Category Archives: Reflections 2020
2020 – The year people changed?
by Kayleigh Gultig
People-watching? I am sure we have all participated in this hobby in one form or another, it is what makes days on the beach or meals at a restaurant so entertaining. The two girls laughing in a corner, the old man sipping from his wine glass or the uncontrollable children clambering over tables. Each stranger with his own story.
Human nature is a strange yet somewhat fascinating topic. It seems we possess a certain inherent selfishness and stubbornness to cling to what is comfortable. Even in the face of a global pandemic, it seems we are as determined as possible to revert to “normality”. Our mask wearing and social gathering antics seem unrelated to COVID cases and more a reflection of our desire to return to normality and what our friends think is right. We have seen the environmental benefits of travel restrictions and more self-sustainable living. When the threat is gone, will our CO2 emissions rise again? Will we continue to bake our own bread and care for veggie gardens? Or will we return to what is convenient?
Maybe the pandemic has been around for long enough for us to create new comfortable habits. The streams of people on the mountains and cycling or jogging on the streets since lockdown seems to be proof of our newfound appreciation for being active outdoors. The effort we put into relationships seems to have grown. Even the introverts have been making more time for people. So maybe there is hope? Will this be the year humanity begins to change?
Elevating Women in Science
I have been contemplating the words to use in this reflection for a couple of days. Although, this is not your typical reflection and more of a commentary and contemplation. While, scrolling through Twitter I came across an article published in Nature Communications that was causing quite a stir (1). In summation the article subtly stated that women STEM mentors are not as proficient as their male counterparts in ensuring their proteges future scientific impact. However, it more directly concludes that opposite-gender mentorships may be more beneficial to female researchers.
The blatantly obvious issue I take up with the article, as a young woman in science, is the disregard for the harms on gender equality such conclusions will have, and the body of evidence and polices it contradicts. Furthermore, as a gender and climate advocate (in addition to my health science studies) it had me dumbstruck at the display of patriarchal sexism. While, the authors do suggest historical inequalities may play a role, the leap to the conclusion that moving forward this would be the case is absurd. Further, they made use of two metrics: ‘big-shot experience’, basically the number of citations of the mentor, and their network size. Importantly, the quality of a mentor cannot only be defined by these metrics and neither can the challenges faced by women in STEM.
I found countless accounts of women detailing the obstacles they have overcome in their career. Over and above the gender-pay gaps, the unequal representation of women in STEM, and sexual harassment in the workplace in general, several women cited lack of adequate mentorship and exposure to their post-doc advisors and mentors’ networks in general. As a result, when these women embraced a mentoring position their network was lacking, which dually limited their funding opportunities and their mentees exposure to a vast well-established network. Prospectively, my greatest concern is for my female peers, who as they move up in their science-related career will face the same systemic challenges. If we concede that women are the problem, without having routed out sexism in all its form, we are doing a great injustice to the future of science.
So, what can you do and what will I do? As a national youth leader on climate change, my advocacy focuses on enhancing meaningful representation of youth, women and marginalized groups in local, national and international policy spaces. Furthermore, I call for intersectional, inclusive, and just climate policies. The same can be called for in health sciences and broader STEM fields. As a friend of mine put it, ‘women are the experts of their own realties’ and as such can take charge to empower themselves and others. But what we need is allies and supporters, that aren’t only women fighting for gender equality. We need to embrace diversity and the innovations that different mindsets and experiences bring. To the women and girls, take up space! Don’t be intimidated or limited in your career aspirations. Finally support and donate to foundations that meaningfully uplift the experiences of women in science and foster strong networks and collaborations, thereby elevating the status of women in science.
- AlShebli, B., Makovi, K. & Rahwan, T. The association between early career informal mentorship in academic collaborations and junior author performance. Nat Commun 11, 5855 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19723-8
It starts here
by Sithandiwe Dlamini
We have just begun the month of November and my mind cannot fathom how we have arrived here already. Seeing Black Friday adverts and Christmas decorations genuinely confused me, until I realised that we had two months left of this year. So before 2020 finally releases us from its clutches, I believe that another reflection is due. It has become customary for people to reflect during this pandemic. I, for one, think that this is a good thing. The importance of pausing for a moment, looking back at the route that you have taken in life and decided whether to continue the same way or to change direction. Either way, I have appreciated being forced to re-evaluate where my path is taking me.
This year has been one of discovering many things about myself, things that I have enjoyed doing and learning about. At the beginning of this year I had set for myself some academic goals and what I wished to achieve by the end of it. Looking back at my list of goals now, I realise that I may have narrowed my scope. Not in that I have missed the mark in terms of my end goal, but limiting myself in terms of what I can and am capable of doing. The forced digitisation of many interactions during the pandemic has made the world much smaller than before, which brings with it the opportunity for many interactions and connections that may have not been possible before. Not being able to go to a certain place physically is no longer a valid excuse for not chasing your dreams. And that is both exciting and scary. A big lesson for me this year is that my journey or career does not start after I graduate, but it starts now. Whatever I want to do, I can start doing now. Wherever I want to be, I can start steering myself towards that target now. Although this thought may seem small, it does remove one from a place of complacency and comfortability. Once you start realising that you can start making things happen now, you start fidgeting in that small space that you are in and become uncomfortable in that comfortability.
And hopefully we can end this year not with a feeling of regret or feeling as if this year has been stolen away from us, but with the feeling that despite the circumstances, we have made the most of it.
Embracing the true meaning of aloneness
by Teresa Steyn
Here I am at my laptop at 4:45 a.m. on a Thursday morning with a sudden desire to reflect. I woke up a bit earlier and found myself tossing and turning back and forth, seeming unable to fall back to sleep. Somehow, when the idea popped into my head to write, I found peace. I have always enjoyed this time of morning darkness when all human activity is completely silent for a while. Besides the wind whispering to herself, and the occasional bird awakening, I could swear that I am alone in the world. Strangely, the feeling is not lonely.
I think we have all had to confront the experience of loneliness at some point in life, and perhaps more so this year during the COVID-19 lockdown, when social activity has been thus minimised. The term “loneliness” is often associated with being intrinsically sad or unpleasant, but I feel that the experience of aloneness does not have to be a bad thing. This year has offered me a chance to see that aloneness can be a gift.
I would say that there is an art to being alone. And like any skill that one can master, there are probably some simple techniques we can use to create something profound and joyous from the practice of being alone. I certainly cannot say I have learnt them all – a journey to undertake perhaps? But for now, something that could be interesting to try is this: When you are alone, really be alone.
What do I mean by this? Well, test this little experiment out: the next time you find yourself alone in your room, a garden, or basically anywhere, for a few minutes put away your phone, your laptop and any other devices that give you access to other people. Ask yourself this, “Who am I with right now?”
The answer may seem obvious.
Just wait and observe.
If you hear a kind of voice in your head giving you an answer to this question, then it seems you are with a voice in your head… who is that voice?
This exercise is unusual I guess but I have found that it brings me to a place of fully being alone when I am alone. This is important to establish because if – in your mind – your friends, foes, and family, your social media following, or the stress of work is keeping you company, then when you start to ask yourself questions about who you are, you may get confused and find that you answer the questions according to who you believe yourself to be in their company rather than who you truly are by yourself. So, whatever it takes, and wherever it takes you, I think it is a worthy endeavour to find what it really means to be alone, even if this is just for a few moments.
The second part of the experiment is to read this quote by Jean-Paul Sartre: “If you are lonely when you’re alone, you are in bad company.” I am sure you have also heard it said that sometimes we feel lonelier when we are in a crowd full of people than when we are by ourselves. These words serve as a reminder that loneliness is more a state of mind than an absolute reality about the number of people we are with. If you find there is discontent in the company you keep when you are alone, it is worth considering what the source of this discontent is. Life inevitably comes with its challenges and we might find that our discontent arises from events that have happened in our life, frustrations about our current situation, or anxiety, fear, and depression about what lies ahead. But these thoughts and emotions are not who you are. Of course, realising this does not mean that our problems are not real or that they suddenly disappear, but rather there arises an opportunity to not be defined in terms of them. Finding out who you are beyond your cognitions and emotions may be the greatest mystery you will ever undertake to unravel.
When I put aside all the things that usually consume my mind, I see that I am not the source of discontent. What a relief! If I am not the source of discontent, then it means that the most fundamental thing I have access to…myself…conscious existence is intrinsically alright as is. A benign neutrality that has neither an agenda for pleasure nor pain.
With this realisation, we learn to enjoy the company we keep wherever we go. No other human being becomes responsible for our contentment. Is this not freedom? To want for nothing. It means then that no unnecessary conditions are being placed on your joy. Instead, you can find enjoyment independent of whether you are alone or with others.
This year has been so different to any year before. Of course, I have been through phases when I have missed human contact, struggled with decisions about the future, lacked motivation to keep working, and had my share of interpersonal (or maybe just personal 😉) melodramas. Nonetheless, I have also had time to embrace the true meaning of aloneness. And for that, I am grateful. Aloneness does not mean avoiding other people, it just means not avoiding yourself. So, the next time you find yourself alone, why not just relax into it? Make yourself a cup of tea or coffee, maybe pick up a good book, and fully appreciate your own radiant company.
“To Be or Not to Be” (To Do): That is the Question
by Mbalentle Madlala
I’m sure many of us have heard the quote in the above title sometime in our lives, regardless of whether we can specifically pinpoint when and from where we did. The quote actually comes from the famous William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one of his many so-called “tragedies”, or plays. Perhaps you may have noticed my brief addition to the quote, indicated in brackets. I trust my reason for this will be evident later in the text.
Being able to start off this reflection with this quote makes me feel really philosophical and reflective indeed, haha. But trust me, starting off this way is not just for the sake of being dramatic, oh no. As I begun to formulate my thoughts in order to write this piece, I found that this is a statement that is relevant and that summates my experiences as an honours student during these unprecedented times we currently find ourselves in.
So 2020 was going to be MY year. My year to live in the city and experience all the adventure it holds whilst pursuing scientific knowledge and experience in the form of an honours degree at the prestigious University of Cape Town. My life would evolve around this – it would be high up on my list of “Important things Mbali does in life”. A significant pursuit to tick off before attending to any other thing I wish to do, any other pursuit of the soul. Make sure I “secure the bag” and all the things. That was the expectation.
But that’s not how the story actually played out. Don’t get me wrong – my experience at UCT, although brief, has exceeded my expectation. I honestly feel like it was the springboard to why I’ve come this far in my science, my writing, my world view, my occupational confidence, my current way of thinking. But I digress.
No one could’ve imagined how the year subsequently played out (as I’m sure you’ve heard several times). Who knew I’d be living the life I described above at home? I mean, how does one continue to “live in the city + experience it + pursue science at UCT”, a pursuit that my life was supposed to evolve around, at home?
Exactly. One doesn’t.
I wasn’t devastated though. My “free bird” nature, as I like to call it, allows me to go with the Spirit and be at peace with things I can’t change. Rather, I was challenged. Like I had to ask myself, “what is life now?” “What am I within life?” And with all the more time on my hands, “what do I do?” “Who do I be?” “How shall I be, and subsequently, do?”
These questions led me on a journey of questioning whether what “I do” gives more meaning to me than what “I be”. At the beginning of the year, my “being” – Mbali – translated to my “doing” – pursuing science at UCT. That time Mbali has many other facets and many other parts to her. Many other interests and many other loves. But, perhaps unknowingly, I was willing to put it all on hold to secure the bag. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing – stay with me. BUT, now that I know that that is what I was going to do, is it really what I wanted? Do I still want that? Was this forced time at home about to teach me a thing or two about Being, apart from just Doing (Not Being) ?
And then issues concerning privilege and position, poverty, injustice, racism, xenophobia, heart conditions and corruption, violence and classism etc. started being highlighted more deeply in society because of the circumstances. All of it played massive roles in the above described journey I now consciously found myself in. Whilst pursuing my love for science and health care and taking care of my responsibilities during the journey, I would now pursue other issues I care about more intently. With a wholistic approach. Doing the necessary heart work and introspection required to challenge my internal biases. Challenge my world view. Reflect on why I’m actually on this earth and why I chose to pursue the current occupation I find myself in. BE better so that I could DO better. Not just one or the other.
Disclaimer: it’s pretty hard. Like it’s weird and challenging and humbling and requires vulnerability and openness and embarrassment and a heart to learn with the possibility of being wrong. But dang! I really be liking the girl I’m learning about in the process (AKA me) and because of this, I can be a better contribution to society, to my research, to my people, to my country.
I’ve found myself joining leadership courses, learning about expression at writing labs and even running (I say “running” very cautiously) a whole entire comrades marathon (like the most randomest things) as a result of this journey. Consequently, I’ve been impacted by so many random people and places and things and webinars and phone calls and zoom meetings, all from my dining room table/bed at home. I’ve stepped out and collaborated and created and shared and asked for help and helped others. I’ve given time to things my soul enjoys (though feeling guilty, then proceeding to ask myself why) and things I haven’t done in a minute. I’ve prioritised others. I’ve dug deep and remembered what’s important to me and how important people are – way more than anything I could ever simply do. I’ve done things that scare me. I’ve spoken to my mama about things I never thought I ever would. I could go on.
All this, in itself, is a privilege, I see that. I take responsibility for that. And it never would have happened had all this madness not happened. Wild.
Basically the message I guess I’m trying to get across to YOU (well done for getting this far in reading some of my crazy reflections on paper) is to check again – Who are you and what do you stand for? What is important to you – do you do it? Will you be it? And from this place, how can you live a more integrated balanced life? In all you do. Then, relate these thoughts to your purpose. How best you can contribute to this world. On the daily and in the long term. And lastly, stay learning and stay challenging your world view whilst staying true to yourself and your convictions of love. I mean, what kind of scientists would we be if we didn’t stay malleable, flexible, open to learn, discover, change?
So “To Be or To Do (Not To Be)?” A beautiful tragedy – I say both. Be you → Do you.
2020 – a year wasted or a time to grow?
by Sithandiwe Dlamini
Planet earth has experienced its share of pandemics throughout history and the current one is nothing new to it. However, Covid-19 is a new experience for us, its current dwellers. Even though we’ve experienced recent ones such has the H1N1 Swine flu and HIV, which is still making its presence known, few of us can remember a time in our lives when economies shut down and we were obligated to stay home. I’ve seen memes depicting 2020 as the year that threw pies into our faces and smeared it over our New Year’s resolutions. It’s now August and many of us are on a spectrum of still trying to clean the mess up or having created new and clean resolutions. Whatever it is, there’s something to be said about being able to laugh and decompress even though we are living though tumultuous times.
They have forced me to ask crucial questions about myself and how I can make this pandemic a more bearable experience for myself and others. Half-answers or no answers at all have been produced but it’s a process. It’s been rewarding to be more deliberate in my thinking and actions and the pandemic has extended the idea of what one can do, no matter how small or big, even though we are physically constricted.
Lockdown and online learning
Lockdown continues! It’s been about 4 months of lockdown and the life of online learning has not appeared to slow down. I have found that I have had more time to focus on academics, most likely due to no travel time, although actually executing the studying part is difficult. During the writing of my first test, finding a quiet workplace at home to complete this test was non-existent and I struggled to finish the test. The assessments and tests that followed, I managed to prepare my environment to be more efficient.
Getting used to a software like Prism felt powerful because of the many applications this programme can be used for. However, knowing what I was doing with it made me feel lost. It felt like using Prism was “out of my league”.
I guess I have become way too comfortable being at home with my family. I do admit it is very nice to not have to worry about cooking or any chores I would have to do by myself if I were back in Cape Town. Getting back into the swing of things upon returning back to Cape Town will be challenging.
Continuing university in a pandemic: it is not normal
It has been 4 months since the official nation-wide lockdown. Over 4 months since lectures, tired morning coffees and what we used to know as our normal daily life. Heading into the end of July, people have become used to the changes; yet, still nothing is normal about this at all.
Online learning has been an interesting experience. It isn’t only because of the absence of physical practical sessions and lectures or daily campus trips. It’s rather a series of realizations that makes one appreciate the opportunities we are given everyday that we take for granted.
Although we have been given the utmost privilege in a well-structured and resourceful online learning experience, one cannot deny that it is not the same as in person face-to-face learning. You begin to realize that interpersonal interaction during lectures, being able to ask questions face-to-face and learning through practical demonstrations are almost irreplaceable to lecture recordings. Additionally, having a social structural group where group tutorials and projects allows space for further learning is absent during this time. Lack of physical social interaction has made the process of learning rather more difficult than expected.
As online learning still continues, I think it is important to appreciate the interactions we have on a daily basis and the value of face-to-face learning opportunities. Especially, even if it means complaining about lack of sleep, in hindsight, it is still something I miss when done with a group of close friends in the same environment.