April 2014
Contents / home
FameLabSA 2014
Science Lens winners
Young, innovative and gifted
Intern receives Fellowship in Paris
Transformation in marine science
Looking for the brainiacs of yesteryear
Skies alive with space activities
Training the trainers
On your marks ... Get SET Go!
Schools debates advisory committee
Science community volunteers
The science of giving back
New science communication resource
Bringing nanotech to the disabled
Meet media guru Daryl Ilbury
Water World @ Scifest Africa 2014
Exploring marine science
Sharks, vegetables and alien fish
SAIAB cares
In the news
Upcoming events
It's a fact!

GetSETgo's last article on the 75 years of coelacanth research first appeared in a special supplement of Mail & Guardian in December 2013. The South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) produced a suite of eight articles titled 'Building on SA's coelacanth legacy' for the M&G supplement, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the discovery of the coelacanth and the legacy of research that has followed. The supplement was funded by the Department of Science and Technology. The full supplement can be found on the SAIAB website.

The coelacanth, women and transformation in marine science

  When Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer spotted the unusual blue fish in a fisherman's catch in East London harbour she was, unusual for the time, a curator at the East London Museum. She went on to become its director. (Image © SAIAB)
  Professor Margaret Mary Smith founded the JLB Smith Institute in honour of her husband's contribution to ichthyology and was its first director, nurturing the development of the discipline and guiding many aspirant natural science students into the field. (Image © SAIAB)
  PhD student, Taryn Murray, readies receivers and floats to be deployed to monitor fish movements.
  Students Zamokuhle Mjali, Nolonwabo Mgoduka, Dr Francesca Porri and student, Mfundo izani, mark Cerithidea decollata at Mngazana.
This special Mail & Guardian Science Supplement marks the 75th anniversary of the finding of the living coelacanth in December 1938, but without the female scientists involved, the story may never have happened and it is highly unlikely that the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) in its present form would ever have existed.

After a chance encounter, two robust female scientists forged the growth of not only coelacanth, but also marine research in South Africa. They were Dr Marjorie-Courtenay Latimer and Professor Margaret Mary Smith. When Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer spotted an unusual blue fish in a fisherman's catch in East London harbour she was, unusual for the time, a curator at the East London Museum. She went on to become its director. Had she not sent a sketch of the fish to the then authority on fishes, Dr JLB Smith, the "living" coelacanth might never have been identified, nor would the search for a second specimen ever have happened.

It is also unlikely that the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology, now SAIAB, which has promoted coelacanth research since 1938, would have been founded on the legacy of the discovery. Professor Margaret Mary Smith founded the JLB Smith Institute in honour of her husband's contribution to ichthyology and was its first director, nurturing the development of the discipline and guiding many aspirant natural science students into the field.

Further down the research timeline, the coelacanth genome may not have been decoded: since 2000, South African scientists Professor Rosemary Dorrington and Dr Adrienne Edkins of Rhodes University have been part of an international team of researchers that has worked on unravelling the coelacanth genome. Earlier this year the news that the coelacanth genome had been successfully decoded made international headlines on the publication of their findings in the prestigious natural history journal Nature.

Recognising female scientists

A number of female scientists from various countries are listed among contributors to the project. There are many other women scientists internationally who have contributed massively to marine science. One such example is National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, Dr Sylvia Earle, who was present at the launch of the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) in 2001 and has visited South Africa a number of times.

ACEP, managed by SAIAB, is a flagship project of the Department of Science and Technology. ACEP is committed to transformation in marine science and South African female scientists have contributed to coelacanth research since 2001. Dr Kerry Sink and Dr Lucy Scott have been involved with the programme since its inception and Sink has authored a piece on recent coelacanth research.

Researchers involved in the five ACEP Open Call projects include more than 27 female collaborators and students and two of the five projects are run by female principal investigators. Marine ecologist Dr Francesca Porri of ACEP says: "Despite some great progress in recent years, women are still under-represented in science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM) careers and thus, the gender-science debate remains very much open.

"The era in which female scientists could only act as volunteers in the science faculties of many institutions of higher learning has long gone, but the gender gap is still evident and there are, for example, few female, science-related, Nobel Peace Prize winners.

"Given the large drop-out rate of female scientists between achieving their doctorates and post-doctoral career advancement, the challenge to reconcile an academic career and family (common across several disciplines, but more eminent in science), often results in wasted doctorates and loss of valuable female expertise (at the expense of the countries in which they were trained).

"In some fields, ecology for example, gender-related discrepancies seem to have lessened, although the realities imposed by family demands still outweigh productivity and active participation in research, which is largely driven by intense fieldwork and prolonged absences from home," she says.

There are female scientists who, in spite of such challenges, have made their mark on science. One such scientist is Tebello Nyokong, Distinguished Professor of Medicinal Chemistry and Nanotechnology at Rhodes University who in August 2013 was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Research Foundation. Nyokong has achieved numerous accolades, including the L'Oreal-Unesco award for Women in Science as a Laureate representing Africa and the Arab States in 2009.

To promote women in science in South Africa, the Department of Science and Technology has established the Women in Science awards to recognise the achievements of South African female scientists and researchers and there are a number of programmes, such as the Thuthuka programme, that promote transformation in science.

Marine science research

Transformation of the marine science research cohort has been relatively slow. Currently, marine science is primarily conducted by historically white universities and the postgraduate schools within these institutions do not reflect the demography of South Africa. According to Garth van Heerden, research and human capital development co-ordinator at SAIAB, a report by the South African Network for Coastal and Oceanic Research (SANCOR) in 2011 showed that demographics in marine science have remained relatively unchanged over the past 15 years.

The report highlighted concerns around three areas of transformation namely, age, race and gender. Almost 60% of authors were 50 years or older, with only 6.5% of authors aged less than 30 years. Also, fewer than 10% of lead authors came from the group designated as historically disadvantaged individuals.

Van Heerden adds that South Africa compares favourably when it comes to female researchers within its researcher workforce: according to an HSRC report (2013) female researchers comprise 41% of the researcher workforce as compared to countries like France and Japan with 27% and 14% respectively. However, despite this apparent advantage, South African women were still only lead authors on less than 10% of all publications.

According to Porri, ACEP recognises that "inherent differences should be embraced: diverse perspectives lead to original, robust and creative ideas, which certainly contribute to the scientific advancement and the longer term economic growth of a country".

Van Heerden says: "A strategic initiative was necessary to ensure that more South African postgraduates are trained within the marine sector and that greater equity is achieved in terms of race and gender in marine science at historically black universities."

To this end, the ACEP Phuhlisa Programme was initiated in 2012. Porri is research advisor on the Phuhlisa Programme. She is also a principal investigator on one of ACEP'S Open Call projects and currently supervises three PhD and five MSc students, of whom one PhD and one MSc are funded through the Phuhlisa Programme. She has strong opinions when it comes to promoting equity in the science cohort, but she stresses that giving this a gender-bias can be counterproductive: "The historical, cultural, social context in which science is carried out ... too often leads to unequal opportunities and to a gender skewed career choice.

"The 'leaky pipeline' that removes females from STEM careers operates at various stages with progressive, bottom-up effects and can start early with barriers in education which are often driven by stereotyped, culturally gender-biased constraints, curriculum material, and pedagogic attitude.

"In South Africa, historic racial, poverty and gender issues can further delay achieving equal opportunities in science where sustainable racial and gender transformation and integration remain amongst the greatest institutional challenges.

"Shortage of teachers, remoteness of rural schools and lack of innovative scientific approaches make the traditional gender roles more resilient and therefore slows even further the girls' educational empowerment and especially free access to the scientific subjects.

"Even when such stigmas and constraints are overcome, additional challenges arise for female scientists of colour that wish to pursue STEM careers.

"Such challenges are often characterised by a sense of professional and personal isolation, loneliness and marginalisation," Porri says.


To contribute to the necessary redress in a relatively marginalised and rural area of South Africa, the Phuhlisa Programme is run in partnership with the University of Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University and collaborates with ten marine scientists at the two universities. The programme covers various marine disciplines, with the emphasis strongly focused on developing skills and capacity within the universities.

ACEP, SAIAB and SAEON (South African Environmental Observation Network) researchers provide co-supervision; a dedicated research and human capital development co-ordinator provides professional support and logistical support is provided through access to National Facility research equipment and expertise, including offshore research vessels, skippers, 4x4 vehicles, estuary boats, dive teams and submersible remotely operated vehicle.

Students and supervisors are provided academic and professional development opportunities in marine science, including supervisory, scientific and life skills courses. Financial assistance is provided through student bursaries and running costs to supplement existing funding for research.

By Penny Haworth, Manager of Communications and Governance at SAIAB