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Reflections on Indibano 2017: A Special place, Special people and Special memories

By Amy Marshall, GSN committee member
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Students at the 2017 Indibano in Cape Town

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Nobuhle Mweli from UKZN, the Indibano FameLab heat winner

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Ngwako Mohale from UCT takes his #FameLab selfie

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GSN 2017 Committee members Hannah Raven (L), Nasiphi Ntshanga (2-L) and Aobakwe Lenkwe (R) with Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

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Indibano delegates hike in Silvermine

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Tamanna Patel from UKZN, painting her Indibano T-shirt

It is said that some things just keep getting better with age. If that is the case, then the 10th Annual SAEON GSN Indibano certainly lived up to this expectation.

The theme for this year, ‘Yesterday’s data, today’s science, building tomorrow’s policy’, was also intimately connected with time.

Students working on various postgraduate environmental science research projects (both aquatic and terrestrial) from across South Africa, gathered at the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) in Cape Town from 11-15 September to present their work, share ideas and connect around the topic of environmental science.

Now that the Indibano has come and gone, the question we are asking ourselves is what made this Indibano so special? The beautiful backdrop provided by Cape Town certainly added a special touch, but if we had to sum it up in two words, it was ‘the people’.

A conference is usually only as successful as the quality of its delegates and that was certainly proven true at this year’s Indibano. But while the main aim of many conferences is to network and present research, this conference had a very special additional element - an itinerary intended to grow each delegate both personally and professionally. Below are a few ways in which this was achieved.

Talking across disciplines – when land and sea meet

Scientists are often accused of working and communicating exclusively within their own knowledge spheres, meaning that most scientists communicate with other scientists working within their own particular area of expertise. The Indibano challenged this stereotype by getting terrestrial and aquatic ecologists talking to each other in the same room. For Frederick Mashao from the University of Limpopo, the most interesting part of the conference was the opportunity to “network and interact with people from different disciplines”.

The result was fascinating learning and cross-pollination opportunities between disciplines. Mthokozisi Moyo from the University of the Witwatersrand told us that for him, the most fascinating aspect of the Indibano was “all the work on marine ecology. As someone from an inland university, I am not exposed to marine ecology, so learning about it was very interesting.”

And it seems the feeling was mutual. Renae Logston from the University of Cape Town (Ma-Re, Oceanography) had this to add from the marine perspective: “I am from the marine realm, and hearing all the presentations on terrestrial projects was interesting to listen to in terms of the interconnectivity of the systems. It really hit home when some presenters talked about the same remote-sensing techniques used on land that are used for the ocean.”

But this isn’t where it ended…

Making science accessible – the FameLab experience

The Indibano then took environmental science a step further by promoting accessible science, in other words, making science interesting and relevant for a lay audience. Science communication with the public was cleverly packaged by the people at Jive Media Africa under the FameLab label into a fascinating workshop that forced the delegates to communicate their hard science to a ‘public audience’ in an easy-to-understand three-minute talk.

Delegates had to return the next day and in exactly three minutes present their final talk, aptly named the ‘Pop Idols of Science’. While many scientists may think this sounds like their own personal nightmare, the spunky delegates at this year’s conference took all this in their stride and produced fascinating talks that wowed and amazed everyone, most of all themselves.

The way in which the delegates encouraged and supported their peers was awe-inspiring to watch. Nokubonga Mbandzi, SAEON Elwandle Node intern, mentions how valuable it was “being able to present my MSc study in three minutes in the FameLab idols. I have learnt how amazing my work is and that I need to communicate my science as yesterday's data helps to support today's science to build tomorrow's policy,” she added.

Zinzi Nokwali from Walter Sisulu University, agrees with Nokubonga: “I got to present my research in three minutes and found the confidence to do so around new faces and crowds, to be judged and criticised constructively, which will help with my development as an emerging researcher.”

And then, just because scientists can be rock stars too, Ngwako Mohale from UCT said his fondest memory of the Indibano was “taking a selfie during [his] three minutes of Fame. #FameLabSA”

Inspirational dialogues: On the shoulders of giants

But the inspiration did not end there. The GSN committee organised a Transformation in Academia dialogue with the very motivational Professor Ed February, Dr Jasper Slingsby and Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. The major take-home message for the delegates was that even for these successful individuals, the path has been far from easy and failure has played an important role in each one of their stories.

Kolisa Sinyanya from UCT explains how her fondest moment was when “we had the transformation debate, receiving words of wisdom from the best in the game”.

Best of all was the sense of camaraderie that buoyed up even the most nervous of students, leaving everyone with a sense of ‘anything is possible because we are all in this together’. Mthokozisi Moyo from the University of the Witwatersrand summed this up best, saying “there were a lot of exciting things to choose from but the Transformation of Academia discussion was the highlight for me. Being able to engage with academics from different backgrounds was eye-opening.”

First-time experiences: The making of memories

The conference provided some firsts for many people - whether it was their first time taking a flight or singing karaoke on the last night together, everyone had a first-time experience that somehow changed them for the better.

Another first was designing and painting T-shirts, proving that scientists are not only rock stars but also creative geniuses. For others a first was the tour of the SAAO, learning about the past, space and the true origins of red tape (it was actual pink tape used to bind official documents) and of course, seeing a giant working telescope from the turn of the 20th century.

While each of these ‘firsts’ was special in its own way, as the delegates hiked through Silvermine on the last day of the conference, many of them reflected on what had been special about the Indibano for them specifically. Many agreed that it was the amazingly informative hike led by the renowned Fynbos ecologist, Dr Jasper Slingsby. For some delegates it was their first time in the Fynbos biome, learning about its ecology first-hand.

Inspired by the stunning views of both oceans and terrain, this hike was a reminder of what drives many of these scientists - a common love for nature and a desire to make a difference.

The conference had brought together people from diverse backgrounds and study areas, placed them in the same room and asked them to talk to each other in a common language. This wide variety of activities had further assisted the young scientists in mastering the art of concise, clear communication and took them on adventures both academic and inspirational.

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