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 😉

Standing on the edge of a precipice

I will end this year as I began it, with the dream of a wily, confident and adventurous eight year old. I have been one of the fortunate ones. I have always known what I wanted to do for a living. It was not continuously romantic (certainly didn’t feel that way while dissecting a human brain) but it was always there and it was comforting. I, unlike like some others, never found it predictable or boring but felt bolstered by the fact that I was moving in the right direction. But now, placed under extreme stress of being the only person in the world working on a particular project, significant personal changes and new responsibility, I have the current feeling that my clearly defined path has become a bushy wilderness- one out of which a tiger could leap out and take me.


I’m sure that this is a common feeling for people approaching the milestone of 30 and probably has more to do with the feeling of mortality and less to do with the piling up of experiments you will never complete. Nevertheless, with 3 years to go to the big 3-0, I am acutely aware that I have particular comforts that I take for granted. As I close in on my final PhD year, I can feel the sense of loss of my eternal student status. I will now have to get a real job. What I do is challenging and often down right impossible but I have some very real perks. Starting the work day really whenever I feel I need to is a blessing. I have also realised, with a surmountable sadness, that at some point I will have to leave my wonderful lab – my scientific home for the last 5 years and 3 degrees. There is an incredible comfort in knowing where the pipettes or the hidden stash of reagents are. Having worked in the States for a couple of months, returning to my lab is nothing short of an epic homecoming.

Ultimately, at our core, scientists are creatures of habit. We need things just so – so that we can trace back to the point of a potential mistake. One needs to be in a routine so that methodically we can work out if that discovery was real or just a slip of the pipette. Life is a series of habits, and now I must shortly break them. The thought horrifies me. Looking forward, I’m sure there is a great amount of exciting new challenges to be had. Really though, all it feels like is a distant haze that is just beyond the steep precipice of doom that has recently presented itself. I have emerged from 2016, a year fraught with its own unique challenges (a Trump, a Brexit, a Zuma, a Gupta or 2) and I can’t see a fully cleared path.december-handover Instead, I catch glimpses of it out of the corner of my eye.

But, ever the optimist, I will keep looking until one reveals itself to me. I might need to use a panga to clear my own path, but this uncertainty too shall pass. It may pass like a kidney stone; but it will pass. Uncertainty leaves many different doors open and quite excitingly, in science as in life, we can find ourselves on quite a different journey than what we started out on. Openness to a swift change in direction is what leads us to the best discoveries. Life after a PhD is as confusing as life during one, but is just where stuff  gets good. It’s going to be a hell of a journey. Best grab my panga.