Today (11 February) is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. I’d like to take this opportunity to highlight a few women (in science) in my life. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and any women in my life who are not mentioned here are no less inspirational to me. I admire you all.
As a young grasshopper, I used to watch wildlife shows on TV with my dad and grandmother quite often. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of my grandmother laughing at my efforts to mimic the way Jeff Corwin said the word “habitat”. Growing up, my family never went away on safari or to nature reserves, but we were blessed to live at the foot of Devil’s Peak (part of Table Mountain in Cape Town, SA). At the time, our lawn graded from alien grass on our doorstep, up into montane fynbos vegetation with no clear separation between where our property ended and where the Table Mountain National Park began. We had little tortoises and guinea fowl as regular visitors – even a little deer (or so I was told). Long story short, I grew up with a natural curiosity and appreciation for nature and its diversity. And that curiosity drew me inevitably into the realm of natural sciences, with the wholehearted support of my educators, my peers, my colleagues, and my mother. This is a thank you letter to all of you.
Mrs Jackie Wibberley
Mrs Wibberley was my high school Life Sciences (biology) teacher. She went far out of her way to keep us (my classmates and I) curious about not only the natural sciences, but science in general. She encouraged us to read popular articles (she even brought them to class and read them to us), she gave anecdotes to help us remember the difficult, boring parts of the curriculum, she paid attention to those who asked questions and if she couldn’t answer, she would do the research and find out. She noticed a burning curiosity in me, and she helped cultivate it. She encouraged me all the way through my Matric year (12th grade) and was thrilled to hear my plans to study biological sciences. I owe a lot of my motivation to her, and I wish I had spent more time getting to know her background before losing touch. I hope to reconnect with her once I submit my thesis and obtain my MSc… I think that would make her very happy. Thank you, Mrs Wibberley.
Gabi, apart from being the person I am most likely to be seen having tea with, is a pretty cool person to know. She has been involved in the development of a web application which allows researchers to cache images using a Google Image search and use them to test hypotheses involving phenotypic polymorphisms. She’s published an article about it in a renowned international scientific journal, and was awarded a prize by the British Ecological Society for her efforts. She’s currently pursuing a PhD… Oh, and she hasn’t even hit a quarter-century yet. I’m probably her biggest fan and she doesn’t even know it. I have so much faith in you, Gabi. Thanks for always being there for Academic Hana, and for being a layabout with me.
Nikita was a co-supervisor on one of my Honours projects in 2015. Last year, Nikita and I spent many, many weekends calling each other and using TeamViewer to co-author a paper on our combined findings using behavioural and acoustic data she collected for her MSc in 2013/2014. It has been one hell of a ride, but it is very nearly complete. Her dedication to the task and her insights into the field of animal behavioural ecology have made her a researcher that I look up to in many respects. I struggle to imagine working that many hours on the same manuscript with anyone else. And throughout the whole ordeal, she’s been nothing but supportive and motivational – someone who listened and sympathised when I complained about the things that frustrated me about research and academic writing. Another incredible woman in science. Thanks, Nikita. I can’t wait to get this paper published and give you a big hug and a high five, because words will not adequately encapsulate the relief we’ll both be feeling at that point…
My mother. What a woman. Life filled her basket with lemons during the years she spent pursuing her Master’s degree in Medicine (specialising in medical cell biology) part-time, but she kept going. I cannot imagine the amount of dedication and courage it took to complete that thesis, but she did it, and she finally received her degree last year. She’s inspired me, encouraged me, guided me, supported me, and uplifted me in more ways than I can even begin to describe. She has been my biggest fan since day one, and always will be. If I can model myself by her example, I have no doubt that a successful career as a woman in science is what lies ahead for me. Thank you, mom. For everything, as always.
And thank you to all the amazing, inspirational women out there doing their bit in the name of science. Diversity in STEM will always be something to strive for.