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SAEON’s Graduate Student Network 10th annual Indibano - Yesterday’s data, today's science, building tomorrow’s policy

By Hannah Raven & Aobakwe Lenkwe, GSN committee members
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Indibano FameLab winner Nobuhle Mweli (left) with SAEON’s research administrator, Beate Hölscher

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Each delegate received a plain white T-shirt, a potato and some fabric paint to design their own GSN 2017 Indibano T-shirts

SAEON’s Graduate Student Network (GSN) hosted its 10th annual Indibano at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town from 10-15 September.

The Indibano is a national student conference bringing students from various disciplines together, and focusing on long-term ecological monitoring in South Africa.

The theme of this year’s conference, “Yesterday’s data, today's science, building tomorrow’s policy”, links to SAEON’s mandate of incorporating information from historical data in monitoring environmental changes and identifying their causal factors. This information is vital to inform policies regarding the management and conservation of our aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.

The call for students to attend the Indibano brought in over 110 abstract submissions, of which only 22 delegates were selected from various universities including KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), the Witwatersrand, Walter Sisulu, Fort Hare, Venda, Limpopo, Pretoria, Zululand, Cape Town (UCT) and Western Cape. The conference costs, which covered delegate registration, flights, accommodation and food, were sponsored solely by SAEON.

Getting off to an exciting start

SAEON’s Egagasini and Fynbos Node scientists Dr Lara Atkinson, Dr Charine Collins and Dr Jasper Slingsby kicked off the proceedings with an introduction to the research conducted by their respective nodes, providing insight to the delegates of possible career opportunities at these nodes. South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) staff Anisha Dayaram and Maphale Matlala presented current developments by the South African VegMap project, a key tool used for long-term monitoring and management in terrestrial environments.

Student presentations

The talks were followed by 12-minute presentations by all delegates attending, judged by their peers and three SAEON-appointed judges, whose feedback afterwards was intended to help delegates improve their presentation skills. Prizes were awarded to the best presentation based on scores submitted by the official judges. The winners were: Renae Logston (3rd prize), Ramontsheng Rapolaki and Mthokozisi Moyo (2nd prize) and Robert Schlegel (1st prize). The People’s Choice Awards went to the highest scoring delegates from the peer-review process: Frederick Mashao (3rd prize), Thembeka Mvelase (2nd prize), and Tamanna Patel and Robert Schlegel (1st prize).

Panel discussion

After a rewarding day jam-packed with talks, delegates headed to the UCT club for a panel discussion centered on transformation in academia. This open discussion aimed to create a positive space where students could discuss their thoughts and ideas on how to transform academia and their role as students within their own academic environment.

Other topics of discussion included future career options, to PhD or not to PhD, and the Fees Must Fall strikes. The panel was made up of Prof. Mamokgethi Phakeng, Prof. Edmund February and Dr Jasper Slingsby, creating diverse opinions for the students to draw from. This discussion encouraged delegates to start thinking from a different perspective.

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A full-day workshop on science communication prepared delegates for the Indibano’s very own FameLab heat and inspired them to make their science interesting and relevant for a lay audience

FameLab heat

Jive Media Africa was brought on board for a full-day workshop on science communication to prepare delegates for the Indibano’s very own FameLab heat. The international FameLab competition started in the UK in 2005 and has since spread to 30 countries. The competition gives scientists three minutes to communicate an aspect of their science in front of judges and a live audience.

The Indibano winner was announced as Nobuhle Mweli (UKZN - SAEON Grasslands Node), who will go on to the next heat bolstered by the good wishes and support of the members of SAEON’s Graduate Student Network. Special mention must be made of the runners-up - Athi Mfikili and Amy Marshall, who came second and third respectively.

Other activities that formed part of the Indibano included an Introduction to R (statistical software) Workshop, presented by SAEON affiliate, Dr Glenn Moncrieff. With its focus on how to get started in R, the workshop was mainly aimed at people who had limited to no experience in R to introduce them to all the benefits the free software can offer.

Bringing the day to a close, the committee hosted an informal session where delegates could network and have fun. Each delegate received a plain white T-shirt, a potato and some fabric paint to design their own GSN 2017 Indibano T-shirts.

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Dr Jasper Slingsby of SAEON’s Fynbos Node took the delegates on an informed hike through Silvermine to collect data from temperature loggers and trial his newly developed app

Field trip

The final day of the Indibano was spent at Silvermine in Table Mountain National Park, one of the Fynbos Node’s active monitoring sites. Dr Jasper Slingsby took the delegates on an informed hike through the reserve to collect data from temperature loggers and trial his newly developed app.

The app allows users to make point observations in the field of major changes in natural vegetation. It also included taking photos and notes of the change within each site.

After the field trip, the delegates had a short tutorial session with Jasper on ‘R’, during which he showed them how to use all the information that had been collected using the app*. He then showed delegates how ‘R’ could be used as a spatial distribution tool by generating maps.

This was followed by a tour of the observatory where the Indibano was hosted, led by SAAO's Christian Hettlage, who kept the delegates entertained with stories of the infamous astronomers that came to South Africa to map the stars and why it was important to do so.

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A tour of the observatory where the Indibano was hosted kept the delegates entertained with stories of the infamous astronomers that came to South Africa to map the stars

The 10th annual GSN Indibano was a great success and the committee looks forward to further engagement with the GSN, further expanding the network and providing a platform for the next generation of environmental scientists to collaborate.

If you would like to interact with the next generation of environmental scientists, whether it is to employ them, fund them, supervise them or work with them, please feel free to contact us: gsn@saeon.ac.za. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and check our website...

*To read more about the app and the data, visit http://www.ecologi.st/.

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