The art of learning

Let me stop you right there. I’m not going to give you tips on how to ace your next exam, or the best method for memorising chemical formulas. Instead, I’m going to share with you one of the now-best experiences of my life, and from that, I’m sure you’ll get the “lesson” (see what I did there?).

Can you imagine studying the sun for 4 years of your life, and then, suddenly changing course to study the planet Earth? Seriously, who would be silly enough to do that? Me. I am said person. Although in my case, I studied biochemistry for 4 years and then suddenly decided to switch to cancer biology in my PhD. Crazy right?

“Yes, you’re crazy, so why make this switch in the first place?” After completing my Masters, I desperately wanted a change in my life, and I knew that it had to start with my PhD. I was always two-minded between biochemistry and cell biology. Since I experienced biochem, I decided to give the other field a shot (also, cancer research is really cool!). After being lucky enough to land a cool cancer project along with an empowering supervisor, the hard part began. I mean, how do you get a TERMINAL degree in a field you have absolutely no experience in (excluding the one or two undergrad practical’s)? You LEARN.

“So, she’s changed from biochemistry to cancer biology…Is that a big deal?” YES, in biochemistry I only dealt with proteins and the only time I worked with cells was to get my protein. On the other hand, EVERYTHING in CELL biology revolves around cells. Besides reading papers, designing experiments and the occasional pity-party, that’s about the only similarities between these two fields in terms of techniques.

Of course, I knew this would be a challenge, but oh boy was it the biggest challenge I ever experienced. Let’s start off easy:

  1. The proposal: From the years of scientific research experience, writing up a project proposal wasn’t too difficult considering I knew the basics to get me started. However, entering the field of cancer research was TOUGH, to say the least! I had dozens of papers and no clue where to start. Between you and I…I still can’t believe I pulled off that research proposal.

“How would you rate your experience?”

2/5. Not happy.

  • New team: Leaving my old research team was another toughie. During my first year of research, we usually came in a group to meet our new lab mates, so I was always comfortable knowing I had my usual peers around me. This time, it was different, it was just me, and yes, I was quite nervous about meeting these new people. But this experience turned out better than I had expected. Without having anyone to lean on, I was forced to become more extroverted than normal and within my first week, I was already feeling both comfortable and welcomed in my new setting. I realised how capable I am of breaking into new environments and forming relationships with those around me.

“How would you rate your experience?”

3.5/5. Feeling great.

  • Lab work: I’m not going to sugar‑coat this part. I killed my cells, I contaminated my cells, I used a colleague’s WHOLE bottle of media (by mistake OF COURSE), I incorrectly made-up cell stocks for the entire first month, and the list goes on. I laugh about it now, but at some point, during those times, I really felt like giving up. There were days where I questioned whether switching my field at this point in my academic career was the right move.

“How would you rate your experience?”

1/5. I’m crying myself to sleep.

Present day: Fast forward a couple of months and I’m proud to say that I am still here, standing tall. So, let’s re-evaluate those experiences, shall we?

  1. The proposal:

Achievements unlocked: The ability to read, understand and communicate science in more than one field (which I am currently proud to be using as a freelance scientific/medical writer 😊)

  • New team:

Achievements unlocked: Self-reliance, the ability to network and form interpersonal relationships, strengthened team-player skills.

  • Lab work:

Achievements unlocked: Training on new lab techniques, alternative data analysis methods, exposure to multiple lab environments. P.S. My cells are now healthy and alive.

So, whether it’s a new job, field of research or complete diversion from your usual activities, there is always one constant challenge, that is, to LEARN. It’s always tough at first, but the lessons prepare you for an amazing future. Of course, I still have a lot of challenges on the way, but as long as I continue to learn, then I have nothing to lose, right?

Presenting at the SSAG-SAAG 2021 Online Conference.

During my PhD, I have been conducting research to produce the first peatland map of the Angolan Highlands. As a young scientist, the opportunity to present this research at a conference was extremely exciting. Academic conferences provide a platform in which you can showcase your research to an expert audience, demonstrating your research techniques, results, and conclusions. Conferences are also an opportunity to network with fellow researchers and engage in scientific conversation.  

The Society of South African Geographers (SSAG) and Southern African Association of Geomorphologists (SAAG) are professional bodies who specialise in conducting research in both geography and geomorphology within the Southern African context. A joint online conference was held online from the 6th to the 8th of September 2021. My supervisor, Professor Jennifer Fitchett had encouraged me, along with many of her other students, to present my research at the conference.

It was my first time attending a conference, let alone presenting at one. I was scheduled to present results from the research I had conducted. I was due to present on Tuesday the 7th, the Monday was a completely brand-new experience for me. Through my inexperience of having attended conferences, I expected that the conference would simply be filled with many presentations just as my own.

To my delight, the conference was in fact a lot more than just presentation after presentation of research projects and publications. For example, a panel of academics and professionals spoke about their experiences during the pandemic, which gave me a sense of awe. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, ‘I am not alone. The troubles that I have endured, had been endured by many others as well’. Although sad to hear about people struggling during troubled times, their words provided immense comfort to me.

After learning an incredible amount from the first day, I took away some distinct lessons from those that had already presented. The most captivating presentations were by those who were able to convey the message of their research through a compelling story. These storytellers, to no surprise, were usually those with incredible research experience. I truly admired the way in which they simplified complex research into well rounded and comprehensive stories, creating genuine interest and intrigue in me. I also learned that keeping to time is of critical importance in the conference as facilitators place time caps on individual speakers. We had a total of ten minutes to present, with five minutes for questions.

Tuesday came as quick as a flash, and before I knew it, I was called to start my presentation. I was well prepared; I had my presentation ready to go and I wanted to start off on a good note. First impressions last forever, even online ones. My presentation was entitled: Towards a peatland inventory for the Angolan Highlands using Google Earth Engine where I presented the very first peatland map for the region.

The online audience who attended had prominent researchers who have research interests in peatlands, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Remote Sensing (RS). These were the main scientific disciplines and tools that I had used for this research. During my presentation, I felt that I presented well. I kept to my time limit, and I felt that the message of the research was conveyed effectively. I received positive feedback, and I was able to answer all questions adequately. It was a great success; all the hard work and practice had paid off.

The remainder of the conference was an absolute blast for me, I could finally relax and enjoy the presentations even more so now that I had finished my own. It was a breath of fresh air for us geographers who have been away from our research sites. Seeing new research, faces and ideas was much needed.

All good things must come to an end, after three academically stimulating days, the conference had ended. I am so thankful that I could participate alongside my colleagues, supervisor, and fellow researchers, some of which I had only read their work and never met. In the end, I truly felt as though I was made to feel part of the SSAG and SAAG family. I cannot wait for the next Biennial SSAG Conference at the University of Pretoria in 2022.