South African women are making their mark in the scientific world


Cape Town – South African women continue to make their mark in science and we celebrate it with all the chances we have.

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

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

Tanya van Aswegen, doctoral student in psychiatry, and Jamila Janna, 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 research with the public.

As the round winner, Surajpal will represent the League in the national final next year where she will face the round winners from other South African universities.

Surajpal’s research focused on the use of various models to predict the properties of desalination plant effluents, particularly in terms of mixing and propagation in the ocean when released. Research can help prevent negative effects on the environment.

IOL spoke with Van Aswegen, researcher in the Department of Psychiatry at SU. She is also completing a joint doctorate between SU ​​and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

She is also part of the South Africa Research Chairs Initiative Chair in the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Unit. In her presentation, she spoke about the attachment relationship between a mother and her child in the context of mental health.

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

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

She said these early relationship experiences with parents (positive or negative) develop into mental representations throughout childhood and into adulthood. The result is representations that guide our perception of ourselves, of the world and can even influence our behavior.

She noted that attachment research actually began over 70 years ago. One of the big names in attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth conducted research in Uganda in 1967.

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

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

Van Aswegen is recruiting participants across South Africa to launch the first phase of adaptation of the measuring instrument. This is a qualitative study, so children are required to write down stories, especially memories in the form of stories.

She adds that the only good thing that has come 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.

“I am first and foremost a scientist because I conduct scientific research to advance our knowledge in a specific area of ​​mental health. Second, I must be a project manager, manage the administration and the smooth running of my research project.

“This includes writing protocols, ethics clearance requests and approval from education departments, participant recruitment, execution, data analysis, and publication of scientific papers. Finally, as a doctoral student, you have the task of completing your research within a specific timeframe and producing a thesis which will allow you to obtain a doctorate.

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 also for the enhancement of knowledge. For too long there has been a big gap between the general public and what researchers and scientists do. Products, drugs, and interventions, to name a few, are seen by the public, but the process and research behind the end product is neither publicized nor understood.

Closing this gap could help get rid of misconceptions. Getting rid of these misconceptions about mental health and psychiatry is crucial.

“I think misconceptions and stigma go hand in hand in psychiatry and psychology. Unfortunately, misconceptions can range from thinking that the drugs will keep patients in a “dazed” state, to mental illness showing weakness. ”

Mental health has become a topic of discussion in today’s society, especially personal care and preventive measures. But Van Aswegen said it’s important that we talk more about mental illness itself. It means opening up to the troubles, struggles and truth surrounding these conditions.

“Talking more about the unrest will allow us to tackle misconceptions, stigma and hopefully create space for people to seek the help they need. “

Van Aswegen’s love for the medical field began at a young age. She studied right after school, but not particularly sure what field she would end up in.

“After the first year, it became very clear to me that I was fascinated by the brain and all the mechanisms involved. The main function of the brain is to protect us, especially in threatening situations. It is a very complex organ, so there will always be questions that require answers, making it a perfect organ for research. It has been a long way to where I am today, after my undergraduate studies I got two more degrees including a Master of Science.

She adds that this diploma opens up the world of research and becomes the springboard towards her doctorate. “Clinicians and practice are informed by rigorous research and one cannot exist without the other. That is why I decided to continue and start my doctoral studies.

Van Aswegen advised South Africans wishing to enter a mental health profession to know all the steps necessary to obtain the title of psychologist or psychiatrist.

“It takes many years of study and dedication, so shadowing on the job will be of benefit to academics who might want to go this route. Observation at the workplace will also allow learners to experience both the clinical and the academic side of things. This line of work is much more than what you see in the movies, describing this profession as very uniform. “

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

“From a young age, girls are told that boys do better in math and science, while girls do better in other subjects. This follows the idea that only smart people can have a career in STEM. But IQ alone is not enough to be successful in science. Persistence, mental toughness, and tenacity are what will serve you well. So my advice to women looking to pursue a career in STEM: don’t focus on breaking the norm and being different. If you have an idea or an observation, don’t silence your inquisitive side, speak up and take action.

“The most important thing for me in science is diversity of thought, and we cannot achieve diversity if we do not include all genders and races. Finally, and most important for me, is to find solid mentors. I am so lucky to be part of a team that encourages and supports women in STEM, and our department head embraces all that a woman should be for others like me to be successful in STEM.



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