Georgina Gumindenga | 04 October 2017

For many people, the word science is synonymous with lab coats, googles and lots and lots of numbers. However, a quick search of the word science on the internet leads to the following definition “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”. In short- a scientist is someone who, through observation, comes up with questions and finds ways to systematically answer those questions and further explain those findings. There is no limit to what can and should be studied. While we credit modern science for being successful, we should also care to mention that it also defines science in the sternest sense of the term. Modern science has been put in a box and anything that does not fit into that box is not considered science and by so doing science has been limited to what we want it to be and not what it really is. In fact, of the numerous branches of science which include but are not limited to physical sciences, life sciences, and social sciences none should be lesser nor greater than the other. 

I recently met a former classmate from High School, who asked me what I’m doing. I said I’m studying-Population Studies. As I responded I could see a disappointed frown build up on her face. What she said next left me speechless. She said “uhmm okay, but I always thought you were clever. I thought you were a science kind of girl”. 

She was right I am a science kind of girl. But my idea of what science is does not match hers. What is a science kind of subject? Is studying people’s sexual behaviours in relation to HIV transmission not as good a science as studying the evolving genetics of HIV? 

This kind of ideology is an enemy of science and it should be defeated if modern science should remain successful. The reality is that all branches of science feed into each other. There is no tree that exists as a single branch. If we consider science to be only natural for whose benefit are the findings of our research? If we consider science to be only social, how will we advance without the knowledge of what happens beyond the naked eye? If we put natural and social sciences on a pedestal above other branches, how will we achieve our goals without the proper knowledge of other branches such as financial sciences or political sciences etc.? While it takes one scientist to understand how the female reproductive system works and develop contraceptives, it equally takes another scientist to understand how people’s culture and lifestyle dictates whether or not they make use the contraceptives and better yet it equally takes another scientist to explain the feasibility of a government providing these contraceptive services to the general public. 

When former President Thabo Mbeki, a distinguished political scientist in his own right publicly rejected the acknowledged facts that HIV causes AIDS, the social implication was that approximately 330 000 people died unnecessarily in South Africa and 35 000 HIV infected babies were born. This is a classic example of how ignorance of one discipline makes all science fail. Whether or not Donald Trump is ignorant of the science behind climate change, the truth remains that the problem does not lie in him not understanding science at all. I believe he understands science, maybe not the natural sciences but definitely economic sciences. The gap here lies in the fact that for so long the branches of science have been disjointed whereas they should be united. When proposed studies in the natural sciences are turned down for being “more social” what does it mean? Should it matter if the aim is to train capable scientists? A multidisciplinary understanding of science will sanction us to have the love for science first before we start ranking specific disciplines.  

Growing up, I was good with numbers. My favourite subject is and will always be biology. Now, because of my love for biology and my natural aptitude for mathematics, I excelled in these subjects. BUT……I also excelled in other subjects stretching from history to accounting. I remember my headmistress in high school even commenting on how much of an all-rounder I am. However, naturally I felt compelled to pursue a career in the “sciences” or so I thought. 

After just a year of taking maths, physics, chemistry and biology as subjects at university level, I was convinced deep in my heart that I was not to become a biologist. Still, I loved science, as I am naturally inquisitive. My dilemma was that, I possessed the characteristics of a scientist but I had no passion in what I was doing. In as much as I loved and excelled in biology and maths. My favourite class was the History class, I felt at home in the Human Geography class. I enjoyed learning about cultures, people and languages. As a student in the faculty of science, I even took a Psychology module in my second year.  

Could I still be a scientist even if I did not enjoy “the sciences”? According to my knowledge and everyone around me, NO. Scientists only do proper hard science. So what did I do, I went on to get a “science degree” majoring in Botany and Zoology. At postgraduate level, I followed my heart and now I am in the social sciences. I have since discovered that all the knowledge I acquired when I was doing life sciences remains relevant even in the social sciences and if my journey was reversed, I believe that it would have had the same relevance and impact on me as a budding scientist.

The take home point here is that, young people should be free to make choices and change their mind as much as needed until they find their niche. They should take up the subjects they love regardless of the branch of science it leads them. No matter what one does, if indeed (s)he has the character of a scientist, (s)he will do it with a sense of purpose- that is real science for the future. At the end of the day, what we should strive for is to build a generation of scientists who are careful and curious observers, scientists who are spirited critical thinkers. More emphasis should be placed on character building than on what is actually being studied. Scientists should be passionate about the world around them. They should be curious about nature, but also understand that nature is not always green- sometimes it walks on two legs, speaks a different language and sometimes it is a banknote. For the love of science, anything is worth studying and analysing.

Georgina is a Sci4Ubuntu advocate in the Kwa-Zulu Natal Province of South Africa, BSc (Botany and Zoology) graduate and Masters candidate in Population Studies at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal.