Global statements on diversity: Dickson Mambwe

Scientists around the world answer the same three questions...

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By Dickson Mambwe, PhD Candidate, University of Cape Town. 

In your opinion, which scientific questions will set the trends in the coming decade, and which science problems would you like to tackle?

The world is becoming more aware of the regional gaps and how that affects contribution to science. In Africa particularly, infrastructure plays a critical role in the quality of science, regardless of the competence of the scientists. Collaboration are one thing, but African scientists would have to compete at the same scale as their colleagues in the second and first world countries. I think that if we are to really harness the full potential of the global scientific community, we need to start think about creating a central global governing body which should regulate funding, infrastructure development and equal opportunities for competent scientists (not only chemists) across the globe.

I recently looked at the Hippocratic oath for medical professionals (because my wife will be taking it soon) and I keep wondering of the scientific community needs a similar code of conduct to not only make our science beneficial for mankind but to also unite us.

The next trends in science will not be as scientific as many expect, but on how we can all unite irrespective of our colour, background and fields, to prepare for imminent problems and catastrophes that mankind will be facing.

As to the second part of the question, I would personally like to tackle the resilience towards clinical trials on the African continent. Africa is burdened with diseases, but there are very few clinical studies on the population, partly due to the ardent resilience of our people, I welcome opinions and community outreach programs to inform the importance of clinical studies on the continent.

How do you experience diverse leadership, diversity in your lab, publication and peer-review, promotion and career progression, in your host country? What are the impediments for creating inclusive, equitable research labs, departments and practices?

In my laboratory, there is diversity because the University of Cape Town (UCT) attracts diverse professionals. I learn from everyone that are willing to teach, not only from my advisor who is abundantly accommodating but also from all the professors in the department. I have had not limitation to who I can approach for guidance as a PhD student in the department. As for career progression, my advisor has been more than instrumental in thinking ahead of time, by creating opportunities for me to meet the wider scientific community, even in non-conventional means like sharing dinner while he meets and discusses high level projects with partners, just for me to listen in and perhaps learn something.

Inclusiveness starts when one realises their own imperfections and shortfalls. Science is for all humanity, and while a true scientist wants nothing more than to pass on skills and knowledge, this should be regardless of colour, creed or descent. Because ultimately, where are going to be remembered for our impact on the ‘human’ race and not to our families or to a specific race.

In my opinion, some of the practical steps to encourage inclusive, equitable ad balanced research in research labs and departments are:

  1. Diversity of your people – everyone has something to bring to the table. Give equal opportunities for equal qualifications and suitability of your needs regardless of descent, gender and colour.

  2. Interactive PI’s, Supervisors, Department heads and general leadership – hiring a professional or acquiring a postgrad student is one thing, but knowing your entire team is another, leadership should go beyond the work environment, create an atmosphere that makes every member of the team comfortable to express themselves freely (professionally). My opinion is for leaders to be more aware of their teams, it is not always possible, but a ‘deliberate’ effort to interact goes a long way. Know what’s going on, otherwise you’ll hear about it in the news.

  3. Constructive and indiscriminate feedback – While its ok for leaders to have favourites, indiscriminate feedback is essential in a team setting, if there’s one thing most humans can do (I stand to be corrected), it’s sensitivity to criticism, and we easily compare. Give feedback on merit and be unbiased.

  4. Celebrate all victories, microscopic to monumental – As leaders, please give credit where it due, show appreciation for all achievements, they are not all great given your level of experience and mastery of things but it goes a long way for people that look up to you.

What is your message to the next generation of scientists, and what are your tips for their success?

My messages are as follows:

  1. We need you, come in numbers, come diverse – Science, just like your endogeneity, is not race specific, its universal and approachable from a whole lot of directions, if you’re a human being, an earthling, you have a place in science, and you’re welcome to the field.

  2. Read beyond and learn from everyone – society has huge expectations from you, you won’t have to be a medicinal chemist to be asked about what the science community is doing about the ‘next pandemic’, they’ll still ask you because you’re a scientist. Bottomline, you’re a scientist, you should have an idea about everything, read, read, read and learn.

  3. Identify a Mentor, or a go-to Colleague to run ideas by – Your thought process as a scientist is very important, you’re going to think both rational and irrationally, you need a mentor to run ideas by, especially the dumb ideas, that person will be your guide and filter, you’re eventually going to change the world with them, these are lifetime colleagues (this can also be your advisor/supervisor, which brings me to my next point).

  4. You’re sure you want to do be a that kind of scientist, good, but choose the right supervisor/advisor – Your advisor has an overall perspective on what the project you’re going to do, there are no promises, it’s going to be a novel scientific journey, and self-discovery/awareness. You’ll have unique experiences during your journey, some will be difficult. Do your research and choose an advisor that not only shares your interest in science but is also ‘HUMAN’. This person will forever be part of your journey.

Dickson Mambwe

Ph.D Candidate, University of Cape Town

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