Just as an astronomer is aware of the enormity of the universal canvas, a researcher needs to take stock of the global context in which their research operates.
In South Africa, where there is a significant drive to increase the number of academics with doctoral degrees, the need for researchers to ensure their work offers a worldwide perspective has become more crucial than ever.
The study area I am currently investigating, as part of my research at the Tshwane University of Technology, focuses on a region with high levels of water contamination.
These have resulted in the mortality of crocodile and fish populations.
To understand the broader context in which my research was taking place, I had to incorporate an interdisciplinary approach.
Thankfully, I was able to accomplish this and further the search in the US, through a Fulbright scholarship.
It was an opportunity not only to understand the message my research expresses, but also why it is salient to understand that scientific discoveries and explanations do not operate in isolation.
This was indeed a chance to superimpose the connections between environmental processes and their effects on organisms.
I was extremely enthusiastic about applying for the Fulbright programme, as most of the institutions in the US would offer me the interdisciplinary research experience I needed.
The idea of participating in a cultural and educational exchange was all the more galvanising.
With that, I began the application process, in the hope of gaining entry into an institution with experts who would not only share their knowledge, but also provide guidance on how to approach the issues we were facing and how scientific research is conducted in their institution.
I officially knew that I was leaving for what would become my home away from home, the University of Maryland Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL), exactly a year after my original application in April 2017.
The campus was solely focused on graduate programmes and on research, ranging from fish ecology to environmental chemistry and toxicology in freshwater and ocean systems!
It truly offered me a chance to experience how the different filters added to one’s research by an interdisciplinary approach can enhance the original image – all of which I have since applied in my research and incorporated holistically.
Due to the close-knit community, I was able to engage with all of the researchers at CBL, some of whom I have made links with for future work.
The fact that members of CBL’s faculty were from all over the world made it easier to integrate, since it was truly a global inclusive environment.
As different as the view of the night sky is from the northern to the southern hemisphere, there were numerous things that were new to me, including spending a lot of time catching up by reading and consulting with faculty and other students.
In the end, it was certainly worth it because I applied most of what I learnt to my data and I managed to write the bulk of my thesis while I was in the US.
Being at CBL opened my mind to the possibility of where science could go in South Africa, including engaging communities in the research that affects them, training students so that they can be on par with those on other continents, and creating inventors and free thinking without restricting growth.
However, to make this possible we must not be scared to look beyond the lens of our own work, or neglect to ask others who have accomplished what we need.
There is a lot that we can share with Americans about research in South Africa, since the objectives in each country are so different.
Participating in programmes like Fulbright make it possible to learn different perspectives which we can use to accelerate the growth of the scientific hub in South Africa.
Seopela is completing her MTech chemistry studies at the Tshwane University of Technology
Applications for the 2020/21 Fulbright Foreign Student Programme are now open. Find your Fulbright opportunity at za.usembassy.gov/Fulbright
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