Being a SAYAS blogger – a worthwhile experience for young scientists

Dear SAYAS blogger 2021, oh yes, you are among the four chosen ones! I would like to welcome you to the 2021 SAYAS blog team! Congratulations!!!” – This is one of the best emails I have received in the year 2021. Little did I know that it was the beginning of an interesting journey as a science blogger.

For many of us in the academic space, communication of our work and experiences is limited to the peers in our respective fields of study. We communicate through publication of research articles, and when we meet in conferences. We barely get the opportunity to discuss our work with a large audience outside academia, or indeed even outside of your specific field! In 2020, I was excited when I heard of a blogging competition by the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS). The competition set out to identify young researchers, who will form part of a team to publish monthly blogs on the SAYAS blog website. Since 2016, this platform has served as a voice of scientists that helps to bridge the gap between science and society. I submitted my documents for the competition, and I was fortunately selected to be part of the 2021 blogging team.

Though it feels short-lived, this has been an interesting journey with a lot of valuable lessons. My first task was to write a blog to introduce myself and narrate my academic journey. This was not much of a challenge, as I often have to write bios when applying for various opportunities in research. However, the second blog we had so submit was a mammoth task. We had to create a vlog showing how a typical day of a researcher goes. This was particularly challenging because, as academics, we often never document what we get up to beyond the academic environment. With guidance from the blog editors, I filmed and published the vlog, which I shared on my Facebook and got an overwhelming response. This vlog remains the major highlight of my journey with SAYAS.

Subsequent to this, I published more blogs relating to:

Without the help of SAYAS blog editors, these blogs have not been a success, I value appreciate their assistance. The editors were helpful in guiding us on how to write in a manner that can be easily understood people outside academia. Blogging for SAYAS has been a great platform to improve written communication skills, and I really encourage other young scientist to participate in this or similar blogging platforms. This is my final blog on this platform, it has been wonderful sharing my thoughts and life experiences with you. Please do, however, look out for more posts from the 2022 SAYAS bloggers next year, as they share their various thoughts and experiences in science.

Taking on new challenges and exploring new activities like blogging is necessary for personal growth. However, it may come at a cost of consuming time for mainstream activities such as work and studies. In addition to blogging, I also took part in assisting at the University of Pretoria’s COVID-19 vaccination site. Although taking part in these new activities did consume a little bit of my time, it did not have a drastic effect on my work activities and PhD progress. With blogging, I could use my spare time during weekends to write monthly articles, and with vaccination, I used my off days to assist at the vaccination site. Therefore, both these activities perfectly fit into the typically busy journey towards obtaining my PhD. Looking in retrospect, 2021 has been a great year full of new experiences, and given the chance, I would do it all over again. I am looking forward to take on more interesting challenges in the coming years, and I recommend you to do so too.

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.