Working and swiping my way towards a guiding thread

At the age of 32, it feels like a very long time ago that I worked as a journalist in my early 20s. It is the profession I saw myself growing into when I was younger and the one that I approached with vigour after school through various internships. My ongoing freelance work next to my first-year university studies at a local newspaper in Germany offered me a glimpse into the politics embedded in conveying stories through this medium. Realising its limitations made me pursue my anthropological studies even harder, which, unlike the form of journalism I had encountered, permitted a long-term, in-depth approach to analysing everyday phenomena. At the same time, it allowed me to cultivate my passion for writing. My university studies also led me to permanently re-locate to South Africa 10 years ago.

Fast forward: currently, I am a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. Here, I have spent the past three years doing research and writing my thesis on the behavioural use of the dating application Tinder. This involved using Tinder to recruit study participants and grappling with how – and with whom – intimacy is cultivated in Cape Town, starting with right and left swipes on online profiles. The focus of the ethnography resulting from this lies on how individuals perceive themselves and others in a partially cybernated process of relating and the ways in which these perceptions are reflected in interactions. Identity formation as well as the interplay of structural influences and individual behaviour also played a crucial part in my ethnographic studies on male refugees in Cape Town and on suburban neighbourhood surveillance. Both were awarded with a distinction and published as monographs with Langaa RPCIG. I am also currently contributing to a research project on professional identity formation among first-in-family students at the faculty of engineering at UCT.

My journey thus far writes itself rather easily. However, it is only now that I feel I can draw out a consistent, guiding tread across it. For the most part, things seemed topsy-turvy and very much characterised by unknown factors, including visa issues and concerns about securing financial support. What I discovered relatively early as a theme and as fuel to keep me pursuing my studies is a passion to engage with the lived experiences of people. Looking back, I can now claim this to be evident in my endeavours to date, just like my profound interest in facilitating dialogue across and beyond disciplines. Yet, these things only filtered through more clearly with time. I consider myself lucky in having developed a genuine desire to immerse myself in study contexts in an engaged, enthusiastic manner. It is even luckier that I had the opportunity to nourish this desire throughout my scholarly career so far. This includes my studies at UCT and my work as a Junior Research Fellow at the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at the University of KwaZulu Natal. The most interesting moments have been the ones in which heads were conceptually bumped. Working on and with digital technologies for my PhD got me involved in the Digital Humanities (DH) community and I am among the founding members of the Digital Humanities African Network (DHAfricaN), which is a needed extension of DH scholarship towards perspectives of the global South. I also started regularly contributing to workshops and conferences across the globe, which the ongoing global pandemic has rendered more accessible in an online format. These engagements have been particularly exciting, as they opened up a lot of ground for discussion and, thus, for me to spin the proverbial ‘guiding tread’ of my voyage further.

I am still eager to extend discussions even further and make them accessible to a wider audience – not specific to disciplines and not even necessarily limited to the academic ivory tower. This is why I started writing my own blog (The Junck report), which is my way of marrying my love for social anthropology on the one hand and my persistent devotion to journalism on the other. As I am typing away on my thesis and thinking about how my many years at university (mostly at UCT) have shaped me, I want to share more of my experiences and, through them, connect with people on a similar or perhaps rather different journey. The SAYAS blog is a great opportunity to do so.


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”.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.