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Behind the scenes of SAEON’s Graduate Student Network: Meet Tercia Strydom, Chair of the GSN committee

By Nasiphi Ntshanga, GSN External Liaison
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SAEON’s Graduate Student Network (GSN) is run by a committee that is elected by GSN members. This committee is in charge of keeping the GSN vibrant and relevant.

In this issue we talk to Tercia Strydom, who heads up the committee, to find out more about her challenging roles as a young woman scientist, a PhD student and chairperson of the GSN.

Tercia, please tell us a bit about yourself:

I’m a young female scientist hailing from Cape Town, but now living and working in the Kruger National Park – from Big City Life to Big Five Life! My current position within SANParks, as Scientist: Abiotic Processes, revolves around research relating to the abiotic drivers in savanna ecosystems such as water, fire and soil.

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Tercia’s current position as a SANParks scientist revolves around research relating to the abiotic drivers in savanna ecosystems, such as water, fire and soil

We all know that the GSN has a website and is active on various social media platforms. How did you initially find out about SAEON and the SAEON GSN?

I actually learnt about the SAEON GSN by word of mouth! My Master’s supervisor told me about the network in 2012 and suggested that I join. This illustrates the importance of making a good impression on GSN members so that they can spread the word.

The GSN is a large network with over 200 members. Please tell us more about your role as Committee Chair, and some of your key responsibilities:

The GSN Committee is made up of five other young, passionate and bright individuals also busy moulding their careers and completing their Master’s degrees and PhDs. The team cannot function unless each person pulls their weight and does their part. As the Committee Chair, I am responsible for the smooth running of the team and for ensuring that the team functions in sync. Another major responsibility is that of the annual Indibano Conference. It is imperative that duties are delegated to the appropriate team members to ensure the success of the Indibano.

You are involved in so many activities - your job (which involves a lot of field work), your PhD and the GSN, among other projects, yet you have it all under control. How do you do it?

Trust me, there are days when I don’t… and that’s okay. I guess that it’s all about balancing responsibilities and knowing when to prioritise what. One cannot devote 100% to each duty, each time. We have to decide which duty to prioritise to ensure its successful completion before shifting focus to the next duty. Remember to juggle and prioritise (I cannot emphasize that word enough!); if not, we could easily become overwhelmed.

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Tercia is a junior scientist at SANParks where she is involved in a lot of field work, but she still finds time to juggle her PhD and SAEON GSN duties

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Tercia won the award for Best Presentation at an international conference in Lithuania (Europe)

Science in South Africa is transforming. Would you agree that these are exciting times for women in science?

You can say that again! One does not only need to look to older, more established scientists to find inspiration. I am just as inspired by younger scientists who are so passionate and have so much drive to achieve their aspirations because I can relate to that. I understand their frustrations, their sacrifices and their heart-felt desires, and yet I see them pushing and breaking down those mental and abstract obstacles that discourage so many of us. Society and systems have boxed us for too long - this is our time!

The GSN aims to promote networking amongst postgraduate students as well as collaboration between students and scientists. What are some of the networks and collaborations you have been part of as a result of the GSN?

The GSN provides that ideal platform to network and meet other postgraduate students enduring the same journey in pursuit of our postgraduate degrees. Meeting fellow peers under the same pressure and yet finding a way to push forward reminds us that, ultimately, our only barriers are ourselves.

In addition, the GSN has broadened my networks in the sense that I now have “colleagues” involved in totally different fields of science than I’m used to. This is both enlightening and well, cool! This would not have been possible had the GSN not been as multidisciplinary as it is. Also, I’ve met some really big names in South African science thanks to the GSN and the Indibano Conference.

As a young scientist, what advice would you give students in terms of networking and collaboration, and on just being a postgraduate student, especially one hoping to be a researcher?

Network, network, network! As a young scientist find your path, network and step out of your comfort zone. I fully understand how difficult or nerve-wracking it is to confront that big-shot scientist you’ve referenced over and over again at a conference – it’s like meeting a celebrity. However, when you finally manage to work up the courage to chat to him/her, you realise how normal (and sometimes hilarious) they actually are. They’ve been through this journey you’re undertaking; they’ve gained experience and insight which could help you move forward. I think that, often, the value of our peers in our generation is overlooked. Network amongst your peers - they are the big-shots of tomorrow!

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Tercia (second from right) with fellow GSN committee members Rifilwe Victor Modiba, Olujimi Osidele, Nasiphi Ntshanga and Arrey Ivo

Remember that your postgraduate pursuit is a journey and not a sprint. It’s more than that piece of paper or that title. It’s a time in our lives where we learn so much about ourselves; our strengths, our weaknesses, and our coping mechanisms. Coping is critical. Do not ignore that. So take it easy and do not over-exert yourselves. Some people say “Work hard. Play hard”. I say “Work hard…SLEEP...then work again!”

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