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Women’s Month Feature: Dr Francesca Porri, SAIAB

In celebration of National Women’s Month 2017, the NRF is paying to tribute to our female researchers at the NRF managed National Research Facilities. We thank the ladies for volunteering to tell us a little about themselves and the work they do.

1. What did you study and where? 

I studied Biology at the University of Florence, Italy, with an MSc in Marine Biology and Ecology. I obtained my PhD in Zoology in 2004 from Rhodes University, South Africa.

2. What made you decide to choose your field of study? Is it what you envisioned for yourself while growing up? 

Since childhood, I have always loved the open spaces, animals (people included!), travelling and generally good adventures. My biggest dream as a child was to run a fruit and veg stall at the local markets! The passion for nature was already there, but at the time I was rather dreaming of going to the market early mornings, full of stuff, and come back, full of money! 

While in high school, I switched several passions which ranged from sports trainer to forestry guard to psychology. As an undergraduate, genetic engineering sounded like a cool thing to do… until I had to study for the genetic exam! Only during a student exchange programme in North Wales, I came to discover specific undergraduate courses in Marine Biology and Ecology, which weren’t available at the time at my university. And… ta-da! I fell in love with the little marine organisms (invertebrates) that live in intertidal systems (places between the sea and the coast) and I never looked back.

3. What are your responsibilities at your place of work and how long have you worked there? 

I have been working at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) since 2013 as a research advisor for the ACEP Phuhlisa programme. My job involves finding money for research projects and training postgraduate students. 

From my early days in South Africa, while based at the (then) University of Transkei, I have always had a special place in my heart and mind for those who have not been so lucky in life, especially from an educational side. This is why I was naturally drawn to my initial job at SAIAB. 

One of my primary mandates at SAIAB is to facilitate capacity building of postgraduates from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. In the last five years I have fully committed to balance the demographics in South African academia through different types of focused interventions – the training of postgraduates, seminars, as well as workshops and joint field courses for Honours classes at the institutions supported by the ACEP Phuhlisa programme.

4. How do you think your work can benefit/impact South Africans and/or the world?

As I said in the paragraph above, the work I do has two main applications. 

My research mostly focuses on larval biology and ecology. In a nutshell, I try to understand where early stages of marine coastal organisms are and how they return to the coast, where they will grow and live as adults. Since many of these adults are common food for humans, understanding the patterns of the so-called larval dispersal can help us understand the dynamics of adult populations. These studies are ultimately important for the management and conservation of many marine coastal resources. 

Regardless of the topic of research though, I educate people. The best training I can (hopefully) provide to young postgraduates is to learn how to think critically and out of the box and excel in what they do, so that the next generations of scientists in the country are made up of independent, critical thinkers.

5. What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today? 

I am not sure I had to overcome any more obstacles than anyone else doing any other job in any other part of the world. I would say that today I am where I am because of luck (loads), passion, perseverance and balance – plus the love and support of the family and many close friends I have (and continuing encountering) in this exciting career.

6. What makes you get up every morning? 

Life expecting us out there. If we are so lucky to have one, we need to live it to the fullest and hopefully, bring a smile to the people we interact with.

7. Who has been your greatest inspiration? Who saw your potential/encouraged you when the going got tough? 

My mamma – through her continued positive encouragement, strength, and passion for life. She never stopped me from pursuing my dreams, even if they meant setting up at home experimental cultures of snails or travelling 10 000 kilometres from home!

8. Is there any female role model(s) in the science industry that you look up to? 

I really don’t like categories and boxing people – I feel I have so many good models regardless of their gender. But if I really must choose, then it would have to be Uta Berger from Dresden University, Germany. She’s hardcore; witty; humble and patient, and friend and colleague.

9. Which of your academic achievements are you most proud of? 

I am happy to be resilient and to not take any devious criticism too seriously and the constructive ones not too personally. Overall though, I am proud to have achieved what I have without compromising my professional and life ethics while still keeping a sense of humour and pursuing the fun of this job! 

10. What is your vision for the future – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years? 

Health and happiness... with those you can fly high and conquer new skies… or should I say, seas!  

11. What is your advice for young women who want to pursue a career in STEM? 

As every life and every story is different, it’s difficult to advise on this one. My suggestion is to keep the passion, the hard work, the dedication, the love, the balance and the fun all tightly packed together – they will certainly result in an excellent recipe for life!

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