It’s a wrap!!!

Nothing beats the smell of fresh air especially as you reach the end of the tunnel; in this case, the end of the year. It’s been quite a ride and we ended this year’s long journey with our annual End-of-Year Postgraduate Seminar! The one event where the intellectual capacity of the department comes to share their research and open doors for further research.

The UFS Department of Zoology & Entomology postgraduate seminar is an event where postgraduate students present their research and findings with the rest of the department. It’s spread over two days of presentations all day long. This is where one gets to experience the heart and soul of zoology research. This year the research quality was world class. It really was an event to marvel at. The experience gave me a lot of ideas around my own research and what still can be done.

This month, though, I am just grateful and want to reflect on the rest of the year – it’s not been an easy one. So I only started my MSc this year and I chose the field of aquatic toxicology. When I started I thought it was going to be an easy one. Little did I know that it would take me out of my comfort zone and lead me into the space where the only thing I have is happiness. I got to explore the field of analytical chemistry through the interdisciplinary field of toxicology. I also derived some lessons from people that I work with…

  1. It’s okay not to be sure. This gives room for exploring, curiosity and knowledge. When I started I wanted to understand the relationship between carbon and bio-available nitrogen in water. This later changed to understanding the adsorption capabilities of the activated carbon and how it can be used in wastewater treatment. This later changed to understanding the nutrient dynamics of treated wastewater and the receiving streams. Shifting from topic to topic gave me an opportunity to read more and more and to identify several gaps within my field. If I were to do another degree, I am pretty sure I will know what to look at.
  2. Communication is key. Our lab has these weekly presentations where we give reports on our progress. One might say it’s too much. It might be for some people. But looking back at the seminar that just passed as well as the readiness and confidence of my peers during our individual presentations, the weekly stress was worth it. Science does not add value to society until it can be communicated. One of the ways we can do that is by presentations and sharing our research. Two of my colleagues published their data this year. I am currently working on two papers that I believe will be out in 2019.
  3. Your colleagues are not your enemies. One of the greatest values that the postgraduate journey adds to one’s life is professionalism. It also highlights the importance of collaboration and sharing data. Being able to go out there and become a world renowned scientist begins in the laboratory where you support each other as postgraduates and talk about your research and figure out how you can help each other.
  4. You will never have enough time. I felt that time was a relative construct throughout this year. By that I mean that it depends on who is conscious of it, who is using it and how one is using it. I have spent several days without proper sleep. I’ve spent nights in the office and in the lab. Mostly, I would still be behind on my work. I then, finally, found out what I was doing wrong: I spent those nights doing a 100 things and not finishing even one of them. Until I could have a proper schedule and daily goals, I kept wasting my time. Now I have learned and I know better.
  5. Getting a different perspective does help. We often get so wrapped up in what we do that we don’t consider people from other fields of research to be of any value to our research. My academic mentor, who is an ecologist by training, has added quite a lot to my research. Talking to him in trying to make sense of my writing or results has helped me to be better at what I do. If you really think about it, someone who is not an expert at what you do will demand that you explain your research as you would to a grade 4 learner. By doing this, everything becomes clearer even to you. So let it out. As long as you have audience, you will be better at what you do.

As we conclude 2018, I would like to leave this with you. When I was doing my first year 20180907_101256.jpgI had a pleasure of attending a leadership workshop by Prof Jonathan Jansen. He talked about a learner who was always failing and always being scolded for it. One day he came home with the highest mark he’d ever gotten in his life. His father was not happy at all. He asked his father why and his reply was, “There is always room for improvement”. So to postgraduates who feel like their supervisors are mean and unfair, there is always room for improvement. I have had to spoon feed myself these words this year. Any postgraduate student can attest: even when you feel like that paper or presentation or writing was your best, your supervisor will always find something wrong or something that needs to be changed. As much as it hurts, we do become better through that criticism of our best work. Let your 2019 be the year of improvement.

Remember…

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence”

~ Vince Lombardi

Special Trials

It’s a time of rising stress levels here at FABI. Benedicta, a fellow PhD student in our research group, and I are running two big, important trials as part of our PhD’s and they need to be executed flawlessly. In the trenches – counting spores, cutting tips and inoculating trees with different strains of a plant pathogenic fungus – is where special bonds form.

Trials start off as ideas around a table with your advisors and as the months go by the trial begins to take shape, becoming something real. Scary, really! Looking back, when we spoke about inoculating 54 and 109 different strains, it seemed quite simple but the execution — as we found out yesterday and today — has been quite different.

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Benedicta, supervising

 

Benedicta, for her diligence and hard work, became the guinea pig.  She had gathered and prepared her isolates a full week before me and so we decided to move ahead with her trial. After a few sleepless nights and a bottle or two of Amarula (the small ones) she had a design and a plan in place. It was the day before the first batch of inoculations and everything was looking good… until it wasn’t.

 

In all the excitement, we didn’t realize that her design – a work of art and a statistical dream – just wasn’t practical for the limited help and time we had. After a couple of head-scratching moments and the advice of our wise advisors, we managed to come up with a new design to save the trial.

Today, we successfully inoculated the first part of Benedicta’s trial; approximately 2,500 trees with 109 different fungal strains. The replicate of this trial, which should go faster, will happen on Thursday, the 29th November. I then jump into the driver seat next week and we repeat it all again for my work.

I have learnt a lot over the past couple of weeks in preparation for these trials. 1) You might think you can do it on your own (and you probably can) but make your life easier by getting help. Fortunately for us, we have an incredible team of advisors, postdocs and students who are willing to help. 2) Science is messy. You can try control everything but there will always be things out of your control, just accept it. 3) If you see someone struggling, just take the time to help and comfort them; it means the world to them. Trust me, I know. 4) No task is too big when you have an excellent team supporting you. That goes for the PhD as well.

Our two trials will run till January, next year, and we hope that the results are promising so that we can welcome 2019 with success and another step towards the end of our PhD journeys.  I hope your 2019 will be successful too!