Find what fuels your passion

Are you brave enough to reach for the stars?

My full name is Sinenhlanhla Precious Sikhosana, born in Harding south coast of KwaZulu-Natal. My family consists of my grandmother, mother, three siblings, and many cousins. My inquisitive mind and passion for problem-solving led me to the science field at a very young age. However, it was only in my matric year (when I attended the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU) career week at UKZN) that I was exposed to career opportunities in astrophysics. Postgraduate students passionately shared their research and how they go about solving the mysteries of the universe; I was instantly sold.

Astro-Lady
Astro-lady

I am currently studying towards a PhD in Applied Mathematics with a research focus in Astrophysics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. My research involves understanding high-energy particle physics on the largest gravitationally bound objects in the universe (galaxy clusters).

My academic journey, like any other, has been filled with a lot of obstacles but also equally numerous triumphs. In my undergraduate years, I obtained the SKA Africa (South African Radio Astronomy Observatory) scholarship and the top 10 African females award at the college for 3 years. I have also received numerous awards in my postgrad, with the 2019 highlights being; receiving the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women In Science research grant and attending the 69th Nobel Laureate Meeting at Lindau.

With all these achievements one would think I would be very confident in my abilities, but that was not the case. Due to the unfamiliar surroundings and lack of representations, I suffered from the ‘imposter syndrome’, the feeling of not belonging. I had to fight hard mentally to convince myself that yes, I am intelligent enough and I belong. The advantage is that now I get to pave the way for younger aspiring female scientist, to make their journey less uphill than mine was.

Now that the formalities are out of the way, let me let you in on what fuels my passion. I believe that without educational knowledge one can never experience true liberation. It is because of this belief that I spend most of my time outside of academia participating in educational outreach programmes. I mainly give talks at high schools and career exhibitions. I do this to encourage students to pursue tertiary studies and to also make them aware that science no longer has the face it used to have centuries ago. One does not need to be a male with crazy hair and a lab coat to do science. When I do get the opportunity to speak to young girls, I make it a point to be as feminine and bubbly as I can be (be myself basically), because I want to show them that science is for them and that science is fun and trendy too!

OutreachWhen I finally attain that ‘Dr’ tittle, I would like to establish a mentorship programme that guides young girls that are science enthusiasts. I have also personally encountered that no matter how brilliant your science is unless communicated effectively, it will never make a great impact. This led me to the idea of technical science writing retreats for postgrad students; it is a dream I intend to fulfil in the near future.

Facebooking from the field: My journey into agricultural science communication

Why should agriculturalists be active on social media?

A sweltering summer’s day in the Lowveld, the sun at its zenith baking down into the valleys. Shrill cicadas cut short by the mechanical hum of a tractor’s engine and the dull thundering of a plough ripping through topsoil. A young boy stands on the edge of the field, watching. The rich smell of freshly turned earth floods his nostrils.

This is one of many childhood memories watching my grandfather with bemused curiosity, as he transformed a landscape in front of my eyes. A plant-breeder by profession, he instilled in me a deep-seated fascination for the world. I spent many an hour lost in the maze of gardens, greenhouses, and cultivated fields utterly mesmerised by his craft. However, these experiences did not exist in a vacuum. As I grew older the ecological impacts of the agro-food system and the inequalities of our country became increasingly evident to me. I saw that my childhood memories were a product not only of my grandfather’s hard work as a scientists and a pioneer in the South African plant breeding community, but also of his access to quality education and governmental support for land and agricultural inputs. I knew that I wanted to leverage my own privilege and interest in agriculture to play a part in creating a more sustainable and equitable food system in South Africa.

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My grandfather, John McOnie, during his early years in eSwatini inspecting sorghum lines

I hold a BSc in Applied Plant and Soil Sciences from the University of Pretoria, where I am currently finishing off an MSc in agronomy. My research looks at how small-scale farmers across sub-Saharan Africa use social media to form online communities, and identifying how these platforms can be used for agricultural extension, training, and to enhance university-community engagement. I absolutely love my work and can talk about it for hours on end, so much so that there is a TEDx talk about it.  However, most people don’t share my enthusiasm for what my law friends call ‘the study of grass and dirt’, and our field faces an image problem on two fronts.

Firstly, the general-public’s perception of the agricultural industry is plagued by misconceptions and misinformation. The erosion of trust in the system is attributed to a history of poor science communication, the meddling of political and corporate interests, and the repercussions of unsustainable practices. We see sensationalised reports of how the food system is broken and needs to be fixed, but the food system is not a single entity that can be mended with a few patches or a panacea. It is a complex and multifaceted entanglement of humanity, agroecosystems, economic and environmental policy, science, technology, and climate. It is by no means a perfect system, but it is a system that has been under constant development and refinement for the last 10 000 years. More than ever before the general population is isolated from the communities that feed them. As agriculturalists we need to win back the trust of people who will likely never plant a seed in their lives, in order to lobby for the evidence-based policies needed to create a more sustainable and equitable food system. Secondly, as outlined in the 2017 ASSAf consensus study ‘Revitalising Agricultural Education and Training in South Africa’, the agricultural sciences face a number of structural and institutional challenges in recruiting and retaining the next generation of agricultural scientists and academics. The reality is that (to quote the study) “agriculture is not a career of first choice”, and we face a desperate shortage of students across our respective disciplines.

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The next generation of agricultural scientists in a profile pit at the 2019 Youth Ag Summit in Brazil

I believe social media is the solution to both of these problems. On these platforms we can connect directly with our consumers, allowing us to show the human element of the industry and unpack the nuances behind contested but scientifically-supported practices. At the same time we can give prospective students a real-time view into our fields, orchards, pastures, profile pits, and labs. To do this we need more farmers, agronomists, horticulturalists, geneticists, plant pathologists, soil scientists, agricultural engineers, weed scientists and crop biophysicists generating online content about our work.  One of my goals of 2020 is becoming one of these agronomists, creating content not only about my work but also about the complexities and oddities of the global food system. I am thrilled to be a part of the 2020 SAYAS blogging team and to share this experience with you!