From Zoologist to Pharmacist

As I have mentioned in my About section, the aim of this blog is to hopefully bridge the gap between the scientific and global communities and in so doing highlight the fact that science is not always boring and tedious but can be an exciting and fulfilling career choice. The obvious and often followed path into science, once leaving school, is the Bachelor of Science degree. This is a degree chockfull of tedious write-ups and extensive reports, field trips into the unknown and never-ending practicals, three years of painstaking dedication and attention to agonising detail. After the completion of this mammoth undertaking and subsequent loss of social life, some come to the conclusion that science is not for everyone and drastically veer off to follow a less caffeine-fuelled existence but for those brave (or maybe slightly crazy) few who are able to stick it out and survive, the ultimate question becomes… so where to from here?

Depending on the science degree that you have obtained, there are various paths that you can follow; the ambitious academic aiming to form a mini alphabet behind your name, the eternal student jumping from one field to the next in an attempt to put off having to get a boring job, the career-oriented individual keen to start the climb up the corporate ladder or even the power-hungry hotshot keen to be in charge of the establishment of the legislation pertaining to the relevant field in which you have situated yourself. Now I am not one for pigeonholing so a combination of all of the above, with the ultimate goal of getting to muck around in nature and get paid for it would be my ultimate goal. In an attempt to give high school kids, who are completely muddled by all the choices presented by guidance counsellors, and soon-to-be or even recent BSc graduates, who don’t have a cooking clue of where to go from here, some idea of what opportunities lie in wait I have put together a series of posts regarding life after a BSc. I have interviewed a number of scientists that have recently graduated and are following a diverse array of paths highlighting the fact that science is not a “one size fits all” field but rather a field that is rich in opportunity and, while challenging at times, thoroughly rewarding.

St Francis - Ichthyofauna

St. Francis sunrise during an ichthyofauna sampling trip

The first lucky candidate to be quizzed on his experience in and thoughts on the scientific field, as well as his focus for the future, is a guy with whom I had the good fortune of sharing my time at NMMU. A guy that has the annoying ability of making anything look like a breeze but is an asset to have by your side when trying to figure out the intricacies of some other worldly piece of equipment or jump-start a temperamental car. Brad Ah Yui was completing his BSc with a double major in zoology and chemistry, and his specific interest being in aquatic ecology and shallow water eco-systems. Before he made the mind-boggling decision to become a pharmacist, he was part of the zoology honours program looking at the recovery of benthic macrofauna in a shallow estuarine lake system following a prolonged drought period. The research for his thesis took him to the shores of St. Lucia, an estuarine lake in the Kwa-Zulu Natal Province of South Africa.

Gonubie Holiday Resort

Gonubie Holiday Resort… field accommodation is not always this classy!


Field work affords some of the best views!

This estuarine system is the largest in Africa and with its rich assortment of flora and fauna resulting in high levels of biodiversity; it now forms part of the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park (now iSimangaliso Wetland Park), a Ramsar and UNESCO world heritage site. Even after being afforded the status of world heritage site, this estuary is vulnerable to extensive anthropogenic activities that have the potential to drastically alter the conditions within this system and as such the structure of the community that utilises this environment. The aim of Brad’s study was to draw a comparison between the community structure present during the cyclic pattern of drought and wet phases within the estuary, making use of data that has been compiled since 2011, and thus determine the resilience of the species that make St. Lucia their home. He also planned to assess the integrity of refuge populations for the returning species as well as those newly recruited from the Mfolozi connecting channel.

When asked what he considered to be the most interesting aspect of his research, Brad pointed out that this particular thesis included a number of technical aspects that require time and boatloads of patience to master. Given that Honours is only a year-long program, you are required to undergo a literal crash course and become an expert on all things related to your thesis. In his case this included using species specific characteristics to identify critters to a more advanced level than “fish” or “invertebrate” as well as becoming adept at using the most state-of-the-art microscope equipment, quite the leap from the clunky microscopes of undergrad that were so old that it was anyone’s guess as to what you were looking at. However annoying I considered these microscopes to be, I still reckon that they are a rite of passage for any budding scientist because if you can master these antiquities you deserve to enjoy the high res images of the most advanced compound microscopes.

Brad has enjoyed, as he says even the most discerning of students are capable of, finding an appreciation for certain invertebrates once viewed under a microscope. Even though one can grow to enjoy lab work, discovering a hidden appreciation for all things nerdy, field work is definitely one of the most cited perks of “sciencing” (as Brad so aptly puts it). He admitted to the fact that the location of his study site, in the stunning surrounds of St. Lucia, played a significant role in choosing his project; summing up that the sun, sea, sand, tropical mangroves and ethnic vernacular were all part and parcel of what made it so appealing. I would have to agree!!

Transkei Coral

Columnar sandy zoanthid (Palythoa nelliae) found along the east coast of South Africa

The reasons behind Brad choosing science as a field of study lie in his love for exploring South Africa’s abundant nature, citing the drastic changes experienced along our coastline as sparking a passion for exploring it all. This country boasts sub-tropical conditions along the northern extremities of our east coast drastically contrasting with the frigid upwelling conditions of the west, the transitional region of the south coast being sandwiched in between (the flora-and-fauna-rich interior not withstanding). While he considered the majority of his undergrad to be less “hands on” than he had anticipated and particularly narrow in terms of the topics covered, Brad did find that a balance was struck between the theoretical and practical aspects of third year. He would also have appreciated a course tailored to his interest in invertebrate and ichthyofaunal aquaculture. In the true spirit of science, Brad’s response to what his favourite aspect of science might be is concise and to the point. His chief interest stems from the questioning of concepts and the subsequent learning of how and why things are the way they are. An insatiable ideal for some.

St Lucia - Probe

Brad using a YSI probe in the St. Lucia estuary

My penultimate question covered experiences that were deemed awesome (the weirder the better) and worthy of mentioning in an attempt to update the stereotypical image of mad crazy scientists in lab coats wielding bioweapons (No? Just me?). I have to admit that reading about some of Brad’s experiences may have left me a smidgeon envious… ok that is a gross understatement and we all know it! He describes helping out on a wetlands survey in the dusty bowl of the Karoo and unknowingly becoming dinner for a couple of leeches as one of his most memorable instances. While I don’t reckon that this is quite on the same awesome level (who doesn’t enjoy being leech lunch), getting his luggage stolen from out of his field vehicle while sitting at traffic lights on his way to St. Lucia and having to buy new kit in Durban, shit does happen highlighting the fact that science requires adaptability especially when out in the field. Getting to explore the estuaries of the Transkei, while assisting a Masters student with his research, and discovering the hidden beauties (both scenic and faunal) that this country has to offer, musing that if only we all had 4×4’s to access these “off-the-beaten-track” locations, ranks up there with his science course highlights. Being given the opportunity to “go behind the scenes” and view science from a perspective that relatively few people have the chance to experience is one aspect of this field that many people will agree provides the most fulfilment. In this regard, Brad refers to his time traversing the waterways of St. Lucia and sampling in among hippo pods as well as getting the opportunity to carry out some fisheries regulation by way of removing illegal gill nets and checking fishing permits.

Transkei Prawn

Transkei tiger prawn (Penaeus monodon)

As a parting comment, I asked Brad if he had any words of advice or inspiration for aspiring scientists and he had this to say. Loving nature and questioning how life works are good aspects to have in a scientist, however not being a scientist does not mean that you have to lose this aspect. He reckons that as science becomes more interactive and accessible to the public, citizen science is becoming a dominant feature in monitoring programs (obtaining large sets of fish catch and release or bird watching data). Brad intimates that just because you love nature does not mean that science is for you and by becoming active in your department early on during undergrad not only opens up many opportunities but can also assist you in deciding whether or not it is the field for you. Being active throughout his undergrad and early postgrad helped him realise that “sciencing” was not for him. He reiterates that soon-to-be “varsitygoes” should not waste the most enthusiastic years of their lives just going through the motions in order to get a degree in “something”. This is especially relevant since there are so very many hours spent dedicated to writing papers, poring over literature and cross referencing information; don’t get him started on the lab work! It isn’t all field work and the occasional beer.

Transkei Beer

That occasional beer out in the field!

Brad finishes up the interview by stressing that if science is your passion then follow it with your all; there will be testing times, rejections and failures but you will get through them and once you do, don’t forget to reflect back on what you have achieved and continue questioning. There are awesome friends to be found in the science community, not only in zoology but in all the scientific disciplines.

Explore. Dream. Discover.

*****All photos courtesy of Brad Ah Yui*****

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