Mentoring the future

Science is supposed to be about proof, numbers, evidence, data. Not heart—unless you’re a cardiologist.

But Phil Campbell, editor-in-chief of the peerless peer-review journal, Nature, recently got soft and sentimental at the Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town as he honoured two leading South Africans for quietly doing something emotional and inspirational: nurturing the next generation of scientists.

Developmental biologist Barry Fabian (71) and organic chemist Charles de Koning (45), both of Wits University, won mentorship awards established by Nature three years ago.

Mentorship is critical for the South Africa science community, which has a gaping hole in its workforce demographics. On the far side of the hole is the older generation, almost entirely white and male, loving their work but nearing retirement.
On the near side is the new generation of scientists and problem solvers, diverse and ambitious, but often under a barrage of obstacles. Because the supply-chain of scientists was interrupted by apartheid politics, mentorship is needed desperately to help young scientists bridge that generation gap.

Ask Dr Edwin Mmutlane. The 32-year-old medicinal chemist spends his days hunting for promising new compounds to fight HIV, malaria and tuberculosis at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research laboratories in Modderfontein.

“The sad thing in South Africa is that, with our entrenched poverty, everybody’s looking for a shortcut to earning big bucks,’’ said Mmutlane, who grew up in the mampoer territory of the Groot Marico. “You want to come to the university, grab a quick degree, get a job and hope everything will fall into place.’‘

He entered university in the year that South Africa became a democracy. “Charles de Koning was one of those people who said, ‘no, don’t chase the money, chase the grades and then the money will follow’,’’ Mmutlane said.

It took Mmutlane a decade to graduate with a doctorate in chemistry. All the way through, De Koning was there, urging him to develop his potential.

At the awards ceremony De Koning, who has mentored 32 master’s and doctoral students since 1991, said: “It’s absolutely wonderful to work with young minds every day of my life.”

But don’t all supervisors mentor?

Mmutlane laughed. “A PhD can make you or break you. Many supervisors are aloof. They leave it up to you to do your own thing, graduate and leave. Charles was a hands-on mentor, more like a father or uncle figure.’‘

Fabian might be South Africa’s doyen of developmental biology, the orchestration of life. But his students used words such as “respect”, “magical”, “humour” and “humility” to describe his interest in both embryology and them.

In return he cheerfully suggested that stripping in a Full Monty might be easier than filling in another form for the Nature panel, chaired by former Rhodes University vice-chancellor­ David Woods, with the help of a plethora of professors. It was also very kind of his 40-odd PhD and master’s students to overlook his striking resemblance to Chauncy the Gardener, as played by Peter Sellers in the 1979 movie Being There, the emeritus professor happily noted. Then he got in a sly dig at Nature for not being open-access in a variation of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

But Fabian’s speech had to be read by a former student, Sue Kidson, now a professor of human biology at UCT, as he was ill in hospital. In a telephone interview Fabian said the advantage of a new award such as Nature’s was the impossibility of preparing for it.

“Science is quite competitive. This is an acknowledgement of the human side of science, which is working with people,’’ he said.

Christina Scott is a mentor in the World Federation of Science Journalists peer-2-peer programme

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