Bright Sparks all around the Western Cape

Written by Leka Mhlophe

Look at that! Another year has passed and here comes the Eskom Expo once again!

In my short time at the MBHG, I have realised that an integral part of what we do is connecting with the community. This makes sense because as biomedical scientists, the local community helps us greatly in our scientific pursuits by providing precious clinical samples and other data that we use in our research. This partnership is by no means a one-sided exchange though, because, through the Societal Impact Task Team (SITT), we can also give back to the communities we serve. Our engagement with the community creates a purposeful partnership facilitated by active dialogue to enable knowledge transfer and co-creation of knowledge.  This engagement is the core of what SITT is about and ensures people-centered research that is contextually relevant to our communities. In addition to facilitating mutually beneficial interactions, these engagements also aim to encourage independent and informed opinions on science issues, use science communication as an effective tool in engagement, as well as encourage South African youth to actively show interest and pursue careers in STEM.

“From a young age, kids can have great scientific questions and ideas. Their curiosity can lead them to make simple experiments to answer these questions. Being super academic and well read up is not a requirement for being a scientist, it’s about the process.”- Carlien, PhD student

One of the outreaches SITT is regularly involved in is the annual Eskom Expo for Young Scientists. This science fair is a showcase for school learners from grades 4 to 12 to dip their toes into scientific investigations. This will typically exercise their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Participating learners will identify a problem, investigate it using the scientific method, and present their investigations to the judges. This is where we come in. Several MBHG scientists volunteer to be judges and mentors for the Cape Town and Stellenbosch regional expos.

“Science becomes so robust as one progresses or grows with it.  So it was kind of interesting for me to see it in its simplest form where any person of any field can understand, going back to basics in some way.”-Gugulethu, MSc student

A fun fact very few people know about me is that I was part of the Eskom Expo as a young scientist in high school. I even made it to the KZN regionals. I have been enamoured with science from a very young age, but biology has always been my sweetheart. I would sacrifice my break times to pour over biological books in the library (I loved anything that had to do with anomalies). I would fight with everyone at home to let me have the TV at 18H00 on Sunday evenings for Sir David Attenborough and National Geographic nature documentaries. I would wake up at the crack of dawn to catch the Crocodile Hunter on Saturday mornings.

When my teacher suggested I enter the expo I turned in an… engineering project. I know, a very smart move on my part. However, I found it to be a great learning opportunity. Although I was in uncharted territory, I was never one to turn down an opportunity to learn. So off we went, coming up with an idea and how to execute it. Hours were spent pouring over books, cutting up calculators, ice-cream cartons, and wires to come up with a model for the AuPetFooD (patent pending), which was an automated pet food dispenser.  Someone should have told me that the device had been patented already, but I have a feeling that didn’t matter. I think that’s what drew me to science in the first place, the process. Going from “what?” to “hmm” to “ah”.  And of course, having fun in a way I understood best. There is this stigma around the sciences that you have to be great at what you do, but most people do not realise that at every step of the way we too, are also constantly learning.

“We were interested in being a part of the expo so that we can inspire kids and show them that Science is worth pursuing. Science is cool, and hearing what they think is important, as well as what problems they’d like to solve.” Michaela and Catherine, MSc students

Science truly gave me a way I could express myself. Which is contrary to what many people think science is all about. It truly is limitless, and it is always a fun time to see what people can come up with. I think that’s what the expo tries to focus on (originality, innovation, comprehension, and significance).

“Kids from various backgrounds presented projects that were relevant to them. It was intriguing to see what each child saw as a problem and how they could solve it”- Michaela, MSc student

“Children are super resourceful. As much as they can make toys out of anything, that also translates to how they can see everyday objects as a way to solve problems scientifically”- Gugulethu, MSc student

Lady Bird Johnson put it simply: “Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them”. Our most valuable resource as a nation is our youth. The way in which we invest in them with initiatives such as the expo makes me proud, and also hopeful that more and more initiatives like this will crop up in the future. Had my teachers and school librarians not fostered my curiosity, I doubt I would have continued to tend to my love for the sciences or anything really. Thank you, Dr Seuss, for reminding us that “a person is a person no matter how small”. And a very big thank you to the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists and SITT at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Biomedical Sciences for allowing us to help continue to nurture the nation’s up and coming innovators!