At the beginning of this month, I had the pleasure of attending the VBC PhD Symposium. The symposium is a two-day scientific conference organised by a committee of students from the VBC PhD Programme and, this year, led by Jillian Augustine. Just like last year, I acted as a volunteer to help with the set up and running of the event. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite as helpful as I had hoped to be as it happened not only at a very busy time for me but when I was sick — and lost my voice for almost two weeks!
The focus this year was “Mind the App: Applications that Bridge Biology and Technology” and had talks that covered a variety of topics from using spider webs to study virus survival to brain-computer interfaces to the history of biological warfare. I do not mean to cover the entire symposium in detail and will merely focus on a couple of aspects which were of particular interest to me.
At the end of the first day was a very interesting panel discussion on biotech startups. This is an aspect of science which many students are probably not familiar with and it was interesting to hear the views of those who went down that road. One mentioned not valuing a PhD too much (a second disagreed and stated that a PhD is always helpful) but we also learned about the business aspect itself. For example, many biotech startups do not make a profit. They run off investor’s money, rapidly growing and then usually being bought out by a larger company. That was quite surprising.
As a South African living outside of my home country, I am particularly attuned to when it is mentioned. This happens more frequently than one might expect – or perhaps its just some form of selective attention. In any case, there were two talks which I can remember mentioning South Africa.
The first was “Stories from the lab, stories from the field: Advancing crop biotechnology” by Hervé Vanderschuren. He spoke about the crop plant cassava, which is particularly popular in Africa, and work to create better varieties. South Africa was mentioned three times. Once because he has collaborators at the University of the Witwatersrand, a second time because the SAB portion of SABMiller comes from South African Breweries (they have launched a cassava beer) and a third time because it was the only country in Africa that had had biotech legislation. The lack of legislation made setting up field trials of genetically-modified crops particularly challenging in some countries.
The other mention of South Africa was more negative. Filippa Lentzos spoke about the history of biological warfare and how, compared to chemical and nuclear weapons programmes, it has been characterised by extreme secrecy and dubious deals. In this she also mentioned that Wouter Basson, the head of the South African biological weapons programme during apartheid, Project Coast, was still a practising medical doctor. There have, however, been petitions and hearings regarding his conduct and whether he should lose his medical licence.
I will note that when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, South Africa has done some good. It was the first, and only, country to unilaterally dismantle its nuclear weapons programme.
There were, of course, many more talks over the the two days but I cannot hope to cover them all from memory. Overall, it was a great scientific programme that ended with recognition of the year’s graduating students and the presentation of the PhD awards. I look forward to next year’s symposium.
Photos from the 2016 PhD Symposium are courtesy of Thomas Schütz.