#02 2021

Reflections on an internship

By Tsumbedzo Ramalevha, Intern and PhD Candidate, SAEON Ndlovu Node

Long-term environmental observation projects such as those undertaken by SAEON require a combination of fieldwork and technical skills.

The growing number of tech-savvy students who are estranged from ecological fieldwork underscores the need to ensure exposure to proper fieldwork in the training of ecologists. Development of tech-savvy scientists who are fieldwork adept can be through different programmes, one of these being an internship such as those offered by the Department of Science and Innovation and the National Research Foundation (DSI-NRF) internship programme.

The main goal of an internship is to equip interns with practical skills, workplace experience and a greater knowledge of their research field. To be an excellent intern requires one to possess transferable skills to ensure continuous learning and to execute one’s duties in time and with distinction.

Academic humility approach

As the internship was my first professional job, I made sure I was open to new ideas, concepts and accomplishments. To ensure proper learning and development, there were certain expectations that I had prior to the commencement of the internship programme, namely academic learning and development, career development, skills development and self-development. These ultimately formed the backbone of the workplan governing the internship period.

> Academic learning and development 

The geographic location of the Ndlovu Node in the north-eastern part of South Africa provides numerous opportunities for academic learning and development through the node’s long-term projects in local savannas, the Kruger National Park, private conservation areas, rural rangelands and mining areas, as well as their numerous collaborations with highly skilled and knowledgeable scientists from leading national and international institutions.

The opportunity to interact with and learn from both Ndlovu Node staff and visiting scientists enabled me to test in practice what I learned during my university years and to continue the learning and knowledge development process. As an intern, these opportunities enabled me to start networking and developing professional relationships which could come in handy in the future. I furthermore had the opportunity to sharpen my knowledge of plant identification, my understanding of plant-animal interactions and learn more about the impact of global climate change on biodiversity.

> Skills development  

Being able to adapt to the changing work environment requires a diverse set of skills. During the early stages of the internship, a meeting with my mentor, Dr Dave Thompson, to draft the workplan for the internship included identifying specific technical skills I wanted to learn and activities that would be used to harness these skills.

Drawing from the vast experience of the Ndlovu Node staff members and various visiting scientists, I learned statistical tools such as R, Primer and Permanova, together with geographical information system programs such as ArcGIS and Quantum GIS, as well as the SASS5 sampling method. I also learned different types of vegetation data collection, including plant species composition, plant trait collection, woody plant surveys and disc pasture measurements. Engaging with postgraduate and postdoctoral students and taking part in SAEON’s GSN Indibano students’ conference gave me the opportunity to apply in practice the skills I learned while continuing learning.

> Self-development  

The internship programme enabled me to develop and refine skills such as communication, problem solving, analytical thinking, accuracy and time management. SAEON platforms such as the eNewsletter and the science outreach programme provided opportunities to develop and refine my oral and written communication skills. Developing learning activities and leading science camps developed my leadership skills.

> Career development  

With the high levels of unemployment in South Africa, there is a need to develop young scientists who are ready for the job market, fully equipped with practical experience. Proper planning and a good strategy are both crucial in one’s career development. The internship enabled me to utilise my skills and educational background to ensure proper development.

The exposure enabled me to learn about the science field, work alongside scientists, observe the workplace environment and decide if this was the right career for me (which I can now confidently say it is).  

Were my expectations met?

My ethos of ‘investing in myself and reaping what I sow’ ensured that I actively played a role in the realisation of the expectations. My mentor (Dr Dave Thompson) was responsible for overseeing the bulk of my tasks and ensuring my proper learning and growth as a young scientist, while the entire Ndlovu Node team contributed to fulfil a Ndlovu proverb – ‘It takes willing scientists to develop a scientist’. This ensured that all my expectations, and beyond, were met.

What is next?

Two years of rigorous skills and personal development as an intern has adequately prepared me for my next chapter – a PhD in herbaceous plant community ecology research under the supervision of Dr Dave Thompson and Professor Frances Siebert (North-West University).

The skills acquired, experiences gained and lessons learned as an intern will be crucial in both my professional and personal life going forward.

My PhD project will be looking at how belowground bud bank traits influence herbaceous plant community recovery post disturbance. Despite their significant contribution to species diversity and functional diversity, both annual and perennial forbs have been overlooked in most studies on herbaceous vegetation dynamics. Therefore, the knowledge gained from this study will be crucial in understanding the belowground bud bank’s role in herbaceous plant communities’ response to disturbances and the contribution of forbs to community resilience and the maintenance of ecosystem functioning.

The project will also aid in predicting and understanding global‐scale impacts of modified disturbance regimes in savanna systems while determining which management strategy to implement to ensure continuous provision of savanna ecosystem services.


To the entire Ndlovu Node team, thank you for all the lessons, support and advice. Thank you for creating an enabling environment and, most importantly, thank you for not spoon-feeding me.

To Dr Thompson, thank you for all the professional and personal support you afforded me during the internship programme. One promise I can confidently make is that I will never disappoint you.

To ensure continuous learning, an intern should feel comfortable asking questions and seeking clarification. A one-on-one introduction to the Ndlovu team members, followed by the 2019 National Research Foundation birthday celebrations, created a welcoming and enabling environment for learning and growth.

Capturing and preparing images for leaf area calculation using ImageJ with Dr Kim Komatsu of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (USA). Participating in a wide range of projects ensured that I was exposed to broad new skills while also learning from different scientists. (Photo: Kevin Wilcox)

Self-learning Quantum GIS as part of my workplan to develop digital skills (Photo: Tsumbedzo Ramalevha)

Taking part in science camps in 2019 provided an opportunity to refine my knowledge of the environment while developing my oral communication skills (Photo: Joe Sibiya)