What does it take to be a transdisciplinary scholar? Exploring competencies for the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’

This is the third post in the series on ‘Transdisciplinary PhD Journeys’.

My name is Jessica Cockburn. I recently completed my PhD in Environmental Science at Rhodes University (Grahamstown, South Africa). I am now a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Environmental Learning Research Centre. My PhD research was a transdisciplinary enquiry on stewardship and collaboration in multifunctional landscapes. Taking a transdisciplinary (TD) research approach in my PhD was a means for me to legitimise a personal commitment to conducting research that is relevant and of value to practitioners working on environmental stewardship in South Africa. It was a way for me to do ‘science with society’1.

The first post in this blog series presented the challenge of the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’, where PhD students have to simultaneously pay attention to scientific rigor and excellence, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care. In this post, I will share my reflections on the kinds of competencies which PhD scholars might need to be able to manage this triple challenge, responding to one of the questions we posed in our introductory post: “What skills and competencies should ‘specialist TD scholars’ develop?” First I give a brief introduction to how I applied transdisciplinary research in my PhD, and then I consider what particular competencies I had to develop in order to conduct my research according to principles of transdisciplinarity.

I used principles for ‘Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science’ proposed by Lang et al (2012)to guide my research. According to these principles, TD research is a collaborative learning process which happens in the space between ‘science and society’. The TD process was a means of bridging the gap between context, knowledge systems, and problems faced by society (in my case represented by environmental stewardship practitioners) and science (in my case the theory and questions in the emerging field of social-ecological stewardship). I sought to bridge this gap in order to address questions about stewardship and collaboration in the context of multifunctional landscapes. I worked towards putting the ideals of transdisciplinary (TD) research into practice in my PhD by building relationships with practitioner partners, and by drawing on a diversity of social and ecological disciplines (both methodologically and theoretically). I partnered with NGOs who are working in rural landscapes to bring together multiple stakeholders for landscape stewardship. They became knowledge partners in the research process, and I worked with their projects as case studies in my research (See here for a blog piece on some of the knowledge co-production work which I conducted in partnership with NGOs).  

In working across disciplines and in partnering with practitioner partners for my PhD research, it became apparent to me that I needed to develop competencies and practices which a conventional postgraduate research project may not require. Figuring out the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’ is all about learning-by-doing. This is based on my own experiences, and of course each scholar will have different ideas about what kind of competencies mattered in the context of their research.

table of copmetencies for the triple jump

Exploring competencies for scholars learning to do the ‘transdisciplinary triple jump’. These competencies range from intellectual, to relational, to emotional competencies, and can be developed through particular habits of mind and practices.

In order to conduct research with scientific rigour and excellence, scholars need to develop intellectual and technical competencies. These include, for example, systems thinking. I applied systems thinking in my work to bring together insights from different disciplines. I drew on a wide range of theories from across the fields of biodiversity conservation, political and economic sciences, rural development, and sociology. I framed my research through the notion of social-ecological systems, and used critical realism as an enabling philosophical and methodological framework to embed systems thinking, and bring together these different theories. Others have pointed out the importance of balancing methodological groundedness and epistemological agilityin interdisciplinary work to ensure rigour.

For my research to be societally relevant and for me to engage meaningfully with societal actors or practitioners, I had to develop relational and translational competencies. This meant taking the time to build trust and manage interpersonal relationships with practitioner partners (as reflected on in more detail by My Sellberg in the previous post in this blog series). This often meant spending time on “non-research” activities such as social events in order to get to know people. It also meant managing expectations to ensure that both parties understand each others needs and interests, and communicating in an on-going and effective manner with diverse groups of stakeholders. I had to learn translational competencies by being a broker between academic and practical knowledge systems, and by co-creating research questions with practitioner partners that were of relevance to them and would also lead to novel academic contributions.

I had to take research ethics into consideration whilst building relationships with practitioners. I gathered important insights (or ‘data’) through informal interactions with practitioner partners for which I did not get ‘ethical clearance’ in the strict technical sense. Thus, since I was conducting research beyond the bounds of institutional research ethics procedures, I had to take responsibility for the relationships with so-called ‘human subjects’. I had to constantly reflect on the principles of research ethics in my interactions with the research partners, and practice ‘everyday ethics’. Together with my PhD supervisor, I reflect further on these research ethics challenges in this book chapter4.

To practice self-respect and care, transdisciplinary scholars need to develop emotional and psychological competencies. This is particularly relevant considering the diverse demands on our time and our personal capacities which the first two ‘steps’ of the triple jump described above require. In my experience, to balance all the demands of TD research, it became very important to become more self-aware. This meant ‘taking stock’ of my own feelings, sense of health and well-being, and being aware of how I reacted to different situations and pressures. This included monitoring my own stress levels. I realised early on in my TD PhD experience that I had to be very self-disciplined and learn to ‘say no’ when I had too many demands and opportunities coming my way. I had to learn good time management skills so that I could work ‘smarter’ rather than working harder or longer hours. I learnt to do this for example, by using the Pomodoro Technique to manage my productivity. I also became aware of the importance of recognising the integration between body, heart and mind. I realised that overly focusing on my intellectual productivity (mind) compromised my well-being (body-heart) and at times put pressure on my personal relationships and sense of happiness (heart). I was inspired by an article on ‘dual-thinking’ for scientistswhich encourages creative arts, unstructured social time, and other leisure-time activities as a complement to formal intellectual tasks such as reading, writing and data analysis. I learnt how important it was to spend quality time with family and friends, spend time in nature, and to keep healthy and happy through activities such as creative cooking, yoga and jogging.

Finally, and this is one of my biggest lessons from the TD PhD, finding ways to embed reflexive practices and habits of mind into the research process in an ongoing manner was crucial. Developing reflexive competency is something which I feel can enable us to conduct all three aspects of the transdisciplinary triple jump: scientific excellence and rigour, societal relevance and engagement, and self-respect and care. Reflexivity can also help us in managing the balance between these very different demands, and to practice ethical research. To me reflexivity means not only reflecting (i.e. ‘looking into the mirror’ and thinking about what happened), but considering the underlying assumptions and conditions which underpin events and experiences (i.e. looking ‘through the mirror’5, and reflecting on the nature of society and on our own value systems and beliefs), and responding to these reflections, adapting our thoughts and actions.

Reflexive habits of mind include a constant questioning of why things are the way they are, and an openness to the discomfort of questioning ones positionality and deeply-held beliefs. The practices which helped me to embed these habits include journalling, connecting with others e.g. through ‘communities of practice’, and identifying allies and supporters (e.g. supervisors, or fellow postgrads) with whom I could collectively reflect and critically discuss the challenges of conducting TD research.  

Operationalising TD required me to develop a variety of new competencies, ranging from intellectual, to relational and emotional. To me, this was a somewhat unexpected outcome from the PhD process. I appreciate and gratefully acknowledge my supervisors’ support in this process of personal growth. Developing these competencies and practices is a work in progress and I am still working on balancing the multiple demands which engaged, transdisciplinary research place on me as a person. It is an exciting and stimulating space to be exploring, both personally and professionally.

Author of this post:

Jess pic

Jessica Cockburn

Postdoctoral Scholar in the Environmental Learning Research Centre, Rhodes University, South Africa.

Connect with Jessica on social media

Learn more about Jessica at this website

Jessica’s email address

 

Key references to the literature:

1Seidl, R., Brand, F. S., Stauffacher, M., Krütli, P., Le, Q. B., Spörri, A., . . . Scholz, R. W. (2013). Science with Society in the Anthropocene. AMBIO, 42(1), 5-12. Online here.

2Lang, D. J., Wiek, A., Bergmann, M., Stauffacher, M., Martens, P., Moll, P., . . . Thomas, C. J. (2012). Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice, principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science, 7(1), 25-43. Online here.

3Haider, L. J., Hentati-Sundberg, J., Giusti, M., Goodness, J., Hamann, M., Masterson, V. A., . . . & Sinare, H. (2018). The undisciplinary journey: early-career perspectives in sustainability science. Sustainability Science, 13(1), 191-204. Online here.

4Cockburn, J., Cundill, G., Shackleton, C., & Rouget, M. 2018. Towards place-based research to support social-ecological stewardship. Sustainability 10(5): 1434. Online here.

5Bolton, G. (2010). Reflective practice: Writing and professional development. London, United Kingdom: Sage Publications Ltd. Chapter 1 online here.

6Scheffer, M., Bascompte, J., Bjordam, T. K., Carpenter, S. R., Clarke, L. B., Folke, C., . . . & Westley, F. R. (2015). Dual thinking for scientists. Ecology and Society, 20(2), 3. Online here.

 

 

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New paper: Lessons on transdisciplinary research from a local science-action partnership

A team of researchers and practitioners working in the eThekwini Municipal Area (Durban, South Africa), recently published a paper on bridging the science-action gap in the journal Ecology and Society. Through presenting empirical insights and lessons learnt from a local collaboration between a university (University of KwaZulu-Natal) and a municipality (eThekwini Municipality), the paper contributes to a growing body of research on the role of transdisciplinary research in bridging the gap between science and society.

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Participants in the Durban Research Action Partnership on a field trip to the Giba Gorge Environmental Precinct on the outskirts of the city of Durban, South Africa. 

The paper uses the Durban Research Action Partnership (D’RAP) as a case study to test and operationalise a model of transdisciplinary research proposed by Lang et al. Through its eleven-year journey, the partnership has built a strong foundation for long-term collaboration. The lessons learned through this process have been synthesized into a framework of recommendations for successful implementation of science-action partnerships. The framework consists of four broad enabling actions, each one based on a number of specific factors, as shown in the figure below.

Cockburn et al Figure 1 final.png

The paper proposes that initiatives and institutions seeking to contribute to solving complex, interlinked social-ecological problems of societal relevance must recognize the importance of explicitly bridging the science-action gap. This means paying particular attention to bridging traditional disciplinary and institutional boundaries and building collaborative capacity of individuals and teams. By documenting and reflecting on such a process, the D’RAP case study provides conceptual and practical guidance on bridging the science-action gap through partnerships.

Through a process of on-going evaluation and reflection on successes and failures, the partnerships is on a successful trajectory based on the following aspects: 1. strong working relationships growing over time; 2. trust and social capital developed; 3. human capacity built; and 4. implementation-driven knowledge generated.

In publishing this paper, the D’RAP partnership is responding to increasing calls in the literature for empirical insights and lessons from scientists and practitioners working together to bridge the gap between science and society, in the hopes to grow understanding of the enablers and barriers to collaborative research endeavours.

Citation and link:

Cockburn, J., M. Rouget, R. Slotow, D. Roberts, R. Boon, E. Douwes, S. O’Donoghue, C. T. Downs, S. Mukherjee, W. Musakwa, O. Mutanga, T. Mwabvu, J. Odindi, A. Odindo, &. Proches, S. Ramdhani, J. Ray-Mukherjee, Sershen, M. Schoeman, A. J. Smit, E. Wale and S. Willows-Munro. 2016. How to build science-action partnerships for local land-use planning and management: lessons from Durban, South Africa. Ecology and Society 21 (1):28. [online] URL:
http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol21/iss1/art28/

Note: The lead authors (Jessica Cockburn and Mathieu Rouget) are affiliated to SAPECS (South African Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society), and this text was also posted on the SAPECS Website.

D'RAP logo_high res

For further information, please contact the corresponding authors: Jessica Cockburn: jessicacockburn@gmail.com and Mathieu Rouget: rouget@ukzn.ac.za

This research was supported by eThekwini Municipality through the Durban Research-Action Partnership (D’RAP): KwaZulu-Natal Sandstone Sourveld Research Programme.

Journal ideas

Hi everyone,

I’m looking to publish some of my Masters findings and am looking for some journal ideas. My paper is looking at the regulation of firewood harvesting in rural Bushbuckridge (South Africa) and how these systems have changed (weakened) since national democracy in 1994. It specifically looks at the socio-economic and political drivers of this change. Does anyone know of an open access journal that may fit this idea?

Thanks in advance!

Sarah

 

Challenges of a change agent: Transformative methods or transformative process?

transformative methods or transformative process

Figure 1: Thought process of a reflective PhD Student-wannabe-change agent

Herewith a personal reflection: comments very much welcome!

I’ve recently been grappling with the question of methods in engaged, transdisciplinary research. I am about to embark on the field work for one of the in-depth case studies in my PhD and have been developing the research plan. In a nutshell, my research seeks to understand what kind of collaborative processes underpin shifts to stewardship (read: sustainable resource use) in agricultural landscapes. I’m taking a social-ecological systems approach in the research.

But let me go back few steps. Upon embarking on this PhD journey a year ago I made a commitment to myself (and the world at large…) that I wanted to do a ‘transdisciplinary PhD’ and that I wanted my PhD  to make a difference. Nice idea. Which I managed to write about quite nicely in my research proposal, and which I could find a lot of nice literature to back up.

Skip forward 6 months to the present: Reality check: I am about to head out into the field and need a plan. here it is:  I am planning to conduct a Social-Ecological Inventory and do lots and lots of qualitative interviews with diverse stakeholders in my study area to develop a detailed case study to answer my research questions. I will also be participating in workshops hosted by a local NGO where I will be doing participant observation and running post-workshop reflection sessions . All in all, a pretty standard set of field work methods.

So much for my engaged, transformative research methods which I committed to in my proposal.

What is a transformative method? What examples are there , out there, of transformative research methods? Anyone? (I’m starting to wonder where I got this idea in the first place…)

I’m not sure of the answer to those questions.

What I am sure of, for now, is that the methods which my supervisor and I have agreed on are scientifically sound, defensible, reliable ways of collecting the empirical data I need for my PhD in order to make a meaningful, novel contribution to science. Maybe now is not the time to flirt with ideas about transformative methods which we don’t really seem to know much about in social-ecological systems research (yet!).

Another thing I am sure of is that my overall research process is potentially more transformative than most conventional research approaches. I am engaging closely with a local NGO in developing the research questions and conducting the research, we’re endeavouring to co-generate the new knowledge through this process. I have also developed a small network of local practitioners in the field of sustainable resource use who have an interest in the research and with whom I am sharing the journey – whilst learning about the work they do in their projects.

So, I hope to have convinced myself by now, that I am okay and haven’t let myself down too much, because:

Even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’, the fact that they are embedded in a interdisciplinary, engaged research process with tight linkages between theory in practice, means that my research does still have some potential to be transformative.

And, secondly, even if my specific research methods are ‘standard’ or ‘conventional’ they are scientifically robust and reliable, and will generate quality empirical data which I can analyse and write up to hopefully complete my PhD successfully. Which as my supervisor points out is my ‘licence to research’.

After that I can play with transformative methods and try to change the world…

 

Invasive narratives

By Simon West

As inter-disciplinary scientists, how do we tell ‘catchy’ narratives about environmental change that stimulate policy action while also opening up for complex understandings?

A new paper in the journal Environmental Humanitieswritten with colleagues from the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in Stockholm and the University of Cape Town, South Africa, explores this question in relation to so-called ‘invasive alien species.’

ABSTRACT Environmental narratives have become an increasingly important area of study in the environmental humanities. Rob Nixon has drawn attention to the difficulties of representing the complex processes of environmental change that inflict ‘slow violence’ on vulnerable human (and non-human) populations. Nixon argues that a lack of “arresting stories, images and symbols” reduces the visibility of gradual problems such as biodiversity loss, climate change and chemical pollution in cultural imaginations and on political agendas. We agree with Nixon that addressing this representational imbalance is an important mission for the environmental humanities. However, we argue that another aspect of the same imbalance, or representational bias, suggests the inverse of this is also needed—to unpack the ways that complicated and multifaceted environmental phenomena can be reduced to fast, simple, evocative, invasive narratives that percolate through science, legislation, policy and civic action, and to examine how these narratives can drown out rather than open up possibilities for novel social-ecological engagements. In this article we demonstrate the idea of invasive narratives through a case study of the ‘invasive alien species’ (IAS) narrative in South Africa. We suggest that IAS reduces complex webs of ecological, biological, economic, and cultural relations to a simple ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ battle between easily discernible ‘natural’ and ‘non- natural’ identities. We argue that this narrative obstructs the options available to citizens, land managers and policy-makers and prevents a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics and implications of biodiversity change, in South Africa and beyond.

 

Full paper available here.

How do we do what we do?

Place yourselves in uncomfortable situations. Such was the advice of Debra Roberts, one of the keynote speakers at the recent PECS conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Although I was inspired by her ideas, the conference also provided comfort, and I really appreciated the safe spaces where “young” scholars openly discussed how we do interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.

How can young researchers do novel sustainability science that bridges different disciplines and engages societal actors in a meaningful way? How can we do this while still operating within conventional institutions and time constraints?

All of these questions were raised by early career scholars at the first conference organized by the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS), which took place between the 3rd and 5th of November. It gathered about 250 participants interested in the social-ecological dynamics of the Anthropocene and transitions towards sustainable stewardship. Instead of just presenting our research results, we could share the challenges we face and the strategies we have developed to deal with them.

At a SAPECS (the South African branch of PECS) learning event before the conference, Christo Fabricius facilitated a discussion with about 30 young scholars around how to engage stakeholders in a meaningful way in our research. A recurrent theme was the need to have time to connect with people outside academia, build relationships and build trust. Time to actually listen to the needs of communities. But the emphasis on time also brought up a challenge: how, during a PhD, can we find time to both engage in a meaningful way with stakeholders and write high-quality scientific papers?

During one of the coffee breaks, Karen Esler shared some of her experience on this topic with Jessica Cockburn:

As Karen mentions, one strategy to deal with this tension is to make transdisciplinary research a team effort and not an individual endeavour. Your own PhD research can be part of a bigger project that is already established, where some of that time-consuming trust-building has already been done. Another strategy is to connect with partners outside the university that can facilitate the participatory process.

From this discussion I’m more hopeful that there are ways to work this out in the current system. However, in the longer-term, I still think there is a need to question the major incentive for researchers to allocate most of their time to producing scientific publications.

At the “young” scholars session during the conference, organized by Jessica Cockburn, Vanessa Masterson, Odirilwe Selomane and Marika Haeggman, we had a chance to further reflect on our competencies and identity as place-based social-ecological systems researchers.

One of the participants, Megan Davies, highlighted the difference between going into a familiar vs. an unfamiliar context to do research. Megan and I  both do transdisciplinary research with a municipality in our vicinity, in South Africa and Sweden respectively. This facilitates our understanding of the system, the power dynamics and the culture, and could also decrease the time needed for trust-building and stakeholder mapping. On the other hand, researchers working in a familiar context could have more pre-assumptions, and it could be difficult to be critical when research “subjects” are also friends and collaborators.

For panelists Joana Carlos Bezerra and presenter Shauna Mahajan, doing research in communities far from home raised other issues, such as not speaking the language, having to use translators, and relying on key individuals to access a community. One of the presenters, Johan Enqvist, reflected on whether “objectivity” in this type of research is actually more about reflecting and questioning our values and assumptions. By being critical, for example, and exploring the potential adverse effects of initiatives that we think are good.

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The ethical dilemmas we face in conducting transdisciplinary and place-based research was another important discussion point. By transdisciplinary research I refer to approaches that include multiple scientific disciplines (interdisciplinarity) and include the active input of practitioners from outside academia. Vanessa Masterson shared an interesting insight from her work in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, where she faced a dilemma in providing honest (critical) feedback to the community, which might jeopardize the relationship of trust she built with them during her research. How do we meet the expectations of the local communities we work with? Another panelist, Tom Chaigneau, proposed that instead of disseminating our findings, which are often complex, we could throw a party for the research participants!

For sure, there are no solutions that will fit all cases. Nevertheless, sharing our different experiences certainly provided new ideas and encouraged us to reflect on our roles as researchers. In the end, I think it is this reflection that will help us become better researchers. Here, I think this website has an important role to play. However, to strengthen and develop this reflectiveness and understanding of how to conduct inter- and transdisciplinary research, we also need to build institutional capacity. We need training for scholars early on in their PhDs, and we also need to create spaces and institutional cultures that encourage reflection.

Mapping social–ecological systems: Identifying ‘green-loop’ and ‘red-loop’ dynamics based on characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use

PhD student Maike Hamann’s (Stockholm Resilience Centre and CSIR, South Africa) exciting new publication!

Find the full paper here: http://www.sciencedirect.com.ezp.sub.su.se/science/article/pii/S0959378015300157

Abstract: 

We present an approach to identify and map social–ecological systems based on the direct use of ecosystem services by households. This approach builds on the premise that characteristic bundles of ecosystem service use represent integrated expressions of different underlying social–ecological systems.

We test the approach in South Africa using national census data on the direct use of six provisioning services (freshwater from a natural source, firewood for cooking, firewood for heating, natural building materials, animal production, and crop production) at two different scales.

Based on a cluster analysis, we identify three distinct ecosystem service bundles that represent social–ecological systems characterized by low, medium and high levels of direct ecosystem service use among households. We argue that these correspond to ‘green-loop’, ‘transition’ and ‘red-loop’ systems as defined by Cumming et al. (2014).

When mapped, these systems form coherent spatial units that differ from systems identified by additive combinations of separate social and biophysical datasets, the most common method of mapping social–ecological systems to date.

The distribution of the systems we identified is mainly determined by social factors, such as household income, gender of the household head, and land tenure, and only partly determined by the supply of natural resources.

An understanding of the location and characteristic resource use dynamics of different social–ecological systems allows for policies to be better targeted at the particular sustainability challenges faced in different areas.

The practicalities of engaging with society in social-ecological research

Just before the first ever Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) conference this past November in Stellenbosch, SAPECS organised a pre-conference learning event for early career social-ecological systems researchers at STIAS; coordinated and facilitated by Christo Fabricius from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU). The topic of the event was “Participatory Action Research in Social-Ecological Systems”, and the focus was particularly on discussing the principles and practice of doing this research.

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Role playing game. Picture by My Sellberg

The format for the day was three 15 minute food-for-thought presentations, each followed by an hour of dialogues and discussions in break-out groups, with a role-playing game between the morning and afternoon sessions. First Maria Tengö, who works at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, presented on the importance and usefulness of multiple evidence and the role of these evidences in participatory action research. This was followed by Dirk Roux from South African National Parks presenting and stressing the need to create space that enables authentic engagement, so called ‘third spaces’. Franck de Saint Simon was invited as a practitioner to share his experiences and insights on engagement; he told stories about engagement processes for various projects in West Africa and stressed the importance of first understanding the context in which you are working.

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Break discussions.  Picture by My Sellberg

The role playing game simulated a public participation meeting in a remote rural area, with ‘researchers’, ‘consultants’, ‘officials’, ‘a politician’ and ‘rural communities’ discussing the pros and cons of building a large dam. Role players came to realize that ‘the community’ consists of diverse interest groups and that there are no simple solutions to society’s challenges.  The discussions, which were loosely based on the ‘Knowledge Café’ approach, revolved around the challenges facing early career researchers related to time management, ethics, expectations created in the engagement process, stakeholder fatigue and the role of feedback to participants to build trust and credibility in research projects. Feedback and active listening motivated participants to respond truthfully without merely giving the ‘right’ answers that researchers want to hear.

The group discussed changes needed in our attitudes and approaches in order to improve outcomes of participatory research, and made practical suggestions such as funder flexibility, embedding students within long term process-based projects, the value of pilot studies to determine mutual interest between researchers and society, and clarity and honesty about intent. The event created space for lively discussions and possibilities to link up with other existing initiatives. The feedback received from participants was extremely positive, with many commenting on the value of pre-conference get-togethers to form new and lasting connections.

For some reflections on the event, check out this blog post by one of the participating PhD students from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, My Sellberg, or watch this YouTube video featuring Prof Karen Esler from Stellenbosch University and PhD student Jessica Cockburn from Rhodes University discussing the tensions of engaging in a meaningful way with stakeholders while also producing high-quality scientific papers.

The organising committee was made up of Christo Fabricius, Karen Esler, Linda Luvuno, Odirilwe Selomane, Vanessa Masterson, and Lisa Heider. The event was partly funded by SwedBio. We thank everyone for their support in making this another successful SAPECS learning event and look forward to more fun learning activities in the future!
This post was originally posted on the SAPECS website.