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GSN Indibano "impressive and informative"

By Athi Mfikili, External Liaison, SAEON Graduate Student Network
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Dr Marina Joubert introduces delegates to the Science Communication Toolbox

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Dr Dave Thompson tells delegates more about SAEON’s research in the Kruger National Park

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From left: Amy Marshall, GSN Indibano coordinator; Victor Dunga, winner of the Best Presentation award; and Qondisa Mbekwa, chairperson of the GSN Steering Committee.

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Panellists of the “If the lab coat doesn’t fit? Communicating science outside your comfort zone” discussion. From left: Charlie Kuzmanich, Dr Lucia D’Ambruoso, Prof. Wayne Twine, Prof. Nox Makunga and Dr Marina Joubert

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Wordcloud of research disciplines presented at the Indibano

The twelve months of planning that went into the 11th Graduate Student Network (GSN) Indibano proved to be time well spent.

The event was held at Wits Rural Facility, the University of the Witwatersrand’s satellite research facility located on a 315-hectare estate of savanna woodland in the central Lowveld region of Limpopo, near the Kruger National Park.

The SAEON GSN Indibano is one of the few student conferences in the country that provide an excellent platform for postgraduate students to network with their peers as well as with established scientists. This year’s Indibano, hosted for the first time by SAEON’s Ndlovu Node, was attended by 25 postgraduate students from nine universities and two research institutions, including SAEON; five GSN Node sponsors [who are established scientists at SAEON]; and five guest scientists, including Lucia D’Ambruoso, deputy director of the Centre for Global Development at the University of Aberdeen and honorary researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“Selling your science, selling yourself”

The GSN Indibano is not just a conference, but an excellent platform for capacity building and training of postgraduate students in skills they require in their career as scientists. Apart from communicating scientific research findings through peer-reviewed scholarly journals and conference presentations, effective dissemination of scientific findings to a wide audience remains a challenge, not only for postgraduate students but also for established scientists.

Part of the reason for this is that science communication training is often not offered to science students during their undergraduate or postgraduate studies at most South African universities. As a result, they often struggle to communicate their scientific research findings effectively to both a scientific and non-scientific audience.

Themed “Selling your science, selling yourself”, this year’s proceedings kicked off with a science communication workshop offered by brand and communication strategist Charlie Kuzmanich, Dr Marina Joubert, a science communication researcher at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST), Professor Nox Makunga, a biotechnologist from Stellenbosch University, Professor Wayne Twine, Mrs Rhian Twine and Dr Lucia D’Ambruoso.

With vast teaching experience in corporate companies, Charlie Kuzmanich emphasised the importance of developing and marketing your own personal brand to enable you to communicate your scientific findings effectively to a specific audience. Personal branding is dependent on strong narrative and should be ubiquitous and ever-evolving.

Dr Marina Joubert, a science communication expert, encouraged postgraduate students to start exercising science communication to the public early in their careers as it is often more difficult to do so at a later stage. She showed Indibano participants how to use a science communication toolbox.

In her presentation, Dr Lucia D’Ambruoso provided an international perspective on science communication in multi-level, intersectoral collaborations.

Millions of people all over the world are constantly sharing an extremely wide range of fascinating, quirky, funny, irrelevant and important content using social media platforms. While we may not know the future of social media, its ability to distribute information to a wide range of users quickly and effectively presents new opportunities for scientists to engage with a diverse audience.

Professor Nox Makunga, who has recently been recognised as one of South Africa’s most ‘visible’ scientists, advised the students to utilise social media platforms effectively to communicate their science and also to forge relationships through interaction with other scientists via professional networks such as LinkedIn and ResearchGate.

The workshop was followed by a panel discussion titled “If the lab coat doesn’t fit? Communicating science outside your comfort zone”. The discussion took the form of a two-way interaction between the panellists and the students.

Students were advised to be clear about their research goals, to try stepping into the world of the target community and go for dialogue rather than one-way communication when communicating their science. Visual maps and graphic representations are among the widely used tools that help to make the scientific findings more understandable. Therefore, delegates were also introduced to R-studio, one of the most popularly used open source statistical packages, and GIS, which were both presented by SAEON’s Dr Jasper Slingsby and Hayden Wilson.

Practical experience of science communication at Kruger National Park

When visiting the provinces of Limpopo or Mpumalanga, a visit to Kruger National Park, one of the largest game reserves in Africa, is a definite must. Its unrivalled high diversity of wildlife includes the Big Five – lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants and buffaloes; other mammals; birds; and mountainous, bush plains and forests.

For the GSN delegates, visiting one of the largest game reserves in Africa did not only bring the opportunity of seeing wildlife, but also included a practical lesson in science communication. Dr Izak Smith demonstrated to the delegates how science communication has led to three different burn plot management strategies in the park. In addition, SAEON Ndlovu Node scientist and GSN Node sponsor, Dr Dave Thompson, took the delegates to one of SAEON’s sentinel research sites in the park. 

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Dr Izak Smit demonstrates practical experience of science communication at Kruger National Park

“Impressive” transdisciplinary research evident in postgraduate student presentations

‘Philosophy of science’ is story-telling, whether it is for a conference presentation or for paper writing. GSN Indibano 2018 delegates demonstrated that by presenting top-notch transdisciplinary research during the third day of the conference, which ranged from terrestrial, climatic and atmospheric research to freshwater, coastal and marine research themes [see Wordcloud].Although all presentations were restricted to 12 minutes, this did not deter the delegates, who presented their work very well within this time period. The panel of adjudicators concluded that the level of presentations was of the same standard as that of international conferences. The panel comprised Dr Shaun Deyzel, SAEON Elwandle Node scientist and GSN Node Sponsor; Dr Betsie Milne, SAEON Arid Lands Node scientist and GSN Node Sponsor; Dr Dave Thompson; Prof. Nox Makunga and Ms Amy Marshall, GSN Indibano coordinator. 

The students were very successful in incorporating the knowledge and skills they had gained from the science communication workshops into their presentation. Most importantly, all the presenters highlighted how their scientific research findings would be beneficial to or communicated to the public. Other than contributing to the knowledge of science, scientists need to address the question as to ‘how their scientific findings would benefit the general society’.

The panel reviewed and evaluated each delegate’s presentation and in addition, each delegate was assessed by two of their peers. The delegates found the opportunity to present their work and to receive positive critique and feedback from a panel of experts to be incredibly useful to their development as scientists.

“And the winners were…”

The scores from the adjudication sheets were added up by the panel and prizes were awarded to the top three presentations. The first prize and the People’s Choice award went to Loyiso Dunga from the University of Cape Town (UCT) for his presentation titled “Mapping and assessing ecosystem conditions of South African kelp forests”. The second prize went to Zolile Maseko, a PhD candidate at Rhodes University, for his presentation on “The distribution of two Eccritotarsus spp., biological control agents of water hyacinth in South Africa”. The third prize was awarded to Tania Moyikwa from UCT for her presentation titled “Resonance between traditional ecological knowledge and scientific findings about climate and environmental change along the east coast of South Africa”.

Although only three winners could be chosen, the delegates expressed their gratitude to their peers, guests, adjudicators, the GSN Committee and SAEON at large for affording them the opportunity to interact and present their work at the SAEON GSN Indibano 2018.

Prishani Boodraj, an MSc candidate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said, “I was nervous before the presentation, but it was great to present and listen to everyone. It was a nice experience; the judges were so approachable.”

Dedricks Morake, a PhD candidate at UCT, said, “I have learnt a lot from this conference and from the workshops and interacting with everyone.”

Tania Moyikwa, who won third prize for her presentation, started working on her presentation a day before she had to present. During the presentation she was nervous and went on to say, “Everyone gets nervous, I can’t fix nerves, but I can try to accept the situation.”

Former president Thabo Mbeki once said in his speech at the African Student Leadership Summit: “As students [our] principal task is to acquire knowledge as well as the capacity to generate new knowledge”. Although only a small number of postgraduate students are selected to attend the annual Indibano, the GSN Committee hopes that the delegates will share the knowledge and skills they gained from this year's Indibano with their peers at their universities and institutions and have a long-lasting impact on their development as emerging scientists.

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The people who made the SAEON GSN Indibano so successful

End-of-year examinations

It is that time of the year when students across the country write their final examinations. The SAEON GSN would like to convey their best wishes to everyone who will be sitting for exams during October and November. Remember the secret to success is preparation and hard work. Always do your very best.

Find the SAEON GSN on:

  • Facebook: SAEON GSN
  • Twitter: @SAEON_GSN
  • Website: http://gsn.dirisa.org/
  • Email: gsn@saeon.ac.za

 

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