VBC PhD Symposium 2016

2016_11_03-09_33_18-vbc_phd_symposium-005At 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. Continue reading

Cape Town’s open mosque and Islamic reform

A short while back I saw an interesting link in the UCT Free Society Institute newsfeed which led to an interview with Dr Taj Hargey. Dr Hargey is a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford University but was born in Cape Town and was speaking about his plans to open an open mosque in Cape Town. By an open mosque he means a mosque where everybody is welcome and where such radical concepts as women and men praying in the same area and entering through the same door are practised. Basically, he wants to bring Islam in line with modern ethics and sensibilities.

Dr Taj Hargey delivering a sermon during at the official opening of the open mosque.

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World Humanist Day

Today is World Humanist Day which serves to celebrate and promote secular humanism. Although I’m a bit apprehensive about the name, humans are not the only creatures that are important, it’s still an important movement with which I share a number of goals. There is a long post about the history of humanism on Wikipedia but, for those who are not familiar with it, the International Humanist and Ethical Union defines it as follow.

Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.

These are important points for us to move forward as a society and not live in the sort of world where people are sentenced to death for marrying someone of a different religion or a society where someone can sell medicine that has no effect just because they dreamed it up. The British Humanist Association recently put a series of videos describing humanism that were narrated by Stephen Fry and deserve a look. They give the humanist answers to questions about morality, truth and how we find meaning in our lives.

Lastly, and related, I want to bring attention to a petition for secularism in South African schools. Secularism isn’t only important for atheists, it’s important to everyone who wants the freedom to believe what they want. It means that people can not discriminate or impose their views just because they are Christian and you are Muslim, or they are Hindu and you are an atheist.

What about demographic representation?

South African politics can be amusing and it can also be surprising what upsets people. The new big controversy has been a cartoon published by Eye Witness News which has been condemned as racist. Even more ridiculous, the ANC actually claims the cartoon undermines the democratic process. Sure, it’s going to upset some people but it’s hardly undermining democracy. Continue reading

Medicine vs alternative medicine in South Africa

One of my recent posts mentioned those people that want to give more recognition to traditional healers; something I think would be a terrible mistake. I’m somewhat buoyed by hearing that the Health Products Association of SA (HPSA), a rather misleading name since they produce alternative medicines, is suing the minister of health, Aaron Motsoaledi, over coming regulations. It means that the department of health is doing the right thing. The regulations would require even alternative medicines to show that they are both safe and beneficial. Continue reading

My paper on connexin deafness in Africans

It’s my second published paper; this time I am the first author! I’m not going to go into much detail on this because it’s not really of general interest and the paper itself is only a few pages long. In short, we examined two connexin genes, GJB6 and GJA1, to see whether there are changes in the gene sequences that may cause deafness in Africans. GJB6 is known to cause deafness, usually with GJB2, in Europeans and earlier research, later shown to be mistaken, had suggested GJA1 might play a role in deafness in Africans. We didn’t find any evidence that mutations in either gene cause deafness in patients from Cameroon or the Xhosa population of South Africa. Continue reading