Special Trials

It’s a time of rising stress levels here at FABI. Benedicta, a fellow PhD student in our research group, and I are running two big, important trials as part of our PhD’s and they need to be executed flawlessly. In the trenches – counting spores, cutting tips and inoculating trees with different strains of a plant pathogenic fungus – is where special bonds form.

Trials start off as ideas around a table with your advisors and as the months go by the trial begins to take shape, becoming something real. Scary, really! Looking back, when we spoke about inoculating 54 and 109 different strains, it seemed quite simple but the execution — as we found out yesterday and today — has been quite different.

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Benedicta, supervising

 

Benedicta, for her diligence and hard work, became the guinea pig.  She had gathered and prepared her isolates a full week before me and so we decided to move ahead with her trial. After a few sleepless nights and a bottle or two of Amarula (the small ones) she had a design and a plan in place. It was the day before the first batch of inoculations and everything was looking good… until it wasn’t.

 

In all the excitement, we didn’t realize that her design – a work of art and a statistical dream – just wasn’t practical for the limited help and time we had. After a couple of head-scratching moments and the advice of our wise advisors, we managed to come up with a new design to save the trial.

Today, we successfully inoculated the first part of Benedicta’s trial; approximately 2,500 trees with 109 different fungal strains. The replicate of this trial, which should go faster, will happen on Thursday, the 29th November. I then jump into the driver seat next week and we repeat it all again for my work.

I have learnt a lot over the past couple of weeks in preparation for these trials. 1) You might think you can do it on your own (and you probably can) but make your life easier by getting help. Fortunately for us, we have an incredible team of advisors, postdocs and students who are willing to help. 2) Science is messy. You can try control everything but there will always be things out of your control, just accept it. 3) If you see someone struggling, just take the time to help and comfort them; it means the world to them. Trust me, I know. 4) No task is too big when you have an excellent team supporting you. That goes for the PhD as well.

Our two trials will run till January, next year, and we hope that the results are promising so that we can welcome 2019 with success and another step towards the end of our PhD journeys.  I hope your 2019 will be successful too!

A week off…

So, I have to do analysis for pesticides and heavy metal analysis in water for my Master’s project. Unfortunately, we don’t have the equipment for that in our lab: I had to find a lab that does. Luckily enough, I discovered the University of Johannesburg’s Department

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The Analytical & Environmental Chemistry laboratory, UJ.

of Applied Chemistry, which heads up the Analytical & Environmental Chemistry Research laboratory. This research visit was truly a week off from my very typical and everyday academic life.

On my first day I joined the members of the research group in their preparatory presentations for an upcoming seminar. I always thought my research was isolated from the realm of the truth and practicality. Listening and watching different students at Masters and PhD level presenting their research on wastewater was really an awakening for me. If I wasn’t certain before, now I am sure that ecotox could become my life! A couple of studies caught my attention but I don’t want to give too much away…

 

One student was synthesizing a nano-composite to adsorb lead in the acid mine drainage. Another studied the desalination of seawater using a specific nano-composite, while somebody else tried to work out how to remove personal care products from water. As the students were presenting this work, in my mind I kept asking myself why I didn’t know about this stuff sooner. On the other hand, I was grateful I experienced this at this level of my study when I am still trying to find what I want to do for my next postgraduate program.

The second day was lab work. From learning to dilute concentrations and processes of preparing analysis reagents, it was a roller-coaster. I felt like a sponge – a rather happy sponge! The processes weren’t necessarily easy but it all just clicked. In a chemistry lab of all places! Without any further elaboration, let me just say I felt at home.

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Me, doing pesticide extraction using the solid-phase extraction method

One thing that stood out for me, apart from working with the amazing Prof Nomngongo and her students, was that the experience was the culmination of what I’ve been saying from the start. Through collaboration, interdisciplinarity and open-mindedness in research… this is how we build our research capacity in Africa. This is how we make science fun.