world is comforting and inspiring at the same time.

So, if you are a young emerging researcher or a PhD candidate that wonders if this is for you, you will never know until you experience it. Apply, get accepted, and go for it. For those that say there is nothing like this in their country: well, there is your challenge – we will all support you and assist in starting a young academy for example or an association (part of my journey was also to initiate the creation of the South African Association for Energy Economics (SAAEE) which would not have happened if I did not value the idea of community).

Finally, if you have applied and you have not made it, why don’t you apply again? Every year’s cohorts are different – and if you need advice or just to discuss your application, you know where to find me. If this is something you really want, don’t give up – timing is crucial. Thinking back, if I went to the 2018 AGM, before the ASLP, I might not have gone with the most appropriate mindset to receive an offer to the experience overall (see my experience with the G200 Youth Summit).

D5bUVW9WkAU39Xm

 

Now, I know, for sure, I will never be the same person (academic, colleague, friend, sister, wife, mother) after meeting and interacting with tens of different people within the last couple of years. I know the impact on my life is immense; now I am looking forward to the specific impact I can make to the lives of others.

Blue skies and burnt trees

The Cape is a special place to do just about anything; surfing, whale watching, brewing, foresting and field tripping. On the 19th of August, I set off on a 3800 km journey to and around the Southern and Eastern Cape with one of FABI’s extension officers, Sandisiwe Jali, and two graduate students, Bianca Jardim and Sydney Sithole. The purpose of this field trip was to collect insect specimens and investigate various pest and disease issues in commercial forestry plantations. It isn’t often that the Tree Protection Co-operative Programme (TPCP) finds itself in the Cape, when compared to the much closer Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, which made this trip quite distinctive.

Field trips around South Africa are always memorable; you get to see more of this beautiful country, you get to interact more closely with other students, meet the people in the forestry industry, and put your finger on the pulse of plant health in SA. Our first stop was to Stellenbosch, wine country, to meet Deon Malherbe, a researcher at Stellenbosch University. Deon is monitoring a Eucalyptus (gum) trial, which was setup by Camcore–an international tree breeding organization–to look at the performance of various hybrids across different sites. This valuable trial is under attack by a number of Eucalyptus pests, which we helped Deon identify. Together, we worked out a scoring system for better assessing the damage caused by these insects.

From there, we set off east to Riversdale, about 50 km north of Still Bay, to collect a few pine logs containing the larvae of a woodwasp, Sirex noctilio. The larvae and adults of this wasp will be examined at FABI for the presence of a tiny worm, Deladenus siricidicola—a bio-control agent developed at FABI that has saved the South African forestry industry more than 400 million rand. Here we paused to take in some of the sights while we thought about what R400 million could buy you.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The next day, we continued east–towards Knysna–to meet Awelani Netshituka, a forester working for PG Bison at the Ruigtevlei office. Many parts of the Cape have been, and still are, at the mercy of a severe drought—the worst in 100 years. We were often reminded about using water sparingly by the little notes stuck on the walls near the taps and toilets of our accommodation. While the drought meant one couldn’t take long showers anymore, it also meant that much of the vegetation hadn’t had a good shower either. The dry conditions, high winds speeds and building fuel load led to the fires that swept through Knysna and the surrounding areas, claiming seven lives.

Awelani showed us some of the areas that had been devastated by the fires and the recovery operations under way to try and salvage some of the burnt timber. In the valley below the Ruigtevlei office, in front of thousands of dead trees, there are long lines of what looked like neatly stacked mounds of charcoal. When we asked what those lines were, we were told that they were the burnt logs they had harvested after the fire. They have harvested so much, the market is flooded. Now they have to try and store it! The arrangement of theses logs under sprinklers are called wet decks, which helps keep the wood moist until they can be used.

While many trees were harvested, the lesser-affected younger stands were left to recover. Awelani took us to some of these compartments. The prolonged drought has had a significant impact on these trees. They are trying to recover but without good rains they are being attacked by a number of different secondary or opportunistic pests and fungi, killing those too weak to put up a fight. And this wasn’t isolated to a single company or region. We saw more examples of this at a number of sites we visited.

For any industry growing plants and selling their products, climate is going to be a more important part of planning; for South Africa, a water scarce country, even more so. We are going to have to be smart with how we collect, store and recycle our water. For our plants, we are going to have to develop more efficient breeding strategies, develop and implement possible GMOs, and we are going to need more scientists to understand the effects of climate on pests and diseases because we are going to have many more blue sky days (no rain) and more burnt trees (any crop plant, really) if we don’t.