Science Economy

A few months ago, South Africa experienced serious water shortages that saw us doing all sorts of things, from praying and performing ancestral rituals. Alas, those calls were answered with serious downpours! Quite ironically, we now face a different kind of drought, encapsulated by the word RECESSION. While I had the pleasure of once again being acquainted with this word – recall the global recession in 2008– I was overcome by the words of derision hurled at us by our vociferous leaders. As a consequence, it brought me to asking what it is that I am truly contributing to the economy of the country. While we cannot shy away from the importance of science and its impact on improving our lives, its role in the economy is equally important. News of downgrades, corruption and all social ills, have prompted me to have divergent views when it comes to science.

It certainly is concerning to see that there are millions of individuals, including graduates, with the capability and potential to work but cannot find jobs. These numbers have increased dramatically over the past few years. The situation is disheartening since it too contributes to the economic slump. How do we instill thoughts of positivity, to an already dire outlook? Our youth turn to other avenues of radical activities as a consequence of this plight. The first point of correction lies in institutions of higher learning. In these environments, yes we are taught our vocation, but it is done in such a manner that it absolves us of any economic responsibility except our own. Therein lies the problem, but how do we transform this kind of thinking without adversely infringing on the integrity of our fields of specialization? In as much as a suit comes to mind when we think about anything that has to do with business, we see lab coats and nerds the minute the word “science” is brought up. This is mostly triggered by the stark imbalance in the entrepreneurial activity of scientists to business people. In my view, most of this is fueled by the lack of economics or business subjects and subsequent understanding of their role, in science programs. This is quite disturbing since it is important for any individual to at least understand the overall workings of the organization they form a part of and how they affect the progression through their contribution. In an idealistic situation, two kinds of individuals could be born; One that will deal directly with the scientific aspect, while the other, who may choose to pursue their entrepreneurial skills further, runs the business.

Mathapelo with and without the lab coat
Scientist, or businesswoman?

A purpose-driven institution could culminate from such a partnership, but does this exist in the South African context? It looks like useful things like workshops on business management (for those outside the Economics faculty!), or entrepreneurial skills for scientists are in short supply. What can we do to ensure that we propel ourselves into this trajectory? The answer may not be forthcoming at first but breaking ground in this aspect could prove fruitful to the economy in the long run. Currently, many institutions allow you to expand your business skills through (sometimes free) online education. But we need more than that. Together with life experience, university teaches you more than your vocation, it guides you on how to think. Mastering and applying that art could lead to endless possibilities.

In the end, however, it will always be up to an individual what role they play in communities and their place of work. These cannot be isolated in a time where, for example, research is geared toward helping people who need it most, especially under this economic climate. In the words of Mohatma Gandhi – be the change you want to see in this world. Be inspired to do something great. And don’t be fooled — it’s not just international stars like Elon Musk who can combine science and business sense… in Africa we have science entrepreneurs like Mark Shuttleworth and William Kamkwamba. Could you be next?

Boosting brainpower: drinking your way to success

The past month has been a whirlwind of scientific activity- starting new experiments, conferences, and writing manuscripts. In my recent blogs, here and here, I discuss how I navigate the scientific twitterverse and the power music has on my mental health and acuity. Notwithstanding all of these, in this blog I want to discuss how maintaining a healthy diet helps me stay focused and calm under pressure. Please note – I am neither a dietician nor a health professional and the tips that I share are what works for ME and may not necessarily apply to you.

 When you visit any graduate student lab there is always a coffee pot brewing, and our office is no exception. But, I remember during my masters I only drank green tea and coffee was never my thing– how things have changed! Coffee culture has become an integral part of the academic machinery; I am convinced that coffee and tears of graduate students fuel the whole machine. I have found that drinking a healthy dose of coffee (about two pots a day for me) keeps me focused and I do not have any adverse side effects. Coupled with my coffee, I find snacking on raw vegetables/fruits keep my system alert and functioning optimally. Also, I find that being a vegetarian gives me more snacking options and energy than my meat-eating counterparts (well, the ones I know ).

The desk of this caffeine-dependent postgrad

In recent years, there has been a growing concern amongst academics regarding the use of brain-enhancing drugs to improve performance. Melinda Wenner Moyer (@lindy2350), a science journalist, wrote a brilliant article for Scientific American, here. In it, she focuses on the issues concerned with the use of Modafinil– a drug prescribed to people who suffer from narcolepsy/sleep apnea, but in healthy individuals, it has been shown[1] to heighten alertness and provide cognitive enhancements. Another report from the UK indicated that 1 in 5 academics have admitted to using Modafinil. However, before you start running to your pharmacy to get the drug- it is worth noting that many neuroscientists are concerned about the long-term effects of these drugs on a healthy brain. Furthermore, the ethical issues that surround the use of these medications are yet to be resolved.

To return back to topic, I am fascinated about what people use to stay awake when ‘burning the midnight oil’ so to speak. For me, it is coffee + snacks, and for my some of my colleagues it is simply taking vitamin B12 supplements and that suffices. A friend of mine can only write when they are in the library – maybe the musty smell of books is a boost? What are some of the techniques that you use to stay alert? Is there a special diet or supplements you take?

[1] Results varied across different studies