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Engineering student shines at SU FameLab heat

Engineering student shines at SU FameLab heat

[Article written by Dr Alex Basson, Corporate Communication & Marketing]

Taskeen Ebrahim, a doctoral student in Electronic Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU), has won the SU heat of the 2023* national FameLab competition cycle.

The in-person event took place on Thursday (13 October 2022). Kaylan Reddy**, a PhD-student in Botany, and Ayesha Shaikh, a PhD student in Plant Pathology, finished second and third respectively. This year’s SU heat also saw the addition of an audience choice category which was won by Siphosethu Zantsi, a master’s student in Physiotherapy.

Considered to be one of the biggest science communication and public speaking competitions in the world, FameLab creates a platform for young emerging scientists to speak to public audiences about their work.

Ebrahim, Reddy, Shaikh and Zantsi were among 18 master’s and doctoral students who were given only three minutes to share their research with the audience. As the winner of the heat, Ebrahim will represent SU at the national final next year where she will compete against the winners of heats at other universities in South Africa.

The SU FameLab heat was organised by Jive Media Africa and the Postgraduate Office, which forms part of the Division for Research Development. The judges were Maryke Hunter-Husselmann (Division for Research Development), Anne Reif (Institute for Communication Science at the Technical University Braunschweig, Germany), Nonsikelelo (Ntsiki) Sackey (Siakhula Digital) and Fumani Mabogoane (South African Research Chair in Science Communication).

Ebrahim won the heat for a talk on the point-of-care treatment for pancreatic cancer. She is developing a device (in the form of a little black box) that would allow for the early detection of this type of cancer. The device would be less expensive and more time efficient. It could make it easier to do blood tests and shorten the time people will have to wait for the results of such tests.

Commenting on her win, Ebrahim said she is very thankful for the opportunity to develop her science communication skills, and excited to be among these students who are going further, so that she can learn even more.

“Science communication is important in my research because I work on a project that is so multidisciplinary, and new insight and perspectives from these various disciplines can only be gained efficiently through good communication. I think it is also valuable to show people that there are opportunities out there that allow you to do work that has purpose and that could potentially help people. Science communication also encourages you to organise and distil your research, and to share it with scientific and non-scientific audiences, who can help build community while disseminating knowledge.”

In his talk, Reddy spoke about how the chemical components found in indigenous medicinal plants like Sceletium, also known as ‘kanna’ and ‘kougoed’, could be used to develop substances that could help improve people’s mental health. According to him, South Africa’s indigenous people have used medicinal plants to lift their mood and to increase their happiness.

Reddy said it is a privilege to be amongst the winners. “As a scientist, I believe that it is my duty to share science with the public. Winning means that I get the opportunity to further develop my skills in science communication and ultimately grow as a storyteller in the hopes to demystify science and inspire others.

“Science communication around traditional medicine and mental health is incredibly important to combat yet another pandemic we are facing — the mental health pandemic. Through my research, I hope to communicate the untapped potential in indigenous knowledge and traditional medicine that could improve the quality of life of millions of people globally.”

In her presentation, Shaikh shared with the audience how her research aims to make local maize varieties more resistant to fungi that contaminate maize, reduce crop yields and are hazardous to animals and humans.  According to Shaikh, her research could also help to improve food security and allow farmers to control these pathogens in an environmentally-friendly way.

She said she was elated to be among the top three and that taking part in the competition has given her the confidence to share her work with others.

“Science communication is a means of building relationships that can serve as pathways for collaboration and innovative ideas, both of which are very necessary elements in science and research. Furthermore, without science communication we risk our research sitting in a book on a shelf in an archive never having made a meaningful impact.”

Zantsi shared with the audience how her research wants to give children who have lost their lower limbs access to prosthetic equipment. Her study highlights the impact of prosthetic limbs in children who might not necessarily be deemed candidates for prosthetic intervention.

Zantsi said it was an honour to be selected as one of the winners and that this boosted her confidence and zeal to share her research even more.

“By communicating my research, I hope to educate, advocate for and add value to advancing the field of prosthetics and rehabilitation, particularly for children. This is important because not only will it help the child individually by allowing them to function like their peers, but it could change the trajectory of their future, giving them prospects to gain jobs and to contribute to society.”

The winner of the South African final will represent the country at the international FameLab competition in the United Kingdom.

*Since a FameLab cycle typically starts the previous year going into the next year, there is an overlap with the 2022 and 2023 FameLab cycles.

**Kaylan Reddy was the 2021 SU heat 1st runner-up as well (previous contestants may re-enter as long as they meet the FameLab requirements of being a current postgraduate in the STEM fields and under the age of 35).

  • Photo: Siphosethu Zantsi, Kaylan Reddy, Taskeen Ebrahim and Ayesha Shaikh at the FameLab heat. Photographer: Ignus Dreyer