Christina Scott: Farewell to 'short, stroppy' giant

Christina Scott, one of South Africa’s premier science journalists, died tragically in a car accident on October 31—just shy of her 50th birthday. A champion of science journalism, a science communicator, editor, author, mentor, trainer, devoted mother and much admired and loved colleague, she died while doing what she did best—helping others. Scott was giving a driving lesson at the time of her death.

“Short, stroppy reporter with a funny accent.
Likes to eat sushi. No head for alcohol and caffeine addiction” is how Canadian-born Scott chose to introduce herself when applying to join an online science network. Her sense of humour, warmth, intelligence, wackiness and ability to cut through jargon made her a brilliant science journalist, ensuring her a place in many hearts.

From 1994 to 2004 Scott was science editor at the SABC for both television and radio, and in recent years she was a regular contributor to the Mail & Guardian‘s science pages. At the time of her death she was the presenter of the popular weekly Science Matters programme on SAfm and managing editor of Research Africa.

A woman of substance, she was widely read. She was an incisive interviewer, always getting to the core of the matter, but in an engaging and friendly manner. Whether she was talking to an astrophysicist about space or a zoologist about velvet worms, she was able to make all scientists feel at ease, getting the best out of them. One scientist recalls that being interviewed by her was “like being part of a dinner conversation. You would seamlessly go into the interview without realising that the mic was live and you were on air. That is the way it should be.” 

What she lacked in height she made up for in irrepressible energy, and her passion for spreading the word on science to every home in South Africa and Africa, from shacks to mansions, made her a leading science communicator and advocate.

She was concerned about the lack of science literacy in Africa and the impact this had on ordinary people. Consequently, she reached out to young science journalists, both in print and broadcast, taking them under her wing, encouraging and mentoring them.

Scott was an active member of the World Federation of Science Journalists and mentored African science journalists under the federation’s first SjCoop (science journalism co-operation) project between 2006 and 2009. Always leading from behind with a generosity of spirit, she wondered whether she was mentoring reporters in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria or whether it was the “other way round and they were mentoring me”.

As sub-Saharan editor of the online science news and feature service, SciDev.Net, her influence rippled across Africa and the world. Outspoken and driven, she complained of constantly being dished up “white male” scientists to interview. She wanted the voice of women scientists in Africa to be heard loudly and clearly, and gave them a platform.

Scott was the founding vice-president of the SA Science Journalists’ Association and its second president, and it was her wish and motivation that South African editors be lobbied to cover more science stories. She was on the advisory committee of Scifest Africa and chaired several sessions at science conferences, notably the recent sixth Science World Congress in Cape Town. She also attended the recent science journalism conference in Doha, sharing her experience and expertise.

Once, when asked what languages she spoke, she answered in her inimitable style: “English, some French, ngi khuluma isiZulu en ‘n bietjie Afrikaans”—displaying characteristic warmth and wit, but also providing an insight into her ability to embody the different cultures in South Africa and her own heritage. Ever respectful, she made a point of greeting people in their own language.

By nature, Scott was an activist and started her journalism career in South Africa tackling the apartheid government and police. When there was “no one left to fight”, she turned her attention to science, a topic she loved and on which she has left an indelible mark.

Scott never gave up on her convictions and therefore it was no surprise to see her dressed in red, joining the anti-Secrecy Bill march in Cape Town to ensure South Africa’s hard-won struggle for free media remained intact.

Once, when she arrived at a media event while working for the SABC, she went over to the registration desk to get her name tag. “I’m Christina Scott,” she said. The man behind the table replied, having only ever heard her on radio, “No, you’re not Christina Scott. Christina Scott’s tall!” She will remain a giant in our hearts.

She leaves her three children, Nozipho (19), Alexandra (13) and Benjamin (9).

Christina Scott, born November 20 1961, died October 31 2011.

Adele Baleta is a South African Science Journalists’ Association member and long-time friend. This article was shared among the members of the association, of which Scott was a founding member and a past president and vice-president

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