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 began my tertiary education at Rhodes University in Grahamstown back in 2006, originally planning to do a BA majoring in Geography. I took a gap year in 2005 and realised that the sciences were more “me”, so I registered for a BSc at the beginning of 2006, starting out with Chemistry, Statistics, Cell Biology and Earth Science. Eleven-and-a half years later, I still find myself in Grahamstown, having obtained my PhD in Ichthyology.
2. What made you decide to choose your field of study? Is it what you envisioned for yourself while growing up?
I wish I could say that my chosen field has always been my childhood dream, but mine is more a story of “stumbled onto it by chance”.
On needing a third subject during my second year at university, a friend suggested taking Ichthyology (the study of fishes). I thought “why not”. Growing up in the mountains (I hail from Queenstown) my experience of fishes was next to nothing, so it seemed like an excellent opportunity to learn something entirely new. Needless to say, over 10 years down the line, I’m still in a field I would never have dreamed being a part of!
3. What are your responsibilities at your place of work and how long have you worked there?
I am currently the data scientist working with the Acoustic Tracking Array Platform which is a marine platform managed by the South African Institute of Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB). This platform is made up of an expanded network of marine and estuarine acoustic receivers placed along the South African coastline.
By using these in receivers in conjunction with acoustic transmitters implanted into animals, we can follow their movements along the coastline. I have been unofficially part of the team since 2012 but officially started this position in April 2017.
4. How do you think your work can benefit/impact South Africans and/or the world?
Recreational fishing is the most popular sport in South Africa. The work we do can be used, amongst other things, to assist with the management of many important recreational fishery species which would not only keep many fishers happy (and catching fish) but would also help at a subsistence level. Acoustic telemetry is also a popular method used worldwide, therefore we are able to compete academically at a global level.
5. What obstacles did you have to overcome to get to where you are today?
Chemistry 101 and 102. I didn’t have any science behind my name (I did Biology at school), and it was probably the toughest subject I ever had to work through. But in all seriousness, without successful funding applications, I would never have been able to study beyond my Honours, so for that, I am truly grateful.
6. What makes you get up every morning?
The love for what I do! I want to learn more, read more, and contribute more.
7. Who has been your greatest inspiration? Who saw your potential/encouraged you when the going got tough?
The first person that comes to mind would be my current manager, Prof Paul Cowley (also based at SAIAB). In my third year, I heard Paul was looking for a male student (for safety reasons) to undertake a project in the Tsitsikamma National Park. I didn’t exactly fit the criteria (obviously), but it was something that really interested me. I approached him and expressed my interest in the project anyway (which was back in 2008). Let’s just say that he hasn’t managed to get rid of me yet!
I also have to mention my parents. I’m a first generation graduate, and my parents pushed me and my sister to achieve things that were unavailable to them at the time. Without their constant support, who knows where I would be today.
8. Is there any female role model(s) in the science industry that you look up to?
There are too many to mention! But it is also good to start at home, so I’d have to mention Dr Amber-Robyn Childs, a lecturer at the Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science at Rhodes University – she also happens to be my best friend. Seeing and being a part of her work has been inspiring to say the least!
There are also many strong female scientists I have come into contact with through conferences and I am blown away by what they are achieving.
9. Which of your academic achievements are you most proud of?
Besides the emotional rollercoaster that was my PhD, I can honestly say that achieving a third-grade pass for Chemistry 102 in my first year is still the proudest I have been of any mark I ever achieved at school or university.
10. What is your vision for the future – what do you hope to achieve in the next ten years?
I would love to give back even just a little of what I’ve learnt, therefore I’m very excited to start my student supervision journey. Being a woman, I am also hoping to start a family – YES, you can be a mother AND a scientist! And finally, to grow as an individual, as a scientist and as an ichthyologist.
11. What is your advice for young women who want to pursue a career in STEM?
YOU can do it! Always believe in yourself and what you are capable of; besides, no one knows you better than you do. To quote Dr Seuss:
“You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any
Direction you choose!”