Kolisa Yola Sinyanya, Cape Town: ‘I won their hearts with SciComm!’

‘We need to spread the scientific word in more modern and society-engaging ways,’ says Kolisa Yola Sinyanya, marine biologist and SciCommer from the University of Cape Town – FameLab runner-up, TED Speaker, and blogger.

This is the third article in the Crastina theme ”SciComm in Africa”. Earlier articles can be found here, here and here.

As a Ph.D. candidate in Oceanography, Kolisa Yola Sinyany is mainly focusing on the biogeochemistry of the ocean. With her drive and passion for spreading the word of science, she is one of the most recognized young SciCommers in South Africa today. Crastina got in touch for an email chat.

Hi Kolisa! Please tell us a little about yourself and the SciComm activities you have engaged in lately!

I have a passion and an infinite love for science. However, I believe that science is not complete without communicating it. I, therefore, have dedicated myself and time to communicate my work to the public. I enjoy science communication so much that in 2017 I entered FameLab which is the biggest science communication competition in the world. It was a nerve-wracking, tight competition which consisted of top research candidates from diverse areas of expertise at the University of Cape Town. I somehow became a runner up and was crowned national runner up from FameLab Cape Town.

Winning the runner up position opened up the SciComm world for me as I became a known science communicator in the country and globally it seems. I started getting invites to speak about my work at public lectures and boardroom seminars at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and The Centre for Bioprocess Engineering Research  (CeBER) at UCT, to name a few.

When Pint of Science came to South Africa in 2018 I was one of the nine fortunate candidates that were selected by the UCT Science Faculty to speak about our intriguing research. Again, that appearance spiked the demand to have me talk about my research to the world as I started getting invites to either speak about my work or judge other researchers’ talks. An honour, really. In a few days I’m giving a TEDxUCT talk at University of Cape Town’s TEDx Masterclass. There I’ll be speaking about being a black woman in my field and sell my research to the world.

Why do you find science communication so fascinating?

Science communication fascinates me because from all the sampling, lab work, raw data and plotting to produce sophisticated images I can break the advanced science down into simple words. These are words that can be understood by anyone. SciComm especially fascinates me because it allows us scientists to engage with and educate the public about their planet and beyond while not losing the scientific details.

Whenever one gives a sci comm presentation to an audience who know very little to nothing about the topic, exceptionally building questions emerge from the listeners. This in turn expands the communicator’s abilities to transfer the message intended whether immediately or in the future. Science communication also forces the presenter to dig deeper into the topic in efforts to be able to explain the topic better to the diverse audience.

If you compare Africa with Europe and North America – what kind of opportunities and challenges do you see for those who want to spread the word of modern science to the general public?

Science communication in Africa is still a rather primitive discipline. It is not as widely practiced, incorporated into the academic curriculum and therefore not as broad as it is in Europe and North America. Europe, for example, offers SciComm as a degree in some tertiary institutions. It is more common there to come across departments of science communication while in Africa this is still a growing field.

I had a chat with one of the women who inspire me, Dr. Katye Altieri, about her experiences in North America with relation to science communication. Through our chat, I discovered that sci comm is a serious matter there as it is a module offered at the undergraduate level. Communicating science is a formalized and well-established area offered to budding scientists at lower levels of study. It would be advantageous for Africa to adopt this style of introducing and teaching science communication as it shapes the young researcher/ scientist’s mind and teaches tactics and strategies at an earlier stage.

Please share a personal story where you felt especially successful in enlightening and inspiring your audience!

In 2018 I was invited by UCT’s CeBER to give a public lecture about my Ph.D. work on studying interactions between microbial communities and nutrients using nitrogen (N) isotopes in the ocean. I arrived to the most elegant venue I had ever spoken in. My audience was a mixture of postgraduates and members of staff. They were so engaged and without fail, enthusiastically asked questions.

In fact, they were so intrigued by my talk that at the end of the presentation they asked me to speak about my blog, Women In Science Hub. That was very extraordinary for me because it had never happened before. I spoke about my blog with my audience and the script was flipped as they started interviewing me on the spot and suggesting that I interview our now UCT Vice Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. It was fun and inspiring for me. I had won their hearts with science communication and they wanted to hear more from me.

What three pieces of advice would you give to an early career scientist from Africa who wants to engage in SciComm!

  • Love the work you do! You have to be in love with your work because that allows you to want to know more while enjoying the journey in the process.
  • Be confident about what you say to your audience! That entails having broad knowledge of the topic and lots of practise.
  • Do not take criticism to harshly as it builds.

How do you think is the most fruitful way to increase the extent and impact of African science?

I believe that publishing our sciences in high impact journals is not enough. We need to spread the scientific word in more modern and society-engaging ways as well. There are online science magazine nowadays, we have social media which is the biggest and fastest disseminator of information, science communication in various formats (including videos). The impact will not only be in the science communities but inclusivity of anyone who may be interested in the topic becomes a reality.

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  1. […] in the United States. In 2019, her sci comm work was featured by Crastina in Sweden under the theme Science Communication Africa. As a student leader, she was invited by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, […]

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