Youth Month 2021: Dr Tiffany Pillay

Youth Month 2021: Dr Tiffany Pillay

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are Advancing Knowledge, Transforming Lives and Inspiring a Nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us and we hope that you are inspired by the young dreamers and achievers who are affiliated with the NRF through their work or studies.

Dr Tiffany Pillay is a Lecturer at the Botany Department, Rhodes University. She is currently an NRF Thuthuka grantholder and also received an NRF Freestanding Scholarship for her PhD studies.

This is her story…

I was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg, KZN. I have three siblings (two younger sisters and an older brother). My mother is my role model; a fierce woman who has taught me to fight for my dreams. Due to financial problems, she was forced to drop out of university in her youth and so she always supported my aspirations of tertiary education despite the many sacrifices she had to endure. I was the first in my family to graduate with a university degree and I have since inspired my siblings and extended family.

Growing up in a middle-class family, I attended public schools – Deccan Road Primary and Raisethorpe Secondary. While these schools, at the time, did not have many facilities, funding, or extramural offerings, the standard of education was exemplary. I firmly believe that my passion for science and teaching was borne from the excellent educators I encountered at these schools.

In high school, I developed a particular interest in Biology. However, field trips were scarce and a lot of my exploration was done through textbooks only. Societal norms, particularly in my community, looked favourably upon the more technocratic professions – doctors, lawyers, accountants. I knew from an early age that those careers did not interest me. I was always a very curious person, always asking “why “and “how”.  I recall that at school, we only had access to a single microscope, which was locked in a glass cabinet for viewing only. Later, when I attended the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) as a Biological Science undergrad, I was elated to learn that I would have my very own microscope – and that was when the spark ignited.

UKZN’s Life Science Department had, and still has, a wealth of brilliant academics who are passionate about teaching and research. I was amazed by the various types of work, and so opted to do a “general stream” undergraduate degree which gave me background on each of the fields. By the end of my BSc Honours degree, the African savanna had won my heart and I decided that my postgraduate studies would be focused on Plant Ecology. I completed my MSc (2012) and PhD (2017) at UKZN under the supervision of Prof David Ward, an outstanding ecologist who has been my mentor for many years, beyond these degrees.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

Financial constraints of studying, particularly postgraduate funding, was an obstacle I overcame with the support of the NRF and for which I am very grateful. Beyond this, one of my greatest challenges was the birth of my oldest daughter halfway through my PhD. Coping with motherhood and the challenges of a PhD was difficult, to say the least. My baby often had to accompany me on field trips, and also had to endure lots of time away from me during conferences and workshops – all sacrifices I hope she will value when she is older. At the time, there was little recognition or support for young female postgraduates who often needed time to raise a family. I am pleased that this is now changing. One of the greatest lessons I learned was that of perseverance – no matter how many times you fall, dust yourself off and try again.

Another hurdle came when I battled to find employment in academia – a struggle I know many graduates face. I took on an appointment as an Environmental Consultant, which taught me a lot about the private sector, development and environmental legislation. However, my heart was not in this profession. I longed for teaching and research, the opportunity to directly give back to the youngsters in lecture halls, and to inspire greatness (the motto of my Alma Mata). Here again, perseverance paid off. Many, many applications later, I was recommended for the position of Lecturer in the Botany Department at Rhodes – a department with a small, dedicated team of scientists who have taught me so much. I had to relocate to the city of Makhanda, which was an adjustment, but a very worthwhile one. Here I am, three years later!

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

I am broadly interested in savanna ecology, with a specific focus on the role of competition and facilitation in vegetation dynamics. My research interests are aimed at understanding the mechanisms driving woody plant encroachment, a phenomenon that threatens the important grassland and savanna biomes. My Master’s research investigated the effects of neighbourhood competition on tree species from humid and mesic savannas using greenhouse-based studies and field-based spatial pattern analysis. My PhD aimed to understand the effects of the changing climate and land use on woody plant encroachment in South African grasslands and savannas. My current research is looking at characterising the process of thicket expansion into savanna in semi-arid areas of the Eastern Cape, using a range of field studies and remote-sensing data collection.

How can your research/work advance knowledge, transform lives and inspire a nation?

Savannas are known to support high faunal and floral diversity and are also of great socio-economic importance in terms of agriculture and eco-tourism. Considering the significance of this biome, much effort is placed on research towards the conservation of savannas. I hope that my research can contribute to the understanding of threats to savannas, such as woody plant encroachment, and therefore assist with proper land-use management practices.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

Some of my greatest achievements thus far include the following awards:

  • Best Honours student in Entomology, awarded by the Entomological Society of Southern Africa 2009.
  • Best third-year student in Plant Systematics 2008.
  • Best third-year student In Zoology, awarded by the Zoological Society of Southern Africa 2008.
  • Best third-year student in Plant Ecology 2008.

I am also proud of attaining a cum laude degree award for my BSc Honours and MSc degrees. More recently, I am honoured to have been nominated as part of a teaching team for the Rhodes University Vice Chancellors Distinguished Teachers award.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic (and national lockdown) change the way you work/study? How did you adapt to the “new normal”?

The COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdown was a steep learning curve for academics who had to quickly adapt to online and blended teaching and learning practices. This was particularly challenging for STEM courses that rely on laboratory-based learning and reinforcement. This difficult time called for innovation and commitment to upholding high standards of education while being cognisant of the equally trying challenges faced by our learners. Indeed, a mantra at RU was that “no student will be left behind”. Using a range of online learning platform tools, pre-recorded videos and supplementary materials, I was able to successfully teach a class of approximately 400 first-year science students. While face-to-face teaching is something I dearly miss, I am pleased that I am now able to confidently facilitate online courses, especially with the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic.

What is the best advice you have ever received (and from whom)?

Carpe diem – seize the day! Make the most of your present circumstances and don’t worry too much about the past or future. This advice was given by my Grade 12 English teacher, Mr Rajagopal, and is something that has stuck with me!

What, in your opinion, are some of the best ways to get youngsters interested in science-related careers?

Youngsters of today are leading a largely sedentary lifestyle, hiding behind TVs, computers and mobile devices, particularly more so during the pandemic when even learning has shifted online. We need to get our kids outdoors! There are so many exciting and simple ways to observe science in nature. Parents and teachers should take every opportunity to connect children with nature, to encourage students to observe, enquire, and challenge – all precursors of a true interest in STEM. Greater collaboration between the scientific community and teachers could result in the development of such activities, which can be designed to be relatively simple, inexpensive and accessible to all children.

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I would like to be recognised as an NRF-rated researcher.  I also hope to contribute to the curriculum development of STEM courses in response to the needs and challenges of our diverse student body.

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Please view the terms for republishing here.
Related Posts