What I get up to when I am not PhDing

One particular question I always struggle to answer is: “Keith, what are your hobbies?” This is due to the amount of time that research consumes, rendering it a challenge to have regular hobbies. Work does not simply end when I leave the university’s gates, as I often have to take some work with me to complete from home. This involves preparing lectures, reviewing documents submitted by junior students, writing papers, amongst a few other things. Working is an integral part of our daily routine, to the extent that I feel like academic responsibilities consume most of my time. Despite this, there are moments when I do find time for non-academic activities.

I love adventure and seeing new places when I do get the chance to. There’s this one activity I have always looked forward to doing for such a long time… skydiving, and I finally managed to go for a tandem jump at Skydive Pretoria early this year. I generally love aviation, but the idea of safely jumping off a moving aeroplane has always excited me. The experience I got was far much better than I expected. We took a 10-minute scenic ride on a light aircraft up to the dizzying height of approximately 3.4km above ground level, where we jumped off the aircraft as I was attached by a harness to an instructor. We then plunged into the rush of a 40-second freefall before the instructor opened the parachute, before guiding us to a safe landing on the ground. Although this is an experience that many people fear, it is certainly an activity I would love to do regularly, and I am considering obtaining a skydiving license so I can jump out of a plane alone. 

Myself jumping off an aircraft, attached to an instructor during a recent tandem jump in Pretoria.

In addition to jumping off planes, I also love reaching destinations. I believe travelling to different destinations broadens one’s understanding of this world, as you are exposed to diverse places and cultures. Fortunately for me, in our field, we get to travel to conferences both nationally and internationally, and this helps me enjoy my hobby while I complete schoolwork. I have travelled to Germany and Japan to conferences, opportunities I would not have been able to afford in my capacity. Travelling around South Africa for local conferences has also given me the chance to experience the true beauty of this country. Sadly though, as I mentioned in my previous blog, physical conferences are currently limited due to COVID-19 precautionary measures. Hopefully, we will get to travel to conferences once the pandemic is over. In my capacity, I travel to neighbouring countries such as Swaziland, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, and I am looking to explore other African countries a little bit more.

In addition to attending church regularly, one more thing I enjoy is spending time with high-school students for mentoring and teaching purposes. It is particularly concerning that a lot of students from disadvantaged backgrounds lack role models and people who can guide them to a bright future. Some colleagues and I started the Yakhanani High School mentorship Project, where we go to high schools in disadvantaged areas to mentor and teach children in high school, as a way of preparing them for University, and we usually do this on weekends. With the current COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, such mentoring is a challenge, and I hope we can resume the mentoring sessions soon.

Ultimately, besides these few activities, scientific research is my one true hobby, because it is something I enjoy. As the famous quote by Mark Twain says “find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” conducting research is not only a job for me, it is something I enjoy doing while I am working.

One more thing COVID-19 and lockdowns have changed drastically: Scientific conferences

Attendees at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology in Kyoto, Japan.

Conducting research can be one of the most laborious things for a person to do. It involves identifying gaps in the current body of knowledge and providing clues to various unanswered questions within a specific field. The approach differs slightly between various research specialties. In my field, Pharmacology, it involves reading a lot of scientific papers, planning and conducting of experiments, and ultimately publishing the obtained results in the form of journal articles and a Doctoral thesis. In all of this, there is one specifically exciting and rewarding part… sharing your findings with peers at scientific conferences.

Academic conferences are a platform where researchers meet to share research ideas and discoveries. This is usually done via oral presentations by senior researchers and presentations of posters by students. Conferences are a valuable platform that allow for collaboration and establishment of relations among academics. Typically, conferences run over a period of 4-5 days, and are a worthwhile experience, especially for young researchers.

Personally, attending conferences offered me an opportunity to travel out of the African continent for the first time. I got to travel to Lindau Germany to meet Nobel Prize winners. For any young scientist, being selected to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting is a huge privilege. Not only did I get to meet and have discussions with Nobel Laureates for the first time in my life, I also met and interacted and shared research experiences with PhD students from the most prestigious universities in the world. As a result of being selected for this meeting, I was featured in an article from the largest newspaper publishing in my city. As such, this meeting will remain a major highlight of my academic career.

From Germany, I immediately travelled to Japan to present my research findings at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology. We had booked the return tickets to both countries during different times, and I had to first travel back to South Africa the whole day, and immediately connect to Hong Kong for a 14-hour flight, before taking another 4-hour flight to Japan. As you can imagine, I was fatigued when I got to Japan, but experiencing the difference in the landscape and way of life in Japan compared to Africa rendered the fatigue was worth it! I found one thing bizarre though, some individuals wore facial masks in public, are rare sighting in the South Africa at the time. It turns out, Japan has a long history of disease outbreaks, and with the current advent of COVID-19, I now understand why they wore masks in public. The conference was abuzz with researchers from across the globe, who shared ground-breaking findings from their individual labs.

In addition to these international conferences, local conferences have afforded me the opportunity to meet peers form various Universities in South Africa, with whom I have exchanged research findings and ideas. Conferences have also offered me an opportunity to display my presentation skills. As a consequence I was given the Young Scientist Award in Basic Pharmacology for the 2nd best podium presentation at the First Conference of Biomedical and Natural Sciences and Therapeutics in 2018, while my late colleague lab mate got the 1st prize.

Left: Myself, presenting a  poster in Kyoto Japan at a world Pharmacology conference. Right: colleagues and myself carrying awards at a National Science conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Unfortunately, the global wave of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered conducting science conferences in person a challenging task. As a result, there has been an increase in online research conferences, as a way to sustain the level of academic exchange during these difficult times. Virtual meetings have many advantages, including a decrease in the financial burden and ease of access. A screen with multiple faces (figure below), and phrases like “please mute your mic” have been a familiar feature over the past year. Although the online environment allows for easy organization of meetings, I personally feel like the social connection that usually happens during person to person interactions is lost. For example, when I am presenting I love making eye contact with people in the audience as a way of evaluating their level of concentration. This falls away when your audience is behind muted mics and cameras and all one has to stare at is a computer screen.

The 2021 South Young African Academy of Science blogging team, meeting for the first time, in a virtual meeting earlier this year.

Person to person interaction during conferences fosters the establishment of relations and collaboration amongst researchers, and this is not particularly easy to do in a virtual setting. With vaccination strategies being rolled out in various countries being rolled out, I am hopeful that COVID-19 and lockdowns will soon be a thing of the past and we can safely resume physical conferences.