Should all our #institutionsfall?

2015 and 2016 are arguably the Years of the Fallists in South Africa. From #rhodesmustfall to #datamustfall, there was a plethora of social media, and real world, campaigns calling for a radical break from the status quo.

It is very easy to argue that its merely populist elements raising their heads, or even more ominously, the emergence of a fascist element. Dennis Davis gives a sober warning about fallists, particularly academics, that support ‘disruption for its own sake, which in the current environment has violent undertones coated in warped identity politics.’

But to believe that this is a purely South African phenomenon is incorrect. Indeed the overall situation is a lot more nuanced than popular media would have us believe. These protests are taking place in the context of a global social shift. If you pay attention to the events around world, there is growing unrest with the status quo and people generally don’t trust institutions, particularly government. Rachel Botsman gave a TED talk about how people are increasingly losing trust in traditional institutions whilst simultaneously putting their trust in unknown entities and people.  In a recent Gallup poll, they have found Americans trust in their government and its related institutions are at an all time low. Many would argue that this distrust underpins Donald Trump’s meteoric rise. In South Africa, and rest of the continent, the picture is not very different.

In recent times, no institution has faced the level of upheaval than our universities which are at the coalface of the anger against the prevailing socio-economic system. A university, as some would argue, is a microcosm of society. Therefore, understanding and dealing with what is going on there, serves as a good basis for creating solutions on a larger scale.

Coming back to the South African context, often on social media, and in the real world context  people ascribe nefarious intent to heads of institutions but gladly follow mysterious people or processes. But does this mean that all traditional institutions, including universities, should fall? I don’t believe so. What I do believe its that there needs to be a drastic re-ordering of the our institutions if they have any hope of survival.

One of the key contours that should guide our re-ordering of the prevailing social milieu is ensuring the appropriate inclusion of women. It is one thing to decolonise the curriculum and ensure properly funded access for poor. But, without a concerted effort to ensure that women don’t get left behind, at any level, there can easily be a roll back towards a more intense patriarchy. We can already see the pockets of this in the fallist movements, where women and non hetero-normative activists, although being literally on the frontline, have been increasingly and sometimes violently side-lined. We can’t allow this to become the new status quo.

Without a doubt is that change is coming. Within our circle of influence we have an unprecedented opportunity to work towards building a just and equitable society. However, we have to be conscious where we place our trust. I would end with a quote for you to ponder from George Orwell’s 1984, which admittedly may be considered a bit subversive: “power is not a means; it’s an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship”.

Globe-trotting for Dummies

Hell, if one believes in these sorts of things, would be a wifi connection that keeps kicking you out. In fact, having landed 1 hour ago at Heathrow, I have spent all my time mindlessly clicking “join”. The definition of insanity is trying things the same way expecting a different outcome and yet here I sit, idly. I could be typing the 42 million papers I have to write up, or conversing with my travel partner but no, 21st century rules dictate that I must have my nose firmly attached to some sort of technology. Welcome to the world of travel for international conferences.

I have been extremely fortunate to be part of a lab that thinks big and requires that all the students be regularly exposed to international conferences. It fosters great collaboration and gives you the confidence you need to succeed in this field. Having said that; travelling does have its strains. A guide, then, and a bit of a diary for you, dear reader, on the day in the life of an exhausted, “hangry”, excitable traveller!

My little collection of name tags from conferences!
My little collection of name tags from conferences!

In the last 2 months I have been to Melbourne and Chicago for conferences. Things NOT to do include:

1) Getting stuck in a turnstile in the middle of the American Midwest.

2) Avoid checking your ticket until the last possible second in order to approve the way your lab is sending you (A 9 hour layover in New York and a 12 hour layover in London have literally sapped my soul of vitality)

3) Try not to offer your colleague something to try that you later discover contains the only thing that she is allergic to.

4) Wear high heels that are twice your height in a city where you walk everywhere. Turns out buildings look pretty grim when your feet need to be amputated because of exceptional blistering.

5) Mumble your name to a Starbucks barista. The result:smolin

Despite the series or unfortunate events, there are many things that I recommend you should do:

1) Bask in the glory of all the collective genius in your field in one place

2) Make use of networking lunches that allow you to chat to other principle investigators and get their input. It can be a little scary and a bit awkward to start but it really is worthwhile.

3) Make time to socialise with peers from other labs around the world and have some truly awesome conversations about their PhD experience; it makes you realise that you are not alone in a global village sort of way.

4) Be confident in your work. After all, there is no one that knows it quite like you do.

5) Feel super privileged if you come from a lab where you get individualised attention, because you will realise quickly that that is not the norm.

6) Enjoy the science! There will be some very exciting things presented. Take the opportunity to ask these people questions — after all, at heart we are all still the 8-year olds playing with chemistry sets, trying not to lose the sense of wonder.

7) Learn from how people present and try to incorporate the things you like into your own style: conferences have nearly always added something to my repertoire.

8) Use your free time to hang out with your lab mates. Conferences are a nice time to share a meal and have a fulfilling conversation and explore the city! These people, like you, have the same core passion for science and that, in my book, makes them immediately interesting.

A bit of the Morris/Moore lab+ honorary members in Chi-town!
A bit of the Morris/Moore lab+ honorary members in Chi-town!

Ultimately conferences help you grow and connect with something greater than the sequence that just won’t work or the cells that refuse to stay alive. Science is about solving a puzzle; the only one that matters. Learning to do it with other people may result in some spats about where to look  or fit the next piece and some people may be critical of what the shape of your piece is but you get it done a lot quicker. Conferences are a wonderful and sometimes scary part of sciencing. Do it often, if not for yourself, then for the puzzle enthusiast in you screaming for the corner piece.