#06 2021

Building vital capacity for the future

By Silvia Mecenero Kirkman, the 2021 GSN Committee and SAEON’s Science Engagement Team

An important part of the original vision was the training of a new generation of South Africans through exposure to our remarkable natural environments. From the high school classes taught by node staff to the PhDs and postdocs employed in SAEON research, you can see the great success of the training endeavour. I was very aware as a university professor of how many postgraduate students were keen on working with SAEON because it gave them a feeling of a cooperative and targeted endeavour, larger than themselves and important to society. I have no doubt that SAEON has helped build the foundations of a future generation of scientists and citizens aware of, and capable of, coping with the environmental challenges of the future.

~ William Bond  

I would like to acknowledge Johan’s passion for creating opportunities for young employees and for always encouraging career advancement. Many among us are deeply indebted to his encouragement.

~ Shaun Deyzel  

Your support throughout my journey at SAEON has been invaluable, from being a mere PhD student to a plankton ecologist at the Elwandle Node. I can never thank you enough.

~ Phumlile Cotiyane  

Your teachings and advice will be the foundation of our careers.

~ Imti Malick 

JP has been in the forefront of that growth. In doing so, he has always valued and encouraged the contribution of students, which has always made us feel part of the team.

~ Athi Mfikili 

You afforded me opportunities that I didn’t even know were possible for a female person of colour from a quintile-1 school. You have afforded me the opportunity to do better and mentor school children who have an interest in environmental sciences but do not have the resources to experience it.

~ Tarryn Swartbooi

From SAEON’s Science Engagement and Environmental Science Education Programme

The team’s special tribute can be accessed here.

SAEON’s Graduate Student Network – then…

The Graduate Student Network was officially launched by the then Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom, at the SAEON Summit of 2006.

The first SAEON GSN Committee (2006). Back row, from left: Bernard Coetzee and Glynn Alard. Front row, from left: Silvia Mecenero and Saras Mundree.

Back in 2005, Johan gave me the opportunity to do a postdoc with SAEON, which at the time was just getting off the ground. During that time, I had the privilege of jetting off to the Long Term Environmental Research (LTER) 1st Student Collaborative Research Symposium in Oregon (USA) (April 2005), with two other students (Saras Mundree and Glynn Alard).

We were so inspired by what we experienced there that on the very long flight back we started working on a proposal to launch SAEON’s very own long-term monitoring student network. Before April was up, we bravely submitted the proposal to Johan, who immediately encouraged us to work on it a bit more and with urgency. It needed a proper name (Graduate Student Network – GSN). We needed to work on website ideas (launched on SAEON’s website). We needed to add a fourth member to our founding and interim committee (Bernard Coetzee). We were required to write up a constitution (which we completed by November 2005). We needed to commit to meeting once a year (which we did) and plan the very first workshop (which took place in March 2006 in Pretoria, and where the GSN was officially launched by the then Deputy Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom). And thus the SAEON GSN was born.

Johan supported us from day one and pushed us beyond our boundaries to learn new skills in order to run a national network of students. Skills that I still use to this day! He was a great leader and mentor, who patiently yet firmly encouraged us up the steep learning curves. The wonderful achievements of the GSN over the last 16 years is a great tribute to Johan as a leader with a vision. ~ Dr Silvia Kirkman, Chair of the first GSN Committee 

The first GSN Indibano was held to coincide with the SAEON Summit in 2006.

… and now

As the last representative committee of the GSN before Johan’s retirement, we hope that we contributed to a long, impressive history of the GSN. This experience has taught us invaluable skills that we will carry with us throughout our careers as scientists and in our personal lives. As Johan’s brainchild, the GSN has offered every member from its inception the opportunity to be part of the machinery that makes SAEON a flexible bridge between students and scientists.

The GSN grew to what it is today because everyone shared the same beliefs that Johan put in place when SAEON was founded. Those among the committee who have been fortunate to meet Johan personally will fondly remember his encouraging words towards students and their careers – all this wrapped in his unorthodox humour.

As Covid-19 would have it, our last interaction with Johan’s was during his attendance at the 13th GSN Virtual Indibano, which was a special one as it marked his last as SAEON’s Managing Director before retiring. His keynote address gave us a view of SAEON’s and the GSN’s detailed history, which strengthens the foundation that we have now proudly stood upon. We hope that Johan will continue to contribute to future Indibanos.

On behalf of the GSN, we would like to convey our best wishes to Johan. We hope he enjoys his retirement. ~ Amukelani Maluleke, Lindokuhle Dlamini, Nasreen Burgher, Marlize Muller, Craig Mahlasi and Corianna Julie

The GSN Committee of 2021. From left: Marlize Muller, Nasreen Burgher, Craig Mahlasi,  Corianna Julie, Amukelani Maluleke and Lindokuhle Dlamini.