I was walking with my dog this morning and listening to one of Simon Sinek’s podcasts. Among the amazing things he usually says, he described the most profound thing. When he was on a mission worrying about himself and only him, concerned about his challenges and aspirations only, he was always stressed and tensed and anxiety was taking over. Based on some observations, he decided to change his own narrative and see things from another perspective: every task, action he takes and thought should be for the benefit of the team, or the group, or the family or the society overall. That was when he found a sense of calmness of purpose and meaning in his life…and in a sense, happiness.

“Hey that’s me” I thought, and almost started chatting with my dog….

Going back and looking at my involvement with “my acronyms”, I feel that the turning point was when my dear friend Prof Aliza Le Roux asked me to take over the Editor’s position at the SAYAS blog. Until then, my fixed mindset directed me to only be involved in things that will beneficial for ME and MY career. I had never thought of helping with the blog before for two main reasons: 1) to my mind (wrongly…), an editor needs to be a language expert, and 2) selfishly (and wrongly again…) what was in it for me? I could contribute with my blogs every now and then, what more?

But when the offer was made during one of our AGM’s breaks at Fort Hare University, I had a revelation similar to Simon Sinek’s. I went back to the initial reasons I decided to get involved with SAYAS: to work on providing a voice to young scientists and students. Here was my chance to do so and I grabbed it. Admittedly, I had no idea at the time what I was getting into (as with most of the things I decided to take on later on in my journey in SAYAS and GYA), but Aliza’s mentorship and assistance in the beginning made me stronger.

So, what did I give in my years as a SAYAS Blog editor? I gave time, positive energy and direction – that was all the blogging teams needed from my side. But the multiplier effect was present in this case and I am giving over the Blog to Prof Jennifer Fitchet being a “richer” person (the only thing that could not be retuned multiplied was time…oh well…)

I worked with three teams of bloggers, and I must say I learned many things from all of them, due to their diversity of backgrounds, visions, cultures and demographics. They all helped me develop soft skills like team, time and project management.

I have changed as a mentor by:

  • Firstly, listening to them, even before they put things on “paper”: the things that concern PhD students in South Africa, the challenges they face, the way they think about current societal topics, how they see the future of their science, what they appreciate, and what they expect from their mentors and supervisors and others. They managed to give me a holistic picture of a postgraduate student today, and in doing so they helped me with how I work with the students I supervise.
  • Secondly, helping them edit their pieces and strengthen their arguments, I realized what things I should change in the way I write blogs and papers.
  • Thirdly, learning the relevant ways on how to give feedback, many times I used the famous PPCO approach (Pluses Potentials Concerns Opportunities) without they even realizing I was doing so, and other times, just by asking them questions. 

I have managed to identify and succeed some of my objectives as an academic citizen of the world working with the team of the SAYAS blog:

  • Through the blog, we as SAYAS fulfil our role as an organization that provides a safe platform to young academics and students to express themselves. We did that during the 2016 #feesmustfall protests and the 2020 #blacklivesmatter and #covid19pandemic, as just some of the examples. Indeed, we have given a voice to the youth.
  • We have started preparing the next generation of scientists to be open-minded and change the way science communication is viewed by older generations of scientists. A generation that will further inspire more, not only through their research but also through their communication skills, and developing into the role models of the future (the multiplier effect in action here again).
  • We have raised important issues to education and science policymakers – not that they did not know, but formalizing the voice made the difference.
  • We have created a community and a feeling of belonging for students in South Africa while highlighting the common challenges and happy moments they all face making others feel that they are not alone.

The SAYAS blog does not stop with me of course and it is indeed hard to let go. It is hard and emotional as when a child leaves their parents’ house. It is time for it to take the next step to the future and evolve as it always does. And although it is generally believed that only parents give to their kids, I am the living example that the child has taught me a lot and changed me so much. Would I do it again? Without a doubt, YES!!!

Certainly, the most important lesson is that it is more important to do things for the greater good, it is more rewarding and the multiplier effect kicks in -maybe not immediately- but in the long run, even the personal benefits are immense.

So, goodbye….for now….

And remember, the more you contribute, the more you benefit 😉

One more thing COVID-19 and lockdowns have changed drastically: Scientific conferences

Attendees at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology in Kyoto, Japan.

Conducting research can be one of the most laborious things for a person to do. It involves identifying gaps in the current body of knowledge and providing clues to various unanswered questions within a specific field. The approach differs slightly between various research specialties. In my field, Pharmacology, it involves reading a lot of scientific papers, planning and conducting of experiments, and ultimately publishing the obtained results in the form of journal articles and a Doctoral thesis. In all of this, there is one specifically exciting and rewarding part… sharing your findings with peers at scientific conferences.

Academic conferences are a platform where researchers meet to share research ideas and discoveries. This is usually done via oral presentations by senior researchers and presentations of posters by students. Conferences are a valuable platform that allow for collaboration and establishment of relations among academics. Typically, conferences run over a period of 4-5 days, and are a worthwhile experience, especially for young researchers.

Personally, attending conferences offered me an opportunity to travel out of the African continent for the first time. I got to travel to Lindau Germany to meet Nobel Prize winners. For any young scientist, being selected to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting is a huge privilege. Not only did I get to meet and have discussions with Nobel Laureates for the first time in my life, I also met and interacted and shared research experiences with PhD students from the most prestigious universities in the world. As a result of being selected for this meeting, I was featured in an article from the largest newspaper publishing in my city. As such, this meeting will remain a major highlight of my academic career.

From Germany, I immediately travelled to Japan to present my research findings at the 18th World Congress of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology. We had booked the return tickets to both countries during different times, and I had to first travel back to South Africa the whole day, and immediately connect to Hong Kong for a 14-hour flight, before taking another 4-hour flight to Japan. As you can imagine, I was fatigued when I got to Japan, but experiencing the difference in the landscape and way of life in Japan compared to Africa rendered the fatigue was worth it! I found one thing bizarre though, some individuals wore facial masks in public, are rare sighting in the South Africa at the time. It turns out, Japan has a long history of disease outbreaks, and with the current advent of COVID-19, I now understand why they wore masks in public. The conference was abuzz with researchers from across the globe, who shared ground-breaking findings from their individual labs.

In addition to these international conferences, local conferences have afforded me the opportunity to meet peers form various Universities in South Africa, with whom I have exchanged research findings and ideas. Conferences have also offered me an opportunity to display my presentation skills. As a consequence I was given the Young Scientist Award in Basic Pharmacology for the 2nd best podium presentation at the First Conference of Biomedical and Natural Sciences and Therapeutics in 2018, while my late colleague lab mate got the 1st prize.

Left: Myself, presenting a  poster in Kyoto Japan at a world Pharmacology conference. Right: colleagues and myself carrying awards at a National Science conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Unfortunately, the global wave of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic has rendered conducting science conferences in person a challenging task. As a result, there has been an increase in online research conferences, as a way to sustain the level of academic exchange during these difficult times. Virtual meetings have many advantages, including a decrease in the financial burden and ease of access. A screen with multiple faces (figure below), and phrases like “please mute your mic” have been a familiar feature over the past year. Although the online environment allows for easy organization of meetings, I personally feel like the social connection that usually happens during person to person interactions is lost. For example, when I am presenting I love making eye contact with people in the audience as a way of evaluating their level of concentration. This falls away when your audience is behind muted mics and cameras and all one has to stare at is a computer screen.

The 2021 South Young African Academy of Science blogging team, meeting for the first time, in a virtual meeting earlier this year.

Person to person interaction during conferences fosters the establishment of relations and collaboration amongst researchers, and this is not particularly easy to do in a virtual setting. With vaccination strategies being rolled out in various countries being rolled out, I am hopeful that COVID-19 and lockdowns will soon be a thing of the past and we can safely resume physical conferences.