Picture: Supplied
Picture: Supplied

SA women make their mark in the science world

By Yasmine Jacobs Time of article published Oct 24, 2021

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Cape Town – South African women continue to make their mark in science and we celebrate it with every chance we get.

Tarryn Surajpal, a Master’s student in applied mathematics at Stellenbosch University (SU) has won the university’s heat of the 2022 national FameLab science communication and public speaking competition.

FameLab is considered to be one of the biggest science communication competitions in the world and creates a platform for emerging scientists to speak to public audiences about their work.

Tanya van Aswegen, a PhD student in psychiatry, and Jamila Janna, a Master's student in zoology, finished second and third respectively.

Surajpal, Van Aswegen and Janna were among 16 Master’s and doctoral students who were given three minutes to share their researches with the audience.

As the winner of the heat, Surajpal will represent SU at the national final next year where she will compete against the winners of heats at other South Africa’s universities.

Surajpal research focused on the use of various models to predict the properties of effluent from desalination plants, especially in terms of how it mixes and spreads in the ocean upon discharge. The research may help to prevent negative environmental effects.

IOL spoke to Van Aswegen, a researcher in the department of psychiatry at SU. She is also completing a joint PhD between SU and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

She also forms part of the SA Research Chairs Initiative Chair in Post-traumatic Stress Disorder unit. In her presentation, she spoke about the attachment relationship between a mother and child within the context of mental health.

This research is important because it highlights the need for cross-cultural research of theories that pertain to mental health and child development.

“An attachment relationship is a bond that is formed between a primary caregiver, in most cases the mother and a child. This bond forms when the caregiver is sensitive and responsive to the needs of the child. Sensitive and supportive caregiving can lead to secure attachment which is very important in adaptive development for children. This includes brain, social and emotional development,” Van Aswegen explained.

She said these early relational experiences with parents (positive or negative) develop into mental representations throughout childhood and into adulthood. This results in representations that guide how we view ourselves, the world and may even influence our behaviour.

She noted that attachment research actually started more than 70 years ago. One of the big names behind attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth conducted research in Uganda in 1967.

Attachment theory has some origin in Africa, but very little research has been conducted in South Africa.

Van Aswegen aims to emphasise the importance of cross-cultural research in child development and mental health, with adapting and validating an attachment measure for the South African context. This will allow researchers to capture these mental representations of children. This will further grant the opportunity to conduct better research in future.

Van Aswegen is recruiting participants across South Africa to start the first phase of adapting the measurement instrument. This is a qualitative study, so children are required to write down narratives, specifically memories in the format of narratives.

She adds that the one good thing that came from this pandemic is that more people are aware of the importance of science and the role of researchers. So what does a researcher do? Well, a number of things.

“First and foremost I am a scientist because I conduct scientific research to advance our knowledge in a specific area of mental health. Secondly, I have to be a project manager, managing the admin and smooth running of my research project.

“This includes protocol writing, ethical clearance applications, and approval from education departments, recruitment of participants, execution, data analyses and publishing of scientific articles. Lastly, as a PhD candidate you have the task to complete your research in a specific time frame and produce a dissertation which will allow you to obtain a doctoral degree.”

The FameLab competition helps bridge the gap between the general public and what researchers and scientists do.

“FameLab is an important competition not only for personal development as a scientist but for knowledge valorisation. For far too long there has been a big gap between the general public and what researchers and scientist do. Products, medicine and interventions to name a few, are seen by the public, but the process and research behind the final product is neither publicised nor understood.”

The bridging of this gap could help get rid of the misconceptions. Getting rid of these misconceptions regarding mental health and psychiatry is crucial.

“I think that misconceptions and stigmatisation goes hand in hand in the field of psychiatry and psychology. Unfortunately, misconceptions can range from thinking that medication will keep patients in a ’dazed’ state, to mental illness showing weakness.”

Mental health has become a talking point in today’s society, especially self-care and preventative measures. But Van Aswegen said it is important that we talk more about mental illness itself. This means opening up about the disorders, struggles and the truth surrounding these conditions.

“Speaking more about the disorders will allow us to combat misconceptions, stigmatisation and hopefully creating the space for people to seek the necessary help.“

Van Aswegen’s love for the medical field started a young age. She studied straight after school but not particularly certain which field she would end up in.

“After the first year it became very clear to me that I was fascinated with the brain and all the mechanisms at play. The brain’s main function is to protect us, especially in threatening situations. It is a very complex organ, and therefore there will always be questions that would need answers, making it a perfect organ to research. It has been a long road to where I am today, after my undergraduate studies I completed two more degrees, of which one is a Master of Science degree.”

She added that this degree opened up the world of research and became the stepping stone to her PhD. “Clinicians and practice are informed by rigorous research and one cannot exist without the other. This is why I decided to continue and start my PhD study.”

Van Aswegen has advised South Africans who want to get into any mental health profession to be aware of all the steps needed to achieve the title of psychologist or psychiatrist.

“It requires many years of studying and dedication, therefore job shadowing will be beneficial for scholars that might want to follow this path. Job shadowing will also allow for learners to experience both the clinical and academic side of things. This line of work is far more than what is seen in the movies, portraying this profession as very uniformed.”

She also encouraged women who want to get into STEM to speak up and act.

“Since a young age girls are told that boys are better at mathematics and science, whereas girls perform better in other subjects. This follows the idea that only clever people can go into careers in STEM. But IQ alone isn’t enough to succeed in science. Perseverance, mental strength and toughness is what will stand you in good stead. So my advice to women who want to pursue a career in STEM: Do not focus on breaking the norm and being different. If you have an idea or observation, don’t silent your inquisitive side, speak up and act.

“The most important thing for me in science is diversity of thoughts, and we cannot achieve diversity if we do not include all genders and all races. Lastly, and most importantly for me is to find strong mentors. I am so fortunate to be part of a team that encourages and support women in STEM, and our head of department embraces all that a female leader should be for others like myself to succeed in STEM.”

IOL

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