Women take science to the streets

2019-10-08 06:00
Dr Natasha Karenyi, from UCT’s department of biological sciences, keeps the crowds entertained during SA’s first Soapbox Science event at the V&A Waterfront. PHOTO: Michael Hammond/UCT

Dr Natasha Karenyi, from UCT’s department of biological sciences, keeps the crowds entertained during SA’s first Soapbox Science event at the V&A Waterfront. PHOTO: Michael Hammond/UCT

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On Saturday, 28 September, visitors to the V&A Waterfront were treated to an intriguing sight: nine dynamic women in white laboratory coats sharing their scientific research.

The first event of its kind in South Africa, Soapbox Science does exactly what its name suggests ­­– it offers scientific researchers a platform to connect with and educate the general public about their work.

Inspired by the historical Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, the movement first started in 2011 with a London event and has since grown to include chapters all over the world. What makes Soapbox Science even more noteworthy is the fact that it focuses specifically on the work of women in science.

The Cape Town event had a rotating line-up of nine speakers divided into three groups. Each group had an hour to step up on to their soapboxes, present their research and engage with the passing crowds.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) was represented, by five speakers. They were Dr Edina Amponsah-Dacosta from the Vaccines for Africa Initiative, Dr Kerryn Ashleigh Warren from the department of archaeology, Mieke du Plessis from the Hatter Institute for Cardiovascular Research in Africa, Associate Professor Liesl Zühlke from the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital and Dr Natasha Karenyi from the department of biological sciences.

Other institutions present included the University of the Western Cape (UWC), North-West University (NWU) and the University of the Witwatersrand.

Topics ranged from excavating the Rising Star Caves, where Homo naledi was found, to combatting heart disease in children and the complexities of marine biodiversity.

Employing the use of props, posters and a healthy dose of enthusiasm, each of the speakers engaged the public.

“Events like these are incredibly important,” said Amponsah-Dacosta, whose talk titled “Vaccines Are Us!” explained the importance of vaccinology in healthcare.

“One of the gaps in my line of work is communicating our research and findings with the general public.”

She added that, for her, the idea is never to simply develop interventions for the public, but rather to include them in the process.

“Events like Soapbox Science help create a sense of transparency and understanding between scientists and the public,” she said.

During her presentation titled “There and back again: Excavating at Rising Star Caves”, Warren captured imaginations with her tales of being one of the “underground astronauts” who helped excavate Homo naledi.

“I have wanted to be an archaeologist since I was five years old. Sometimes you stop dreaming about these things, but I just kind of continued,” she said.

The inaugural South African edition of Soapbox Science was spearheaded by Dr Lucia Marchetti, a joint National Research Foundation/SKA South Africa South African Research Chairs Initiative postdoctoral fellow working in the department of astronomy at UCT, as well as in the department of physics and astronomy at UWC. She was supported by a local organising team of enthusiastic women scientists from UCT, UWC, iThemba LABS and the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

Marchetti was first introduced to Soapbox Science in 2015 when she participated as a speaker at a London edition of the event.

“It’s all about choosing the right partners. And we’ve managed to gather a really great team,” she said.

When the original call for speaker applications went out earlier this year, Marchetti and her team were overwhelmed by the interest from local women scientists.

“We received a total of 50 applications from all over South Africa, which is really impressive – even in comparison to some places where the event has been running for some time,” she said.

These numbers bode well for the future and may even lead to the launch of new chapters in other South African cities.

Organising committee member, Professor Renee Kraan-Korteweg, UCT’s chair of astronomy, stressed that the breaking of stereotypes is critical.

“Scientists are males, old, grey-haired, nerds, introvert, often not approachable. Why are there so few women in science – it gives a wrong impression to youngsters (and not only youngsters). Are women not as good, not as capable? If they are a good scientist they must be boring, unattractive.

“That all is so untrue, and the Soapbox Science event proved it. The speakers were all so fantastic, stimulating, engaging and fun. It made me feel very proud,“ she said.

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