High praise for Future Professors initiative from its fellows

The Future Professors Programme (FPP), is a national, collaborative initiative with the goal of developing excellence and leadership in a select pool of academic staff, and one of the South African Department of Higher Education and Training’s staff development programmes.

Professor Jonathan Jansen, the project leader of Phase 1 of the initiative, told University World News in an earlier interview that the programme aims to build capacity in South Africa’s science system by fast-tracking the careers of talented academics in various disciplines.

Now, two fellows of the programme share their experience of participating in South Africa’s “national, collaborative initiative aimed at developing qualities of academic excellence and leadership among a select pool of academic staff”.

They are Sandy-Lynn Steenhuisen (SS) of the University of the Free State (UFS), and Sharhidd Taliep (ST) of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.

Both held a Y-rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF) at the time of selection, meaning they were considered “promising young researchers”, and both were promoted to associate professors after starting their two-year FPP fellowship in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

Steenhuisen is a plant ecologist who received a PhD in ecological sciences from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2012. She is interested in plant-animal interactions and is the subject head of the plant sciences department on the Qwaqwa Campus of the UFS.

Taliep is an exercise scientist with a PhD earned from the University of Cape Town in 2008. He specialises in exercise physiology and sports performance research and serves on the Independent Scientific Advisory Committee to Cricket South Africa.

Drs Sandy-Lynn Steenhuisen (left) and Sharhidd Taliep, Images provided

UWN: What did you gain from the FPP?

SS: I gained managerial, supervision and collaboration tools and, generally, being connected to a community that is motivated, responsible and has a high work ethic. I learned that we have a voice; that we should not be silos but that we have avenues and people to reach out to should we need help and guidance; that we can achieve more than we thought possible, thanks to someone pointing it out to us; and that our well-being is important to take note of.

ST: The FPP provided me with support, mentorship and administrative skills – key aspects that I needed as a scholar. I became part of an academic community, regularly engaging in scholarly discussions. The assistance we received was unparalleled. The hosts of the programme were caring and approachable, yet professional and efficient. Because of this, I was able to focus my research, develop strategic partnerships and build relationships with collaborators.

UWN: What has your participation in the FPP meant to you?

SS: The FPP has been an incredible voyage of affirmation and discovery. It kept putting perspectives on the academic environment that made our journeys appear valuable and noticed. I had no idea of what promotion to associate professor would look like or if it would even be attainable. The programme was able to coach us to this reality, make us realise our worth and form connections with like-minded individuals. We learned so much from sharing our experiences and journeys. I am going to really miss the hosts and other fellows as we graduate. They were a rock through COVID-19 and provided much-needed access to counselling and support, even advocating for us in situations when we did not know whom to turn to. It is a community, not just a programme.

ST: I have grown as an academic, understanding what it takes to become a holistic scholar. The FPP focused my attention on reaching full professorship. The writing retreats, especially, were amazing. I was able to complete and publish articles that have been in limbo. I also started writing popular articles, and even a book.

UWN: What are some of the challenges facing up-and-coming academics in South Africa?

SS: Unfortunately, the standard of secondary education, coupled with an expectation in our student body that an academic degree is the only gateway to employment, presents challenges. So do corruption, apathy and a lack of care shown by university staff and municipalities. A lot is expected of young academics and those who do well get loaded with more. So, our biggest challenge is knowing our limits and being able to accept that we cannot do everything perfectly. The funding arena is also difficult, and publication reviews are not always favourable. The trick is to work with a friendly team who can help you shrug off the failures and keep you going towards your goals.

ST: We have a heavy workload due to lots of administration and teaching, leaving little time for research. Also, competition for the limited research funding that is available is fierce. Other challenges include the fact that competent postgraduate students are few and far between and that there are unethical practices at all levels of academia. Another big problem is that there seems to be little compassion for women with families. Colleagues who are pregnant or breastfeeding are constantly facing challenges. Many women academics compromise their families and even their own health to reach unrealistic academic milestones.

We also face violent student strikes and threats from time to time, which negatively impact the safety and security of academics, all of which lead to burn-out. Almost everyone I speak to is exhausted because of the demands placed on them by their institutions and themselves.

UWN: What are your career goals now?

SS: My short-term (two-year) goals include securing funding for setting up a DroughtNet project in the Maluti-Drakensberg, increasing my publication rate, hosting an international collaborator, setting up a GCMS-HPLC analytical laboratory on the Qwaqwa Campus of the UFS, seeing my current PhD candidate employed through the New Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP), and developing a masters module on mountain biodiversity. I want to become a national and international resource on Afromontane plant specimens.

GCMS and HPLC are subcategories within gas and liquid chromatography. GCMS stands for gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy, and HPLC refers to high-performance liquid chromatography.

In the medium term (six years), I want to get a B-rating from the NRF, graduate my seventh doctoral candidate, host two postdoctoral candidates and simultaneously develop an honours module on pollination ecology, see the completion of the Qwaqwa campus botanical garden, and apply for a full professorship.

In the long-term (seven to 15 years), I want to become a SARChI (South African Research Chairs Initiative) chair, be able to recruit and develop more lecturers to alleviate heavy teaching loads in our department and drive the building of a BSL-2 (biosafety level 2) for staff working on plant microbes. And increase my publication rate to nine to 15 publications annually.

ST: In the short term, I want to recruit good postgraduate students and postdocs, receive relevant research funding, and integrate the latest research findings in my teaching – both in terms of content and methods. Medium-term, I want to develop an international PhD school with my Swedish partners, graduate numerous masters and doctoral students, publish in high-impact journals, attain positions as editor or reviewer for prestigious journals, serve on editorial boards, and develop a sustainable research team with local and international collaborators.

In the long term, I want to obtain a full professorship and be recognised as a leader in my field internationally. My research outputs should contribute to the improvement of individual, societal and global needs, with a particular focus on improving the lives of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.