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The best job in the world

- Schalk Mouton

Column: Telling the stories of Wits’ research and academics might hopefully light a fire in the mind of the world’s next Einstein.

I was sitting in traffic, driving to work, trying my best to drown out the white noise of the talk radio host having an in-depth discussion on “where missing socks go”. In an attempt to get my mind out of the missing sock drawer, I took a virtual journey of my life, and where I have ended up. While I used to have an exciting career as a journalist, it hit me that for the first time ever, I really love what I do.

Sitting in that car, I was actually looking forward to getting to work, and I asked myself, “Why do I love what I am doing?”

It didn’t take me long to answer that question.

“I get to be fascinated every day!”

I get to see, learn and write about the really incredible ways in which the world works, and get to interact with – and learn from – some of the brightest people on the planet while doing so. 

For instance, one day I get to walk in the veld in the Cradle of Humankind with Professor Lee Berger –  a world leader in palaeoanthropology, while he casually points out the boulder that I am leaning against is a 250 000 year old petrified tree stump, and the shard of rock I had ignorantly stepped on was a stone tool that was probably discarded by my great, great, great grandmother, some hundreds of thousands years ago.

From there, we walk to Gladysvale, the site recently reopened by one of the bright new stars in the field of palaeoanthropology, where I see a surge of emotions well through Dr Keneiloe Molopyane, as she realises she may have made her first hominid find.

The next day, I might find myself in the Structured Light Laboratory of Professor Andrew Forbes – a world leader in photonics and quantum physics – where one of his students is manipulating a microscopic element within a human cell, using, as a tweezer, a powerful beam of light.

From there, I might step into the office of one of our world-class geologists, such as Professors Roger Gibson and Lewis Ashwal for a scheduled 15-minute interview on meteors. Three hours later, I emerge, fascinated by how intricately connected the inner workings of our planet – and solar system – are, in order to sustain life on Earth.

After each of these interactions, I almost always ask, “Why didn’t they teach me about this during my undergrad studies?”

I must admit that growing up I was probably one of the most disinterested teenagers ever. I had no special interests, except for playing rugby, writing and reading adventure novels. My fascination with science and how the world works didn’t come naturally – and especially not from the first three years of struggling through physics and chemistry 101.

Bored to death attempting calculations on mole values and vectors, I had no idea where I was going and what I was doing. I had no idea that what my lecturers were trying to teach me was merely the language of science, and, like learning any language it could open up new, fascinating worlds. If I had known, I could have ended up working alongside Roger Deane (another world leader in astrophysics), as part of the team that took the first picture of a black hole, instead of taking pictures at a primary school rugby game as a cub sports reporter – the job I resorted to after my failed attempt at getting a BSc 30 years ago. Roger is intent on transforming the ageing Planetarium into a world-class Digital Dome by the way.

My eyes were first opened to the world of science when I was invited to a science journalism workshop, about 20 years ago. Here I had a conversation with a scientist who worked on the Square Kilometre Array project. Completely ignorant, I asked him what a black hole actually was, and as he explained it to me, I was completely hooked. It stirred a fascination about how our world and the things in it work, and I realised that I wanted to know more.

Research in the Cradle of Humankind | Curiosity 14: #Wits100 ©

My fascination with science and research grew, and I was lucky enough to be employed in what I believe is one of the best jobs in the world – writing about Wits and its researchers, and learning fascinating things about our world every day.

However, this job also comes with a responsibility. That responsibility is to share the University’s science and research, and my fascination, with the rest of the world – hoping that it might light a fire in some bright young mind that could turn out to be South Africa’s next Nobel Prize winner. I share this responsibility with every person who works in a higher education institution in this country.

Ours is a country in desperate need of hope for a brighter future. Our children grow up in a world where they are told that there are no jobs, that unemployment and crime are out of control, and that climate change is going to make life unbearable – if not life threatening – for them. This is in an environment of political uncertainty, cloaked in the darkness of regular load shedding, which will more than likely be with us for the next 10 years.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues called a news editor at the public broadcaster to invite a reporter to a globally important science news announcement, in which Wits was a major player. The editor replied that due to all the problems in South Africa they could not afford to send a reporter to cover the event as it was deemed too academic and of no consequence to the average South African.

What the news editor failed to see was the importance of the hope, fascination and the spark that the story could ignite in a young bright mind. The editor who declined the invitation later called the Wits Communications team, after seeing the global scope and importance of the story, to request an interview.

Our children are in a desperate search for hope. By lighting a little spark in a young person’s mind, it might just be the spark lighting the next generation’s Einstein.

Our researchers and scientists also have the responsibility to set the record straight in a world dominated by social media and fake news, by communicating our findings and expertise. This was especially highlighted during the Covid-19 saga, where mistruths were spread from all quarters – including government departments. Were it not for scientists – notably from Wits – speaking up during the pandemic, many of our national Covid-19 responses would have been even further misplaced than they were, and could have cost a lot more lives.

As staff members, academics and students at Wits University, we work and live in a privileged environment. It is our responsibility to share that privilege and knowledge to empower those around us – not just to sell hope.

Our knowledge has the power to change lives, and to create a better life for all, and we owe it to the public to share that knowledge with enthusiasm and honesty.

Scientists and scholars at research-intensive universities can no longer think that their job is done once they have published their work in an academic journal. Most of their research was paid for and is therefore owned by taxpayers, who have a right to know where their money went.

Researchers have an obligation to share their work in every way that they can, whether it is through lectures, social or traditional media, or informal talks and presentations.

That is why Curios.ty is such an important vehicle. This magazine was established to share Wits’ research, work and values in a way that makes research accessible to everyone, with the hope that it can inspire and inform – and perhaps even have the power to influence the policies that will lead to a brighter future for all.

  • Schalk Mouton is a Senior Communications Officer at Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced by Wits Communications and the Research Office. Read more in the 14th issue, themed: #Wits100 where we celebrate a century of research excellence that has shaped today and look forward to how our next-generation researchers will impact the next 100 years.