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#STEMStories: Kolisa, PhD candidate in the Oceanography Department, South Africa

1. Introduce yourself, who are you what do you do?

My name is Kolisa Sinyanya, a PhD candidate in the Oceanography Department at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa. My PhD research focuses on critically examining biogeochemical cycling in the ocean, particularly in regions like the Indian and Southern Oceans which are currently under-sampled. With the use of nitrogen (N) isotopes, I study how and which nutrients are taken up by microbial communities. Additionally, I intricately examine microbe-nutrient interactions during carbon (C) sequestration with the use of N isotopes and uptake rates. This research helps inform us about the efficiency of the biological pump in these ocean regions.

2. How did you arrive at this career (or point in your life/work)? Was it always something you knew you wanted to do?

Science is something I’ve always wanted to do, however, Oceanography fell into place along my academic path. In my MSc I was working on the molecular key of leguminous plants from the fynbos biome which is endemic to the Western and Northern Cape regions of South Africa, the Cape Floristic Region (CFR). These plants form a symbiosis with the microbes they interact with and fix nitrogen. These intricacies intrigued me and I wanted to know more about ocean microbes and how they behave. Moreover, I had done some research on my own and discovered that the Southern Ocean was not well studied. I decided then that I wanted to be one of the first people to uncover its secrets. Through my side research, I also realised that there were very few black people in ocean studies and thought it would make sense for me to become an ocean researcher for representation. I, therefore, tasked myself with finding an opportunity that encompassed both microbes and the Southern Ocean. To my surprise, the offer I was made in The Fawcett Lab at UCT also included N and nitrogen fixation. I was sold and the rest is history.

3. What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning, especially on those cold, dark mornings?

The exciting discoveries always have me excited because my PhD research is novel and we have no idea what to expect when conducting these experiments and analyses. It is always new results that uncover the unknowns. Only about 7% of the ocean is said to have been explored so far and so we still have much to reveal about the global ocean and this makes me jump out of bed with excitement in the morning, even on those cold, dark mornings. I also enjoy talking about my work science communication style to different audiences, from ocean experts to the layman.

4. What is your personal cure for stress or how do you raise your spirits in times of doubt? Can you share a Story?

During stressful times I like to listen to the loudest music and sing along at the top of my voice. I find this soothing. I also do like crying it out on the treadmill, very effective. When in doubt I have intimate moments of talking to myself in front of the mirror and remind myself that I am capable. The writing phase of my MSc was very challenging and I had days when I would not want to even get out of bed because it was so heavy. That was the first time I had the task of taking on a full dissertation which required me to be mentally fit, physically fit and have unwavering persistence. That was quite overwhelming and I felt it. I, therefore, had to always remind myself where I come from, how far I’ve come and that I was more than capable of achieving anything I put my mind to. I completed my MSc within 3 years and received a Golden Key International Honour as one of the top 15% in my degree at UCT in that year.

5. Who is your role model? If no one, any thoughts on this?

My mother is my biggest role model. She has modelled to me what a powerful woman is. I have many of her qualities that I observed and apply in my everyday life, today. I would be telling fibs if I wouldn’t acknowledge women in STEM as being my role models too. Women in STEM from all backgrounds and of all ages are of great importance in my life and growth within the STEM world.

6. What advice would you give to yourself if you could go back in time?

If I would go back in time I’d advise myself not to waste time and to never take education for granted.

7. Top 3 tips for girls starting out in STEM?

  • Be fierce!
  • Know that you are there because you deserve to be there.
  • Never give up.

8. How do you measure your success?

I measure my success by the impact I have in society. Even the smallest impact like people sending me messages to let me know that they enrolled for certain tertiary programs because they were influenced or inspired by me. I believe that my success is not a success if it does not advance other people’s lives.

9. Where can we find out more about your work?

To learn more about my work one can read an article I wrote for The Conversation Africa (How microscopic ocean organisms and the earth's temperature are linked), see my ResearchGate page (Kolisa SINYANYA | Ph.D. Physical Oceanography | University of Cape Town, Cape Town | UCT | Department of Oceanography), visit my women in science blog (Women In Science Hub – Some women fear the fire, some women simply become it!) or follow my live tweets on (Kolisa Yola Sinyanya (@Kolie_Yola)).

10. My Instagram page is Kolisa Yola Sinyanya (@kolieyola).