Universities

New voices in science in 2012

Nuraan Davids

Stellenbosch University PhD students rose to the challenge of presenting their research findings in entertaining ways for a general audience.

Some Muslim women struggle to exercise their Islamic identity in a public space. (Ali Hashisho, Reuters)

The articles on these pages represent some of the presentations: they are edited extracts from New Voices in Science 2012, which was published last month and contains all the presentations.

"Every year, Stellenbosch University delivers more than 100 PhD graduates. Too often, they leave with a degree, but with little sense that their research is understood by anyone but their closest academic colleagues; and with perhaps too little reflection on the relevance of their findings for society," said Ronel Steyn editor of New Voices in Science and co-ordinator of Stellenbosch's postgraduate skills development programme.

This year 46 PhD students entered the university's 2012 New Voices in Science competition. "Now in its second year, the programme aims to provide a platform for young researchers to share their research findings with the general public and to equip them with the skills to do so," Steyn said.

The students will talk about their doctoral topics at a public event to be held on December 5.

For more information, email Steyn: [email protected]

 

Can Muslim women enjoy equality in cosmopolitan societies?

In order to understand the role of Muslim women in a cosmopolitan society, you need to understand Islam and Islamic education. Muslim women, by virtue of their specific practices, shape a particular experience of their world, and the world of them. There is a particular (mis)conception of Muslim women, which has serious implications for identity, belonging, participation and democratic citizenship.

In recent case study research I explored whether it is possible for Muslim women to enjoy a comfortable and equal relationship in a diverse or cosmopolitan society.

The research study was done within the Muslim community of the Western Cape. I found that diversity is not only found in a multicultural society such as the Western Cape, but also within the community of Muslim women themselves. This can be seen in how Muslim women show their identities, how they dress and how they express themselves from a less to a more compliant Islam.

One critical finding is how some Muslim women struggle to exercise their Islamic identity in a public space. Shameema is teased by her community when she wears her hijab (head scarf), since she is accused of betraying her African traditions. Yumna relates that Muslim women who wear it are looked at and treated differently. Nadia, an accountant, draws a distinction between the professional treatment she receives from Muslim and non-Muslim men. She says that Muslim men do not regard her as their professional equal. Leila, a student in the hospitality industry, is forced to discard her hijab in order to find an internship. And as a gay Muslim woman, Thania has had to turn away from the traditional way in which she was raised, in order to reconcile her Islam with her sexuality.

What does a reformed approach to Islamic education look like, and what does this means for Muslim women and men? How can Muslim women be accommodated within a cosmopolitan society, and how can a cosmopolitan society contribute to the practices of Muslim women? These questions all have implications for democratic citizenship education.

The link between Islamic education and cosmopolitanism lies in its treatment of others. What matters is the extent to which the lived experiences of Muslim women and a cosmopolitan society are able to justly copy what a society based on democratic principles ought to look like.

In my research on the philosophy of education, I found that the intent to understand Muslim women's educational context opens itself to many interpretations. This is a reflection of the different understandings of the practices of Islam both within and outside of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism, in taking note of these differences, and those of all others, has to focus on what we have in common, rather than what we do not.

The research was done to explore and interrogate the identity of Muslim women and their lived experiences in a post-apartheid society, and to understand whether a commensurable relationship with cosmopolitanism is possible. Although Muslim women serve as the basis and context of the research, the implications of this study are not limited to Muslim women.

Nuraan Davids is completing her doctorate on the philosophy of education in the department of policy studies at Stellenbosch University

 

Brain invasion

Research shows that HIV infection can have a negative impact on brain functioning, as can child abuse. Researchers have shown that a history of abuse can cause abnormalities in the functioning and structure of the brain.

What does this mean for South Africa, a country burdened not only by the HIV/Aids pandemic but

also an equally devastating and under-reported epidemic of abuse of women and children?

Most of the studies on the effects on the brain of either HIV or a history of child abuse have been conducted in countries other than South Africa. In addition, no studies have looked at the combined effect of HIV and child abuse on cognition in women.

My doctoral studies in health sciences set out to provide local knowledge on the subject, by investigating the effects of HIV and childhood abuse on neurocognition, both separately and in combination, in South African women.

I conducted the study among 130 women divided into four groups: HIV-positive women with and without a history of childhood abuse, and HIV-negative women with and without a history of such abuse.

They underwent three assessments on two separate occasions and were interviewed about their health, feelings and situations at home. They also performed a series of pencil and paper tests, similar to IQ tests, to assess a range of abilities.

The findings showed that women infected with HIV/Aids performed more weakly than uninfected women on immediate learning, memory recall and executive functioning. Executive functioning includes attention and concentration, planning, problem solving, reasoning, inhibition, mental flexibility, multi-tasking and monitoring actions.

Women who reported a history of child abuse also had poorer memory recall than their non-traumatised counterparts.

Although there was evidence of individual effects of HIV and child abuse on cognition, no proof was found that the combination of HIV and child abuse had a greater impact.

Contrary to expectations, women who were dually affected by HIV and childhood abuse did not perform worse than women who were influenced by only one of these conditions.

This could be attributable to the inclusion of relatively healthy, asymptomatic HIV-positive women and less severely traumatised women in the study. Further investigation of the interaction between HIV and child abuse is therefore warranted.

Dr Georgina Spies received her doctorate in psychiatry from the faculty of health sciences in December last year. She is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychiatry at Stellenbosch University

 

Mice in the mist play a key ecological role

A whole conservation "industry" was created after the release of the movie Gorillas in the Mist about Dian Fossey's studies of the gorillas of the rain forests of Rwanda. Unfortunately, the tourism income subsequently generated, thanks to people's fascination with gorillas, has skewed the conservation priorities and regulations of Central East African countries, so that they almost exclusively favour larger mammal species.

I am no Fossey and I doubt that anyone is going to make a movie of my research in the rain forests of Central East Africa any time soon. However, this is not necessarily because I lack star quality, but rather because my subjects do.

For the sake of conservation, it is just as important to study rodents as it is to research gorillas, if not even more so.

The presence of rodent species can tell conservationists a lot about the biodiversity of an area. The more rodent species that is found, the larger the variety of other plant and animal species there are likely to be. This is because each species has its own diet and habitat requirements.

Rodents are far more numerous than gorillas and other larger mammals. They are found over a larger area, which enables the measurement of biodiversity on a much greater scale.

Rodents are not simply an indication of biodiversity to be used to reflect on the health of a particular ecosystem. They play a very direct and active part in maintaining the natural ecosystem. It is common knowledge that large forests have a buffering role in climate change, because plants absorb the carbon dioxide responsible for heating the planet. The many rodent species found in a forest contribute to its maintenance. By eating fruits and seeds, they help to spread tree and plant species over a wide area.

Rodents are also the main prey of predators such as cats, raptors and snakes. When no prey items can be found, predators often turn their attention to livestock. If rodents become endangered or vulnerable, this can affect the entire ecosystem in which they naturally occur.

Conservation efforts in East Africa until recently only focused on larger mammals, with little research done on rodent species and their where­abouts. Because many species are still unknown to science, or are confused with existing ones, I decided to study rodents in the Albertine Rift. This is part of the African Great Rift Valley and includes parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, western Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, western Tanzania and northeastern Zambia.

I used the soft-fur mouse (Praomys) to assess the diversity and variability of rodents and to see how populations varied from north to south and east to west. This was done by DNA testing and the measurements of skull shapes and sizes.

In the process, two new species were discovered, one of which is most likely to be endemic and to be found nowhere else in the world. Another species was found that was not expected to live in the area, while two known species were found to be endemic.

The findings indicated a high level of biodiversity in the Albertine Rift area. This has not only increased our knowledge of the endemic species in the region, but also helps to prioritise biodiversity conservation.

We need to widen the focus of regulations on biodiversity conservation and protected areas to include small mammals and to strengthen regional collaboration to prevent poaching and the export of species.

There is also a need for stronger involvement of local communities in developing ecotourism activities that highlight small species, to ensure enough local support to protect them.

Dr Prince Kaleme received his doctorate in zoology in December 2011. He works in Uganda as a researcher at the Centre for Research in Natural Sciences and as project leader for the Frankfurt Zoological Society

 

Focus on fixing ecosystems

Healthy ecosystems support human well-being. However, unsustainable human activities to meet the increasing demand for goods and services have triggered unprecedented biodiversity losses. We need to be concerned about this because our lives depend on biodiversity.

Ecological restoration, which is widespread in South Africa, presents an opportunity to reverse the damage we have caused. Admittedly, restoration cannot be considered simply as a substitute for the conservation of self-sustaining, healthy ecosystems. Where conservation alone is no longer feasible because of the advanced state of degradation, ecological restoration offers an acceptable alternative.

Successful and efficient restoration work must be based on an appraisal and evidence that show the effectiveness of alternative options. Evidence-based practice is emerging as the gold standard in conservation and related fields, including restoration.

Part of my PhD research work in conservation ecology aims to assess the evidence-based approach by focusing specifically on the evidence-generation step of the process.

Baseline condition assessment, proper goal-setting and sound monitoring of the impact of interventions are essential for generating evidence.

Several restoration programmes and projects in South Africa were investigated, and the people involved in these initiatives and projects were interviewed. The findings show that there are several success stories about good work being done, but there are some areas of concern. For example, baseline information has been well collected, although sometimes it is not related to restoration goals and monitoring. Also, to some extent, goals are poorly defined and there is limited monitoring of impacts.

The proper generation, dissemination and use of evidence can help to heal damaged ecosystems effectively. Healing damaged ecosystems will, in turn, ensure humanity's well-being.

Phumza Ntshotsho is a doctoral student in conservation ecology in the University of Stellenbosch's faculty of agrisciences

Originally published in: Getting Ahead

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