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Indibano 2015: An 'invigorating and enriching' experience for SAEON students

By Nasiphi Ntshanga, External Liaison, SAEON Graduate Student Network
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This year, SAEON's annual Graduate Student Network (GSN) Indibano was held in the sparkling city of Kimberley during the first week of September.

Indibano means "gathering" in isiXhosa, and this year it was quite a unique gathering. Delegates hailing from 11 of South Africa's universities, including SAEON's very own students, were hosted by SAEON's Arid Lands Node in Kimberley.

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Big brother is watching you! Indibano 2015 delegates observe the manoeuvres of an unmanned aerial vehicle operated by Ndlovu Node technician Rion Lerm

The winners of this year's best presentations. L-R: Rabia Mathekula, People's Choice Award; Tercia Strydom, GSN committee coordinator; and Emma Lockerbie, Winner: Best Presentation (Picture: A. Webster)

The Indibano provided an excellent opportunity for the students to network with their peers as well as with established scientists, and equipped them with valuable statistical and data management skills. Furthermore, the SAEON GSN committee unveiled the winning T-shirt design, as voted for by GSN members.

Long-term environmental monitoring for the benefit of society

The presentations covered a range of topics; from biological invasions to hydrology to geomorphology, all the way to taxonomy and biodiversity.

One central theme was common across all fields – long-term environmental research for the benefit of society. The theme was well incorporated within all the talks and the main outcome from the discussions was the importance of reporting research findings to the communities, societies, government agencies and private sector organisations involved.

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Indibano delegates learned that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for ecological monitoring is a fast-growing industry in South Africa (Picture: Naudene Maree)

Winning T-shirt design by Naudene Maree voted for by the network. The T-shirt will be re-designed to reflect SAEON's mandate and the role of the GSN.

The Indibano kicked off with a keynote address by Dr Joh Henschel, Manager of SAEON's Arid Lands Node. The talk was an interesting account of the impressive natural wonders of the arid lands and the desert. It highlighted the role SAEON's Arid Lands Node plays in researching these natural assets as well as the opportunities available for students. Most importantly, the talk highlighted the great significance of long-term environmental monitoring for understudied regions such as the Northern Cape, especially with the current interest in "fracking" and other developments occurring in the region.

Winning student presentations

The student presentations that followed were all of a high quality and were adjudicated by SAEON's representative, Mrs Beate Hölscher, and two GSN committee members, Nasiphi Ntshanga and Tercia Strydom.

"The standard of presentations at this year's Indibano was phenomenal. The students presented their research in a professional manner and with such pride in their work. It is so encouraging to see such bright scientists in the making!" commented Tercia Strydom.

Emma Lockerbie won first prize for the best presentation with her talk, "The use of ecological, fishing and environmental indicators for the decision support of fisheries in the southern Benguela". Rita Steyn won second prize in the Best Presentation category with her talk titled "Methods to investigate, and spatial patterns on, subtidal rocky reef benthic invertebrates".

The People's Choice Award (voted for by the delegates) went to the first student to present on the day, Rabia Mathekula, for her talk titled "Do functional trait differences between native and invasive plant species predict invasion potential in the sub-Antarctic islands?"

Innovative ways to conduct research and manage data

The second and third days of the Indibano were dedicated to a scientific computing workshop facilitated by the Software Carpentry Foundation. Software Carpentry is an international non-profit organisation made up of volunteers who teach researchers basic software skills.

The workshop covered Git, a version control software, and R, a statistical analysis software. The workshop was facilitated by Anelda van der Walt from Talarify and Bertie Seyffert, an astrophysics student from North West University.

In between learning two programming languages in a very short space of time, Indibano delegates took a short detour and observed the operation of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operated by Ndlovu Node technician, Rion Lerm.

"The use of UAVs for mine surveying and, to a lesser extent, ecological monitoring is a fast-growing industry in South Africa," Rion told delegates. "Some of SAEON's current applications for the recently acquired UAV housed at the Ndlovu Node are filamentous algal mapping, birds of prey nest surveys and land-cover classification.

"UAVs are cost-effective, as compared to manned aircrafts; however these systems are limited by battery life, which ultimately affects the spatial extent of projects. Nonetheless, technological advances are made in leaps with UAVs and the post-processing software used to produce the high-resolution aerial images. SAEON is proud and excited to be part of this growing industry."

Meeting young and upcoming researchers and well-established researchers

Among the keynote speakers was Mr Thabo Mohlala, a SAEON Ndlovu Node technician and stream assessment scoring system (SASS) specialist. Thabo's talk was an impressive account of SAEON's and SANParks' ecological monitoring projects in the Kruger National Park that have translated into real benefits for society.

The Indibano ended with a very interesting talk by Dr Helga van der Merwe, an NRF Research Career Award Fellow at SAEON's Arid Lands Node. Her talk was a fascinating description of the research she has conducted over the years and the exciting opportunities, over and above her research projects, which have arisen along the way. Her message to the students was: "Seize these opportunities, because they could be exactly what you need to take your science career to the next level."

GSN T-shirt

Then it was time to unveil the winning T-shirt design in a competition that was open to all GSN members and invited members to vote for the best design entered into the competition. The winning design was by Naudene Maree, a student from the University of Venda. Naudene re-designed the T-shirt and changed the slogan to "I don't just hug a tree, I use my degree environmentally", accompanied by a cartoon of a monkey hugging a Baobab tree. Once this T-shirt has been finalised it will be made available to the Network.

What students had to say about the Indibano

"Treehuggers anonymous!" - Naudene Maree

"Something fresh and different, unlike other conferences, with a good mix of excellent graduates with different environmental study fields!" - Marinus Boon

"Good quality presentations and competent presenters." - Rion Lerm

"The Indibano is a good initiative and I believe it achieved its aim to encourage networking between GSN members. Keep it up!" - Rabia Mathakutha

"It was so fantastic to be surrounded by like-minded people who did not mind hearing all about your research. Most importantly, it provided a platform for sharing our fieldwork war stories. Overall a lovely experience and what amazing research is being done in South Africa." - Amy Webster

"It was a great experience. I learnt a lot and made a bunch of friends ...I loved it! Must say, being chosen [to attend] gave me so much confidence in terms of my research." - Aobakwe Lenkwe

"Great networking opportunity. Great to see what interesting and useful research is going on in the country and what type of data is available. We learnt from each other and found mutual encouragement." - Anina Coetzee

"Interesting and invigorating Indibano indeed!" - Rita Steyn

"Exceptional" - Gabolwelwe Mosina

"The Indibano is a perfect platform to meet and get to know other scientists/students in your field. It also helps improve the students' presentation skills." - Sinethemba Ntshangase

"The GSN conference was a fun and enriching experience. It was great to spend a few days with an amazing group of people from such diverse scientific backgrounds. It definitely broadened my knowledge of the different projects taking place in our beautiful country and helped me to identify individuals that I could potentially collaborate with in future." - Monique Nunes

Vote of thanks

On behalf of all the Indibano 2015 delegates, the members of the GSN Committee would like to thank the following people and organisations for their contributions in making this year's Indibano a success: Beate Hölscher (SAEON), Eva Mudau (SAEON), Ous Meisies Lodge staff, Anelda van der Walt (Talarify), Bertie Seyffert (North West University) and the SAEON Arid Lands Node staff.


SAEON's GSN Committee for 2015. L-R: Victor Modiba, Jimmy Osidele, Nasiphi Ntshanga, Tercia Strydom and Arrey Ivo (Picture: Thabang Sibiya)

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