The Unsung Heroes of Palaeosciences

In 2016, I found myself in the beautiful country of Kenya alongside a team of researchers, curators and technicians from South Africa. We were in Kenya to attend a workshop titled: Developing a collaborative pan- African approach between partner institutions in support of palaeoscientific research training and public outreach. This was the very first time I was exposed to the ‘behind the scenes’ work of palaeosciences and just how much it impacted the research I so loved.

Unsung heroes of palaeosciences Nairobi

During our time in Kenya, we attended the Unsung Heroes of Palaeontology awards ceremony, hosted at the National Museums of Kenya. I was so overwhelmed with pride when I found out that two members of our travel party were being honoured at this event, Mr Lazarus Kgasi (Senior Curatorial Assistant at Ditsong Museums) and Ms Zandile Ndaba (whom I affectionately call ‘Mama’, Technician/caster/ excavator and explorer at University of the Witwatersrand). These two incredible individuals were being celebrated for their contributions to our science, for their role in uncovering pieces of our history that help us understand who we are today, where we came from and how we fit into the puzzle of life on earth. Many other prominent fossil finders, technicians and curators were celebrated from East Africa, an evening dedicated to their contributions, but I could not help but wonder when I left, what happens now?

Often, when we discuss ‘equality’, ‘transformation’ and ‘diversity’ in academic spaces, we are usually only referring to academics and not other members of our team and community which includes technicians. When we fight for fair pay, fair treatment and recognition, I hope that we always remember that not all our colleagues are scientists in the traditional sense, but that their contributions to the science are by no means any less. Technicians perform a wide variety of roles in palaeosciences, I list a few below:

  • They are often fossil finders at the forefront of excavations (they are so talented that they can spot a fossil before any researchers do usually).
  • They are the first to see a fossil after hours and sometimes years of preparation using fine tools such as air scribes (in my eyes, they are the ones who breathe life into rock so that the scientist can tell the story). Check out this cool fossil preparation time-lapse video!
  • They assist in the education of future generations of researchers through their incredible artistry when casting fossils (we have some of the most talented casting technicians in the world and their casts are used globally in schools and museums to teach the history and importance of fossil finds in Africa)
  • They are teachers. During my time in Kenya I was exposed to the chemistry behind cast making, the big data management behind curating and the project management behind excavations. These individuals are not only technical staff, but they are also highly trained, highly specialised individuals with a vast amount of knowledge that I personally think most researchers take for granted.

zandile ndabaIn the past, technicians were often exploited, coming from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, with not many options for further education. This led to their contributions being largely ignored, while researchers accepted the glory that came along with significant finds. This is an especially sensitive reality in South Africa, where the technical workforce consisted of mostly Black Africans (and still does today). Is one prize giving in their lifetime enough? Is one moment to recognise all they have done really going to make a difference?

While I completely agree that it is important to celebrate these moments, I do believe that a greater impact, a greater change and a more meaningful exchange would be to invest in the present and future of technical work in the palaeosciences and the role of these individuals in our ongoing research. This includes skills development and certification and proper compensation. Funding is often tight in the field of palaeosciences but that can no longer be used as an excuse to exploit the hard work of individuals who deserve more, more support from us as academics, students and colleagues.

This change is on the way as more people acknowledge the contributions of technicians in their research papers, sometimes (but not often enough) they are included as co-authors. However, this is not the norm and it should be, their contributions often lay the foundation for research work. As a young woman of colour in science, I firmly believe that I cannot thrive in a research space until we all do. Aviwe Matiwane Kim Tommy

Last year, in celebration of Heritage Day, I was fortunate to give a talk at the First South African Fossil Hunters public symposium alongside my dear friend (and super incredible palaeobotanist and science communicator) Ms Aviwe Matiwane, a PhD Candidate at Rhodes University and Albany Museum. Aviwe and I had been in discussions for a while on what we would present, we had both agreed that we wanted to take this opportunity to highlight members of our community that are often forgotten. Before ending off this blog post I would like to thank the technicians and curators who have made an impact on my life. Our science is so much better for having you in it. Thank you for inspiring me, encouraging me, supporting me and motivating me. You are deeply appreciated and valued, and I promise that when we fight for a better future, we include you in it.  

The hand that rocked The Cradle of Humankind

I remember as a child I was obsessed with documentaries on Ancient Egypt, I would stare at the TV screen as though in a trance. 

Maropeng, Cradle of Humankind

For years, I spent time feeding my fascination for ancient people and culture, completely unaware of the treasure trove of evolutionary history 20 minutes away from my childhood home. I – now a paleoanthropologist- was completely unaware of the treasure of The Cradle of Humankind. The Cradle of Humankind plays a pivotal role in our understanding of our evolution as a species and I had never been there, not even once until I began my postgraduate degree in this remarkable field. This may seem like an odd confession but the more I read about it the more I realise that my experience (or lack thereof) was not unique.

Recently, a PhD candidate from the University of Edinburgh, Elsa Panciroli wrote an article for The Guardian on the image problem in palaeontology where she highlighted the barriers to diversity and the stereotypes that drive them. If ever you have watched “Jurassic Park”, “Indiana Jones” or even “The Mummy” you would notice that most of the heroes/scientists in these film share one commonality- they are all white males. This image has dominated the science since the early days with many women and people of colour actively excluded from the mainstream narrative.

jurassic world4
Do you see any similarities?

Could it be that I did not know about palaeontology because I was never actually the targeted candidate, groomed to become one? Could it be a systemic problem that has resulted in a lack of representation, specifically of African researchers? This, in a field that prides itself on our fossil record but too often, disregards the potential of African academics.

We often hear the term “representation matters”, it has even become a popular hashtag on Twitter but it is so much more than just a social media slogan, it is a mindset that should be adapted in every industry. As a young woman of colour in the field of palaeosciences, it was (and still is) important for me to see people like me in this space, and not only in the space but in senior positions.

In 2017, Dr Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane became the curator of Plio-Pleistocene palaeontology at the Ditsong Museums of South Africa (she was also the first Black woman in South Africa to graduate with a Doctorate in palaeoanthropology) and for the very first time, I felt like I belonged. Dr Tawane is a phenomenal researcher and mentor, alongside other trailblazers such as Dr Dipuo Kgotleng and Dr Nonhlanhla Vilakazi of the University of Johannesburg. It still amazes me that in 2019 we are still seeing “firsts” as in “the first Black woman to achieve x.y,z”. But how do we change this? And indeed many will ask, is it even important that we do?

Dr Gaokgatlhe Mirriam Tawane, from the Ditsong Museums of South Africa

The answer to the latter is a resounding YES, it is important that we actively strive to change the perception of palaeosciences (and STEM careers in general) so that we introduce diverse narratives to an otherwise monotonous story. It is important because there are many South African schoolchildren who enjoy evolution and cherish their experiences at places like The Cradle of Humankind but who will never know that we need them to keep that spark alive and join us in academia.

The answer to the former question is a lot more complicated, how do you change a system? I do not have the answers to that, in my naivety I hope to change the world but practically this has to be a team effort and this team includes the demographic palaeontology was originally catered for, senior white men. Dr Kathleen Grogan so eloquently stated this idea in her recent Nature Ecology & Evolution article discussing gender bias in the workplace when she said, “Water can’t fix the leaks in the pipeline.”

leakey pipeline
The leaky pipeline of women in STEM

In order to address racial inequality and a lack of diversity in any field, we require an open, honest and uncomfortable conversation with all those who love science. We also need to actively ensure exposure to these fields in primary school, keeping that interest alive well into tertiary education. This means scrutinizing our outreach efforts as researchers in the field, policy makers and educators.

Often, calls for change are misinterpreted as disdain for a system, actually, it is a way of showing you care enough to know it can be better. I criticize my science because I love it, because I believe in its ability to unite people but I truly believe that we need the study of evolution, to actually evolve. How many women, how many Africans and how many people of colour with unique perspectives and a love for the science have we already allowed to seep through the cracks of a dated pipeline? I know I am not willing to lose another, not even one drop.