Joining a new research group in a new department was about the least of my worries when I first moved to Johannesburg, but it actually made one of the biggest differences to my life. While some things remain constant throughout every maths department in the world - numerous coffee breaks and incomprehensible seminars - I've discovered that research cultures can be very very different.
While in the UK the standard academic pathway is PhD -> postdocs -> lectureship, most staff in the School of Mathematics here at Wits are in teaching-only positions, with teaching qualifications rather than a Masters or PhD. This is partly due to fact that maths is compulsory for all science and engineering students, and their courses are all taught by the maths department, so there is a lot of teaching work to be done. The downside is that there isn't a huge number of active researchers in the department. Coupled with the fact that there are next to no full-time PhD students here, and only a couple of postdocs, there isn't the group of young and naively enthusiastic researchers that you'd find at most UK universities. A lot of the things I'm used to - the daily departmental lunch trip, reading and discussion groups, postgraduate seminars, outreach work and regular trips to other universities - just don't happen here.
That said, things are changing. The current head of department, Bruce, is keen to boost the research profile of the department. An (admittedly sporadic) seminar series has been set up, and all staff are expected to attend. Coffee is served every day around 10 in the common room, which gets both teaching-only and researching staff together to discuss both teaching and research. Staff that were formerly teaching-only are encouraged to get into research by starting a part-time Masters, or working towards a PhD by publication, and each staff member is encouraged to spend their travel budget to attend conferences both within South Africa and abroad.
Meira, the professor I'm visiting, is taking a sabbatical this year, so has no teaching responsibilities. This means that we meet very frequently to discuss ideas, which has the obvious pros, but also means that we often spend more time discussing what we need to do than we do doing it. Our little research group also includes Carminda, who began teaching at Wits a while back, and recently completed a Masters under Meira's supervision. We meet formally a couple of times each week, occasionally along with others in the department. We each have our own perspectives on our work - Meira has a background in algebra, while Carminda views things more geometrically - so our discussions can get quite heated (this has led me to realise how useful it is to have to really argue your point, as it forces you to clarify your thoughts.) We have our ups and downs, and we spend a lot of time going round in circles, but that's maths research. Overall we work very well as a group, and it made my day to be offered a postdoc position here starting next summer!
Yesterday, the International HIV/AIDS Candlelight Memorial was held on campus. Throughout the day, students and staff members lit candles in memory of loved ones they have lost to the disease, and left messages of support for those living with HIV and AIDS. Additionally, a very moving exhibition was installed, presenting images and stories from two projects led by photographer Gideon Mendel.
South Africa is believed to have more people living with HIV than any other country in the world. We’re not living in the Mbeki era any more; most people know of HIV, the dangers it poses, and how transmission can be prevented, and treatment is available for free now to most South African citizens. It is the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS that makes the disease so deadly and freely transmitted. A HIV-positive diagnosis for many means being forced out of their community, out of their job and out of society. People will die rather than get treatment, or get diagnosed, or even admit even to themselves that they have a problem. And, meanwhile, they pass on the virus to their partners and their children. To halt the spread of HIV, it is this stigma that needs to be addressed, and projects like Mendel's aim to do so.
THE HARSH DIVIDE
The 2003 project ‘The Harsh Divide’ aimed to explore the fault line between those with access to antiretroviral drugs – those able to regain their health and live relatively normal lives – and those without – those condemned to death. This was a time during which AIDS denialism was still a problem within the government, and HIV-positive people and their supporters took to the streets to campaign against the unfair access to antiretroviral drugs. The photos exhibited at Wits were taken in the Braamfontein office of the Treatment Access Campaign, and show protestors along with their chosen messages.
Mendel also directed a series of four short films exploring and contrasting the lives of those living with and without treatment.
“If I had money, I would buy life. Because, seemingly, nowadays life is for sale to those who have money.”
Thankfully, free treatment is available to most HIV-positive South Africans these days.
THROUGH POSITIVE EYES
The 2010 ‘Through Positive Eyes’ Johannesburg project gave 17 HIV-positive South Africans the chance to tell their stories through text and photography. These stories are at once both heart-breaking and heart-warming. Stories of rape and violence, of fear and sickness, and of exclusion and marginalisation, yet also stories of love and hope. These men and woman show a courage and strength that I could only dream of. The images below are photographs of some of the stories featured in the exhibition at Wits.
The Through Positive Eyes Johannesburg project is part of a larger Through Positive Eyes project affording HIV-positive people from all over the world the chance to tell their stories.
It takes exceptional courage and strength to stand up and say “I’m positive” in this country, and this is why I have so much respect for the people who have participated in Mendel's projects. People like these, and the projects that they take part in, are powerful tools for combatting the stigma attached to HIV and AIDS, and give hope that this huge barrier may one day be broken down.
Bureaucracy is alive and well at Wits University! After several trees' worth of paperwork and a good three hours walking backwards and forwards across the university, I am officially a Visitor! Unfortunately, I should have been registered as a student, not a visitor, so I will have to go through the whole process again next week.
Wits is a campus university in the centre of the city. It is a vibrant place where, as far as I can tell, the sun always shines. The main campus is divided into two: west campus and east campus. A huge road runs down the middle, but underneath the campus, which is somehow raised above the rest of the city. The whole campus is accessible only by swiping your 'Kudu Card', and so is relatively safe.
Just last week the Wits maths department moved to a brand new building making up part of the ‘science stadium’ on the west campus. The area used to be a stadium for agricultural shows. Now, the stadium houses most of the science faculty, although some of the old stands were kept as a reminder, and provide a good place for students to chill in the shade and eat lunch. Maths is on the Floor 3 of the north east building, which is actually the fifth floor since between the ground floor and the first floor there is also the mezzanine floor and the upper ground floor.
I have my own office, which is considerably bigger than my supervisor’s at the OU. I have two large whiteboards and a networked PC, although I'm yet to find any board pens, and I can't use my computer until I get my student ID. My view looks south, over campus, which is a shame; the north-facing windows give a great panorama over the city's northern suburbs, and get more sunlight.
Things I have learnt