Expectations meet reality…

So in preparation for my data collection which I hope will start soon. I have been having practice shoots or mock situations with friends who have been so generous to pose as farmers and extension officers. Allowing me to take videos while they demonstrate how the farmer and extension officer will most likely interact when working together in establishing home gardens. The mock shoots were suggested by my supervisor since I have never worked with a camera before. He made me understand that it would be beneficial for me to get used to working with the camera before meeting the actual participants of the study. Having this experience has in many ways prepared me for some of the realities I can expect when I begin my actual data collection.

People prepare in various ways for various situations. For example, some people meditate, some go to the venue where they will be presenting or writing exams to familiarize themselves with the environment and some have mock presentations or situations to help keep themselves calm. In my situation having mock situations was the best way for me to prepare. Being prepared either for exams, presentations, an interview or a meeting puts one at a competitive advantage, enhances strategic thinking, self-discipline and builds confidence.  


From regular clothes to a work suit…

My expectation about wearing the “right clothes” for the work I will be doing was “of course I will get dirty, I mean I will be working in gardens with smallholder farmers after all, but surely I will not get that dirty besides, I will be the girl operating the camera most of the time”. Consequently, on the first day of shooting the mock videos, I put on jeans, sneakers and a cute jersey what a miscalculation. The wind blew so drastically by the time we were finished my black sneakers looked pale from dust, my blue jeans were literally brown I do not even want to talk about the cute jersey I had on it was not so cute anymore. At that moment it hit me, my dress style has to change from everyday clothes to a work-suit and a doek. The doek is for protecting my hair from dust. On the bright side of things, this does mean less laundry for me… hehehe.

Unexpected challenges

I thought that the challenges I would encounter would be internal more than they would be external. For example, I anticipated having challenges with operating my camera while engaging with the person I am interviewing and choosing the appropriate software for editing videos. I was intimidated by working with editing software’s but now that I have been experimenting with them I have gained confidence.  However, I really did not expect to be confronted by social challenges like livestock roaming around and destroying my hard work. We used a friend’s backyard to prepare the soil, plant the seedlings and eventually got the video done.  The content of the video was about the “best methods of planting that are available to smallholder farmers when starting a home garden”. My friend lives in a commune and a day after we planted our seedlings one of the tenants left the gate open and a cow came in and ate all the seedlings… I died.  So we had to start from the beginning because we cannot monitor the crops inside the stomach of a cow we do not know. I did not see the cow coming…literally.  Seriously caught me off guard.


Having the opportunity to prepare for my actual data collection made realize that there is probably a lot of work, shock and plan B’s waiting to be executed. It has also taught me that no two days are the same. Just because one day of data collection has gone well does not mean that the next day will be just as good. Preparation even just a little goes a long way I can attest.

Mentors Matter

A factor that had the biggest impact on making my journey as a woman in a male-dominated field easier was the luck of having good mentors and role models. I have been fortunate in finding women who I could relate to and who believed in me, which helped me get through tough times and helped my career progress so far.

There is an important difference between a mentor and a role model. A mentor is someone who knows you personally, advocates for you and supports you in a professional capacity. A mentor can be your supervisor, but may even be someone completely outside your narrow field of study. Whereas a role model is someone you may not know personally, but you can relate to in terms of their journey and their values. They often represent something you would like to replicate in your own life or career. Finding mentors and role models can be quite challenging, but the search pays off in many different ways.

Although many postgraduate programmes and universities run mentorship programmes, I have found my mentors informally like most South African students. As an undergrad, I would often ask questions in class and speak to my lecturers and tutors afterwards. This helped me form a relationship with the academics and postgrad students, which made it easier to seek out advice from them when I needed it. If I am struggling with something, I know there are several people who want me to succeed and would be willing to help me – whether it is directing me to resources on writing a good application letter, listening to me vent about a difficult course, or helping me find an internship.

A good mentor will help you progress as a scientist. By sharing their knowledge and experience, they can improve your skills and help you grow as a researcher and as a person. You should also be willing to take their criticism – which should always be constructive – and approach them with respect and eagerness! 

I would like to emphasise that although there are advantages to having a mentor who shares part of your identities, such as your gender, race or religion, for example, a good mentor does not have to be someone who resembles you. As I was working on this post, I attended the UCT Vice Chancellor’s Postgraduate Brunch. During her talk, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng also mentioned the importance of having a mentor. She shared her definition of a good mentor, as someone who is “‘highly achieved and generous with their knowledge”. To me, these are some of the most important characteristics of a good mentor as well – someone who cares about your progress and can help you grow as an academic. 

In rWhatsApp Image 2019-08-22 at 10.07.25ole models, however, it is more important to have people who you can identify with. When I started studying astrophysics, I didn’t know of any other Muslim women in my field. Like many sciences, astronomers also wanted to stay as far away from anything political as they could, which felt isolating as someone who cares about social justice. It was comforting to me when I stumbled across a blog post about Naziyah Mahmood – a Muslim aerospace engineer who advocates for women in STEM, and seeing Professor Chanda Prescond-Weinstein openly discuss politics, share advice on surviving academia as a woman of colour and – most importantly – happily talk about her work on axions on twitter has been incredibly valuable to my experience as a scientist. 

Up until recently, most portrayals of scientists have focused on white men in lab coats, but fortunately, there has been a shift in popular culture to diversify this image. With movies like Hidden Figures and even seeing women as scientists in the cartoons my 3-year-old niece watches, it’s reassuring to know that, in the future, girls will easily be able to see themselves as scientists.

I hope that this post will inspire you to seek out new mentors and look out for role models. Who inspires you to be a better scientist?