Advice to a budding scientist

Thoughts on what it means to be a scientist. Getting the degree alone will not make you one.

The last hurdle to pass my honours degree was to go through an oral exam. You could be questioned on anything science/microbiologically related, from something that was self-study in a textbook from 2 years ago, to your opinion on a current outbreak, it could be a role-play scenario where you have to lead a lab using the skills you’ve just acquired, whether you thought viruses are living or not and evidence supporting it… To calculations of a dilution series.

After I got over the trauma of the 2 hour barrage of questions (granted there were a lot of snarky professors and I sometimes don’t test well verbally – a trademark of being an introvert, but something I’ve tried to work on), I realised that there were many life lessons to be learned from that exam. Seven years later, and I still remember the external examiner saying to me, “talk more science in your everyday life”. This advice has been invaluable to me.

So for today’s blog post, some thoughts on what it means to be a scientist and just a well-balanced person really. And if you want the summary of the post –> Getting the degree will not make you a scientist, science is all around you so anyone can be a scientist.

Be curious

Science is everywhere. Ruminate on concepts, chew it over and over. What do you mean you don’t stay up at night wondering how they get the soft gooey centres in the chocolates or for that matter, how they get the tiny bubbles in chocolates?! I just admitted I have sleepless nights over chocolates🤦.

Stop studying just to pass exams

Study for the job you’re going to do as a scientist. Study for the decisions you will make in a company as to whether the water is safe enough for human consumption, what are the acceptable levels of rat hairs in the chocolate, what are the implications of the outlying data in the medicine you’re developing. Study to be able to advise people in power of the policies they’re about to implement.

Jargon – get rid of it

You’re not a scientist if you’re bamboozling people with your jargon. Einstein said it best, ‘You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.’ Cut through the clutter, find the simple in the complex. That is what distinguishes great scientists from the merely competent.

Arrogance doesn’t look good on anyone

Yes, you studied hard. Yes, not everyone can do what you do, just the same as you can’t do what everyone else does. Be able to accept that there will always be opposing ideas to your own, yet you should still be able to converse in a respectful manner. Listen to what others are saying, you might just learn something new.

Own your science

You’re taught in science to write in the passive voice, they say it gives an air of objectivity. I recently wrote an abstract that went like this: we did this and we found that. My PI scrapped it, but that doesn’t mean that this is how science is going to be communicated forever. It’s time for scientists to embrace self-promotion. If you’re doing interesting science (all science is interesting in some way), why not speak about it and own it?

You are the next generation

When I was going through a tough time (snarky professors), my father said, “don’t worry, they won’t be around forever. Someday they’ll retire and you’ll be there to take over”. You will be the next generation of scientists to take over, so the changes you want to see being made, hold onto that. What I want to see, is kindness in academia.

Develop your voice, have an opinion

Nobody likes fence-sitters and people doing a dance in ambivalence. Focus on being an interesting person, make efforts to develop your personality. Gone are the days of the stereotype of the boring old scientist. Read outside of your field, keep up with current affairs. Become a global citizen, be a critical thinker.

Keep in mind, it’s a PhD, not a Nobel prize!

We work on big questions that have been around for years or decades, and we have to identify new aspects of those big questions. We might make small progress towards those questions and it will take years. Incremental science is still important. Little by little makes a lot.

And for those that made it thus far, the Easter egg for you is: they use a bacterial enzyme that slowly breaks down the contents of the middle of a chocolate until it’s nice and gooey. And to get the bubbles, they pump gases like carbon dioxide or nitrogen, they don’t use oxygen because that would make it rancid.

Stay curious



Friday faves: The hottest topics in science 2-9 February 2018

A weekly round-up of exciting new discoveries in science.

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Take a look last week’s Friday faves here


Friday faves: The hottest topics in science 29 January – 2 February 2018

A weekly round-up of exciting new discoveries in science.

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What are your thoughts on this week’s discoveries? Drop me a comment!


Book review: ‘The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane’ by Lisa See

January’s book club choice was the award-winning book, “The tea girl of Hummingbird lane, set in the remote village of Yunnan and following the life of Li-yan.

Lisa See first introduced the Yao Chinese minority in her book, “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”. This book sees her exploring the culture and traditions of the indigenous hill tribe, the Akha.

Li-yan and her family’s lives revolve around tea farming. They live a simple life and their village has not been westernised. Li-yan is regarded as less than worthy than her brothers, she has inherited, what she first thinks are, useless tea trees. As she grows up she challenges traditional Akha beliefs and taboos, leading her to leave the safety of her village. As she narrates her story, we simultaneously get to see, the life of Haley, her daughter she’s had out of wedlock and whom she’s given up for adoption.

“No coincidence, no story.” ~ A-ma

As Li-yan’s mother says, “No coincidence, no story.” Lisa See eloquently weaves a tea-infused story of coincidences throughout all the character’s lives. I enjoyed the different writing styles and English usage employed in the book; English almost directly translated from Akha language, American English and scientific writing that appealed to my nerdy side and made me want to research catechins and polyphenols in tea!

Be prepared to curl up with this book, accompanied by steaming cups of tea as you traverse remote China, explore the topics of Chinese adoption, the international fine-tea market and finally, modern Chinese migration to the United States.

I am looking forward to reading more books by Lisa See, including “On Gold Mountain”, a 400-page memoir and nonfiction biography of her family.


Click to read more:

Happy reading until next month!


Friday faves: The hottest topics in science 22-26 January 2018

A weekly round-up of exciting new discoveries in science.

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What are your thoughts on this week’s discoveries? Drop me a comment!


What you need to know about listeriosis

Listeriosis has hit the headlines in South Africa as it is the largest outbreak of the bacterial disease, with over 760 cases, as confirmed by the World Health Organisation.

Listeria monocytogenes

The city of Johannesburg, South Africa has asked people not to panic but to remain vigilant, in what the World Health Organisation has deemed the largest outbreak of listeriosis ever. Here’s what you need to know…

What causes listeriosis

Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterium occurring almost everywhere in nature. The bacteria commonly contaminates raw produce and cross-contaminates other food items. Although all human beings are routinely exposed to L. monocytogenes, listeriosis is a relatively rare disease in humans.

Listeriosis infection symptoms

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhoea
  • Muscle aches
  • Convulsions

Despite there being treatment by antibiotics, listeriosis has a fatality rate of 20-30%.

Who’s most at risk

Babies, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems like the elderly or those infected by HIV, are most at risk.

What makes L. monocytogenes so good at being bad

This bacterium has certain properties that allow it to flourish in conditions where other bacteria cannot.

  • Can grow in acidic and salty foods
  • Grows at low temperature, down to freezing point, therefore in your refrigerated foods
  • It produces a biofilm (when bacteria stick together and are covered in a slimy matrix). This can help it to survive in food factories for long periods.

Listeriosis in South Africa

As of the 16th of January 2018, a total of 764 Listeriosis cases have been reported across the country, with 67 deaths so far. Samples from a food outlet are being tested by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases to identify the source of the infection. The City of Johannesburg’s Environmental Health Unit is also trying to oversee correct hygiene practices by food handlers.

What can I do to protect yourself?

  • Limit eating ready to eat deli meats, cheeses, smoked fish and ready-cooked crustacean meats
  • Home refrigerators should be consistently operating at or below 7.2 °C
  • Reduce the storage time of deli meats from 28 to 14 days
  • Practice good hygiene practices with food
  • Sterilise food contact surfaces with alcohol or ammonia-based products

From a public health standpoint

It is important to identify the source of the contamination and remove it from distribution. Prevention efforts should be focused on reducing the contamination on the farms and at the slaughterhouses. Control measures should be put in place for Listeria within food industries that are able to support the growth of the organism.

As Listeria monocytogenes occurs naturally in the environment, the food that we eat can be contaminated from time to time. I’ve read comments on news forums, where people are saying that this disease is man-made, to target the poor and reduce the population. This is where consumer education campaigns are highly necessary especially in high-risk groups, about ready to eat foods and good food hygiene. It is important to remember that Listeria doesn’t have to be fatal, as there are adequate treatments available.

Read more here:

  1. The epidemiology of listeriosis


Friday faves: Roundup of the hottest topics in science

A new feature on Live Lab Love Life, a weekly round-up of exciting new discoveries in science.

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The 8 Harry Potter creatures in your lab

A tongue-in-cheek take on the different types of Harry Potter creatures in your lab.

The unicorn

An equine creature with a single horn on its forehead. Revered by Muggles (non-scientists) and wizards (scientists) alike, they are the purest, most ethereal beings. When found in the lab setting, they get Nature papers. Their experiments always work. The supervisor loves them. How do they do it? You don’t know, but somehow it’s just not fair. Damn it.


The moaning Myrtle

The lab ghost who haunts the toilet (lank hair, pimples, and thick glasses optional). Seldom smiles, takes offence at the least excuse, cries rivers and wails.


The Mandrake

According to the legend, when the root is dug up, it screams and kills all who hear it.  Chittery chattery…all day long! This one literally never ever stops talking. Ever. Another species is the noisy labmate.  Humming, drumming with pipettes, playing Youtube videos at obnoxious volumes. Whilst these creatures in the lab won’t kill you, they sure are annoying AF.



Nagini, the slithering, scaly snek that does Voldemort’s bidding.


The niffler

This small, mole-like creature (platypus-esque snout optional) is obsessed with hoarding precious reagents/ equipment.


The house elf

House-elves belong to wealthy labs. They are bound to the lab, doing menial tasks until they die, or get thrown a sock/ graduate/ get another job.


The goblin

Goblins are highly intelligent creatures, who remain a neutral force. In the lab, they diligently work on their projects, not partisan to any of the lab politics.


The dementor

A dark creature that consumes human happiness, creating an ambience of coldness, darkness, misery and despair… In a nutshell, my PhD lol!