Life lessons from the laboratory (and beyond)

By Ruenda Loots

It’s that soul-searching, what-have-I-done-with-my-life time of the year. This year it feels more gut-wrenching than usual because 2015 was…unusual. A “not according to plan” year: not only for a struggling PhD student but for our universities, our country and the world. I still don’t have it all figured out but I have tried to extract some value from the chaos of this year.

#FeesMustFall (Picture: Anthony Molyneaux/EWN).


Science in a time of load shedding

Remember earlier this year, when you would get up, brush your teeth and check the daily load shedding schedule? Although it’s a vague memory by now (and a false sense of ease), there was a time when our experimental planning was determined by Eskom. Yes, we complained when it happened but, like true South Africans, we ultimately made the best of the situation (“Power’s out – let’s go grab a beer!”). And, of course, we found ways of laughing during the disasters.

candlesIrregular power supply, slow internet, limited equipment, expensive orders and looooong delivery delays – practicing science in South Africa has its challenges. But this makes us a more resilient breed of researcher. Appreciate the challenges as opportunities to think outside the box (especially over a beer with your colleagues in the dark).


Because when you think about the challenges of doing post-graduate research, you should remind yourself how lucky you are to experience those challenges. The #FeesMustFall protests this year have been a chilling demonstration that tertiary education remains an elusive privilege in our country.
As I reflect on my journey, I am humbled by and deeply grateful for the sacrifices of my family, each tax payer’s contribution to my bursaries and for supervisors who complete tedious funding forms. I am incredibly privileged to have studied at a world-class university under the guidance of renowned scientists.
The only way I know to show this gratitude is to be a mindful citizen who participates in real issues that affect those around me. I intend to share my knowledge, skills and resources as much as I can, for as long as I can, in this beautiful, evolving country.

When Life Happens

Because this is the country I want to raise my children in. When I decided to go take on this degree, I promised myself that I would not put my life on hold for the sake of research. So during my PhD I have worked part-time, taken other courses, married my best friend, took on grownup things like paying taxes, blogged about doing a PhD, adopted two puppies…and started a family.
As I write this last blog (and the last chapter of my thesis), I can feel my daughter’s heel kicking my ribs, like she’s reminding me of the two looming deadlines: finish the thesis & give birth. I’m not entirely sure which one is more painful, but I am grateful that I get to experience both of these life-changing opportunities.


Like the bacterial biofilms I’ve been studying for five years, my research has taught me the importance of adapting to changing conditions and evolving to survive. Completing a thesis has taught me perseverance and patience. And parenthood is teaching me…every day.

Life with a PhD

By Davide Gaglio

The minister said: … I now pronounce you husband and wife! What a happy moment!

Yes I am married! It was such a perfect day. (Listen this song while you reading the Blog):

“…Oh, it’s such a perfect day

I’m glad I spent it with you

Oh, such a perfect day

You just keep me hanging on

You just keep me hanging on”

We had such an amazing time, having shared it with our close family and friends who traveled from both far and near to be with us. As promised here some photos:



…and now still with these beautiful moments still stuck in my mind, with my heart full of joy and “amore” …now back in my office…in front of a pile of Excel files and R codes…

I have finished the majority of my field work, so lots of analysing data and writing up awaits me now… I am at the usual stage of every PhD student… asking myself Why? Why am I doing a PhD? Why have I embarked on this journey of constant challenges? Why have I allowed MS Word and printed papers to become such a big part of my life? Why? I was thinking a lot about the answer to these questions.

As mentioned in my previous entry, Matt Might explain a PhD like this; and the following picture shows the difference that my PhD will make to humanity 😦



Well, my answer to this question is simpler than I thought and it’s not related to humanity…but to myself, and may be a little selfish. But I do it….to be happy!!!

Do you remember that feeling of happiness when you learned that you were accepted for a PhD program? How happy did you feel when you shared your experiences with other PhD students? Or when your first conference paper was accepted?… Yes, I am happy and grateful when I have the opportunity to share my experience, my vision, the results of my work with others. I feel grateful that there were PhD supervisors in the audience who listened to my perceptions as a PhD student. And you never know, it might have influenced their vision of a supervision process…at least a bit. And it means it might potentially change the life of other PhD students …

And yes the bigger picture…there is always a bigger picture behind your small limited piece of research… you just need to learn to see it. Looking back over the past few months, reading all my previous entry of my blog about my PhD, I can see that I have managed to progress my research considerably and have, indeed, learned much about my own life.

Thanks to my terns for making my job so magic!!! Yes…you are much better than penguins!

last pic

I would like to say goodbye with this sentence:

“Pursuing a PhD, is like beginning a journey… it’s always quite scary. But as you go along in the journey, the fear you had in the beginning becomes obsolete as you open yourself up to new challenges and experiences that change you forever.”