Science and Sustainability

One of the most impactful discoveries in science over the past century is the discovery that the Earth’s climate is changing on a catastrophic scale due to the release of man-made greenhouse gasses. This topic has been on everyone’s mind recently, thanks to the efforts of activist Greta Thunberg and many others. It got me thinking about how science – which helped the world realise there is a major problem – could do a lot better in terms of being environmentally-friendly. I also came across this article, which discussed the issue with plastic waste in certain fields.

Since this is a platform for young scientists, and young people are often open to change and trying out new things, I thought it would be a good place to open up the discussion about what we can do to reduce the environmental impact of our science. I know that most of us, as postgrads and young researchers, don’t necessarily have the power or authority to implement changes on the large scale as needed – and may require participating in some of the more destructive habits like travel to build our careers – but we can start by raising these topics and making suggestions! I’d also like to remind everyone that no-one is perfect when it comes to being carbon-neutral, but it’s important that we all try our best for the sake of the planet!

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polar ice cracking (credit: By Christopher Michel – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmichel67/19626661335/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41618273),

Since I’m an astronomer, I will be drawing from this white paper titled ‘Astronomy in a Low Carbon Future’, which was prepared for Canada’s long-term planning in astronomy. Because of this, not all of this advice will be applicable in other fields. I’m looking forward to reading the comments on how some of these strategies could be adapted to other fields and how other fields have their own challenges and possibilities. 

One of the first, most impactful ways for science to reduce its carbon budget is to reduce travel. Between conferences and fieldwork, travel is an important and valuable part of science. However, air travel produces excessive amounts of carbon dioxide. Travel can be reduced by moving to remote meetings, conferences and even – in some cases – fieldwork. I recently took part in a meeting with and presented my work to some important collaborators in North Carolina without having to leave Cape Town, since the conference organisers wholeheartedly embraced remote participation through Zoom and Google Slides. It also made my participation possible, since I do not have much funding for travel and would not have been able to physically attend the conference otherwise. Although I missed out on the informal discussions, I was still able to confidently present my work and discuss some collaborative research that will form part of my Masters.

Another way that astronomy, in particular, is able to reduce travel is through remote observing. One of my fellow Masters’ students here at the South African Astronomical Observatory regularly controls a telescope in Sutherland from Cape Town and collects her astronomical data without having to travel. Remote observing is slowly becoming more common, which is excellent for reducing the amount of travel that observational astronomers have to do. 

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1.9m telescope in Sutherland which is remotely operable (Credit: SAAO)

An easy substitution that will reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions is through catering at events. Switching to meals that are vegetarian for the most part will help cut down on overall meat consumption. The other plus-side to this is that it will make everyone who already eats vegetarian food a lot happier since their meals won’t be a sad, salad-based afterthought. 

Since the electricity supply in South Africa is currently a coal-based disaster, this is an area that gives me very little hope when it comes to powering scientific equipment and instrumentation. Unfortunately, massive telescopes like MeerKAT and the upcoming SKA require a lot of power. I can only hope that these telescopes will be powered through the abundant Karoo sunshine, rather than more coal. But, with Eskom’s current crisis and the relatively cheap price of coal, that seems less and less likely. As a student, I don’t have any insight into how the climate effects of this might be mitigated, but it is something that I would like to raise when I get the opportunity to do so.

Lastly, I think it’s important that – as scientists – we take part in political processes to counter climate change. Since none of our major political parties seems to take climate change as seriously as they should, we should make our voices heard by supporting activist groups that have the expertise necessary to put climate change on the government’s agenda. On a smaller scale, we can support organisations on our own campuses that advocate for the fight against climate change. Although individual efforts are important, this is a global problem that requires governmental and institutional interventions to prevent the catastrophic effects that will hit countries like South Africa the hardest. 

How I found my sisters in Science.

Growing up in a family with three older brothers, a whole bunch of male cousins and no sisters; I have always had problems with communicating with females. It came as no shock to me when I found myself in a male-dominated field such as Physics. Over the years I have accumulated close female friends that can only be counted with one hand. This blog post is not about all my failed friendships with females but rather about my experience with a special group of ladies I survived a year with (which is a big deal for me).

In April I came across a link on Twitter of an article titled “Want black women students to stay in STEM? Help them find role models who look like them” published in Science Daily. This article made me reflect on all my attempts to always find a group of people I can relate to. I mean I get along very well with males but at the end of the day, I would always question why I am never part of that group of girls having fun at the library lawns or at the club wearing matching outfits. The few female friends I have are all not part of the STEM field and while they are there for me during my ups and downs in this postgraduate journey, I feel like something is still missing. We have very few women in Physics in South Africa, let alone the world so trying to find a role model who looks like me is a big reach. So the next best thing is to find other postgraduate students who are in the STEM field like me.

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Long story short, last year in February I came across a Twitter post from Black Women in Science (BWIS) appealing to black females in the STEM field to apply to become members. Like all other things in my life, I took the chance and applied to be a member. To my surprise, I got accepted as one of the few Johannesburg fellows that were accepted to be part of the programme. So let me tell you about who and what BWIS is, well BWIS is a registered NPC which aims to deliver capacity development interventions that target young black women scientists and researchers. The purpose of BWIS is to develop professional research and science conduct, leadership and mentorship skills for women within all scientific disciplines, in tertiary intuitions and professional environments nationally and internationally. They promote a postgraduate culture amongst African students and improve their academic experience by providing support, training, a professional network and exposure to opportunities.

As mentioned above, they focus on all scientific disciplines and the first time I finally got to meet all the other BWIS fellows, I wondered to myself how many of them could possibly help me if I am the only person doing Physics. Little did I know what an amazing experience this would turn in to. The programme consisted of three workshops that focused on Scientific Writing Skills, Business Skills and Development and the third workshop gave us time to work and present our Sustainability Projects where we could either work in groups on individuals. I was fortunate enough to find myself in a group with seven incredible ladies where we worked on a project focusing on recycling.

The cherry on top of this whole experience would have to be the Gala dinner we had in April this year. All the ladies got to dress up and everyone look absolutely stunning. I had never been in a room full of beautiful ladies in my entire life. Prizes were given, food was eaten and conversations were shared. Our group even won the “Best Pitch Award”, which was completely unexpected if you ask me. The year I spent as part of the BWIS fellow has been insightful and memorable. I got the opportunity to meet amazing people in STEM and we have all gotten to share our journeys as postgraduates and working professionals.  I am now a BWIS alumnus and part of their mentorship programme. I am very grateful to the BWIS team for taking the risk and choosing me to be one of their fellows because I have found my sisters in science.

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The purpose of this post was to basically share the importance of finding people who you can relate with. Not necessarily on a social platform but on a more “professional” platform. Whether it be “Women in Science”, “Women in Engineering” or even organizations/forums that are within your field. As long as you find a place where you belong and can be uplifted in your career. I read somewhere about the “Power of the Pack: Women who support women are more successful.” After you have found your happy place, go out there and be someone else’s happy place by mentoring our young girls to join the STEM field because everyone keeps asking: Why aren’t there more women in science?