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. 

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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.

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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?

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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.”

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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.

It’s that wonderful time of the year…

It is Christmas time. Someone said a PhD student is not hard to shop for – just give them “time, patience, and steady job prospects”. And I like that very much. It is also that time of the year where we write Christmas cards to our family, friends and colleagues. “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year…” In lieu of my last blog here, I am writing a thank you note / Christmas letter to everyone remotely related to my PhD experience, including my future self.

My family

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With my youngest, he better not ask for co-authorship.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Your presence this year has reminded me that this journey is not mine alone, that other people have a stake in it too. I have loved simplifying my thesis in one sentence, literally explaining to a 6 year-old. Studying when you are around has trained me to be disciplined with my time; to focus on doing the meaningful stuff and taking the necessary breaks. Taking a break in the day to cook for us, and taking walks with you has been all the therapy I need. You are an important part of my identity, one that threatened to be consumed wholly by “being a PhD student”.

 

My parents/brothers and sisters (including in-laws)

Thank you for caring about my self-determination, and asking often, “how is school going?”, and “when do you finish?” Yes, as PhD students we often don’t like hearing these questions; so thank you for understanding and accepting the short and simple answers of  “it’s going” and “soon”. I really appreciate your big dreams for me; how you think I will be able to get any job I want as soon as I complete this degree. I am often too tired to discuss the reality, and I would rather have the positive affirmations.  You are a big part of my positive outlook on my future.

My supervisors

Thank you for being reliable, consistent and open about your own challenges and the nature of academia. Seeing you balance your own work and still giving me prompt and constructive feedback on my project is inspiring to me. I hardly have enough time for the PhD — and it is all I do — so I don’t know how you do all you do. I feel confident that in the next year we can build on the positive and productive momentum we have created, in order for me to submit my thesis. I will need what you have always provided in the past, which is your experience, wisdom and knowledge. I have learned so much from you in the past three years that I will keep with me when I become a supervisor too.

My PhD friends and colleagues

Thank you for the laughs and the inside jokes this year. Thank you for all the personal stories you have told me, and for making me comfortable to tell mine. It has been amazing the number of stories we could tell each other over lunch or dinner between intense, isolated work sessions. I was happy to be your springboard for ideas as you were mine. Thanks for nodding enthusiastically as I ranted on and on about my project and giving advice the best way you could J Thank you for reciprocally taking my advice as well, even going as far as calling it “great advice, thank you!” 🙂 We make each other feel and do better.

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Some PhD colleagues and friends at a recent writing retreat.

 

My school and funding body

Thank you for the financial and other support that enables me to dedicate all my time to this PhD. We complain it is not enough but even CEOs of Fortune 500 companies think they deserve more. And those guys get a lot; they categorically don’t deserve more. I digress. Thank you for always lending an ear to the ways in which students could feel more supported, and creating tools to ensure that it happens. Thank you for the analysis software licences, the retreats, the conferences, the journal clubs, the support for extra coursework you name it. Thank you for showing your compassion to starving students on campus – through the food donation drive and feeding schemes for the general student body. And thank you for being full of approachable world-class professors/lecturers who are willing to talk to you about your project and listen to your challenges even though they are not even your supervisors. Thank you to the university at large for the library resources I can access off campus and the librarians who are always online, ready to chat!

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With some PhD colleagues, supervisors, policymakers and funders at a recent conference

 

 

Government and the bodies that be

Thank you for your recognition of research as an essential part of the development of South Africa. Thank you for your subsequent endeavours to support students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Thank you for all efforts to make sure that you meet the demand for higher education in this country given the unique needs of this nation and the lack of resources we contend with. Thank you for any effort to ensure that resources are therefore not wasted but invested in the diverse and brilliant minds of this nation, from kindergarten to tenure. Thank you for any effort (now and/or future) to lend an ear to students and experts on how to positively transform higher education in South Africa to be an empowering space for students, their families and society in general.

The Universe

Thank you for the positive vibez… ha ha.

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Source: Unsplash

 

 

My future self

I have ended this year on a positive note, which is surprising because it has probably been the most challenging of my adult life.  This blog post has been an exercise in zeroing in on the positives all around me.  It is an exercise of self-preservation that is necessary to keep a balanced perspective on things. It’s easy for the brain to latch onto negative things and let those propel us to action or worse: inaction.  In contrast, the positive gifts all around us can provide the leverage to act in positive ways and do what is beneficial for ourselves and others. 2019 will be hard, with the anxiety to finish and to plan the next steps. Use anything positive around you, no matter how small, to cope. And just like that the year will be over and you will be writing a letter to your 2020 self.