I was honoured to speak with Anne Chisa, host of The Root of the Science podcast and recent Master's graduate in Agricultural Science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, for our very first Zoom-based interview of Her Royal Science. In Season I, all of our interviews we recorded were in person; as a result of the pandemic, though, we had to adapt to our rapidly changing world. Fortunately, this means that our conversations will be a lot more inclusive this season, as I will be able to connect with individuals in STEM from all over the world with an ease I never thought possible.
I'm delighted to kick off our season with a person who has become very dear to me in the last few months, and I hope you enjoy our conversation, which is filled with moments of reflection and retrospection.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Anne Chisa: Don't let her have that satisfaction. There are always going to be people that will tell you that you can't do it; yes, you'll stumble and you'll fall, but you can continue.
Her Royal Science jingle
Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world and welcome to ‘Her Royal Science’. Let's get started with today's interview! Today, we are speaking with Anne Chisa, who recently received her Masters in Agricultural Science from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and is due to start her PhD in August. She reached out to me after I was featured for Visibility STEM Africa – an initiative she's a part of – created to promote Africans and people of African descent in STEM. She is a bright and incredibly driven woman with the passion to do absolutely anything she puts her mind to. But let's start from the very beginning. Anne, what's your story?
AC: Well, my story – I am Anne Chisa as you mentioned, I am from Malawi but now I'm living and studying in South Africa. I came to South Africa when I was quite young, I think I was six or seven, and I started school. We've been this side for the past, I think, almost 20 years. Wow! 20 years I've been in South Africa! But we tend to go back almost about every year, or every second year because most of my family relatives are there. And what else... Well, the science, how do I even start? You know what – when people ask me this question, I always go 'Oh my god, I don't have this deep meaningful story' (laughter)
AB: But it's your story!
AC: Yeah, true, true. With the science, I think it can start in high school. I'm not sure if it's the same [elsewhere] but here in South Africa when you're in grade 9, you are told you need to pick subjects that you’ll start from grade 10, all the way up until grade 12, which is what you call here your 'matric' year before you start university. I really loved the social sciences, so I really loved history, geography as well. Maths was… obviously, I had to do maths. I wasn't the brightest (laughter), but I was good at it… wait, let me say I was average. With [biology] – hmm… I loved bio, but only specific sections. I loved the human body part of it and I loved the plant section, but with the cells and all that small stuff – oh my word! It just never made sense to me because I always [thought] ,'but I can't see it'. I think I'm a very practical person and that's why I also gravitated towards geography.
Long story short, I couldn't combine history and take the sciences. I had to pick what they call the triple sciences which is physics, mathematics, and life sciences. And then I added on geography. [Geography] was probably the one thing that I was really, really excited about. I had to let go of history and it really cut me because I loved history.
The one that I hated was physics. I really hated physics. What made it worse was the teacher that I had in grade 10. So there was the first class – which obviously are the top notch students – and then there was the B stream. The teacher didn't necessarily like our class; she basically told us that about 80% of us don't even deserve to be in the class! [She said] 'none of you should take sciences, and all of you should drop out.' I remember I really wanted to and most of us were so exasperated. I was like, 'why am I forcing myself to do this?' I remember when I went back – I think it was after the first term –[I told] my parents, 'look at my mark; it's not good, so why do I have to do this? Can't I just do history?'
I was in tears and I [said], 'the teacher doesn't like us anyway; she says we are going to fail. We're just wasting her time.' My mom and my dad were like, 'no, don't let her have that satisfaction. There's always going to be people who always tell you that you can't do it'. They were like, 'yes, you'll stumble and you'll fall, but you can continue.'
Some people obviously dropped out, but those of us [that] were stubborn because of our parents, you know, typical African parents [say] 'my child has to be in the sciences so if you don't do your physics, you don't do the triple sciences you won't get into it.' We fought that year and thankfully we scraped [by]. [In] 11th grade and I got the most phenomenal teacher for physics. She was so patient, and I think that was a difference between the 10th grade teacher and the 11th grade teacher. The 11th grade [teacher was like, 'OK, I understand some of the concepts are hard for you guys to understand' but she made it in a way that was palatable to us and she actually made us believe [that] we can actually do this!
Looking back – I haven't reflected about this in a long time but – if I had if I'd stopped in the beginning, where this 10th grade teacher was like, 'you guys can't do this' I would never even have been [here]. Very grateful that I had my parents' support, who helped me overcome all of those things.
Fast forward, I finish high school. At that point, I really didn't know what I was going to do. Then my dad's friend – he was agricultural engineer – he [said], 'Anne, you love geography, you love plants and bio. This is something that maybe you can look into!' And I was like, 'alright, alright, like a farmer!' (laughter) [but] there's so many things that you can do especially in Africa. It's a very adaptable degree. Because in my 11th grade – like I said – I had some very amazing teachers, I got conditionally accepted. Then in my 12th grade, my maths mark wasn't that good so they withdrew the offer! It was the most awful thing. But I was so confused, [thinking] 'how is that possible?' I mean, when you look at my marks from the year before it made no sense so I had to go and have a remark and reassess my marks. Now that means that first semester [of] first year, I couldn't do the sciences. I had to do a social science degree for the first semester while waiting for these results. Thankfully when they did the remark, they saw that there was an issue so I went back to the college and they took me back.
AB: What a rollercoaster!
AC: Yeah! that's the story of how I got into the sciences.
AB: That's incredible! Honestly, my heart started racing as you were talking about your results. I was very much invested, even though I know that you were successful in accomplishing your degree (laughter) I do have a little inquiry about what made you love history so much. You talk about it with such passion!
AC: I think the the great thing with history is that I had brilliant teachers. I think that will probably come [up] a lot during this conversation. I truly believe that teachers play such a phenomenal part in building a person's love or hate to particular subject. So I had a phenomenal teacher from grade 8 and grade 9; loved her. The way that she taught it just made [sense]. I just loved everything about it. My mind always used to just travel back and I got so invested and I just loved it. It also made me realize like, 'OK, so this is why this is happening; because 40 years ago this happened. I remember my friends just didn't get it, but for me it was that beauty of, 'this happened and this is why we are here.' It just made that connection so much easier, but definitely brilliant, brilliant teachers just helped me travel back in time and I and I just wanted to be there as well.
AB: That's an incredible gift, and it speaks still why mentorship and teaching is probably so important to you now. There's likely an aspect of you paying it forward! Can you talk about some of the mentorship that you do now in your life?
AC: Sure! In my third year, my now supervisor [taught] a course [that] I loved. His name is Doctor Alfred Odindo; he’s now my academic father. That man is brilliant. So, I was like, 'Hi Doc, I know I'm in third year and usually it's the post grads [that teach but] I'm interested in these modules. I really love this course; is there anyway that I can help out?' [He said], 'you can help tutoring the second years' and obviously I was under the wing of the other postgrads. That's when the bug bit. I started tutoring at university, my fellow second years. [Though] I went in not the smartest in the class but I always wanted to understand; I always knew that there's some people who also crave that but they don't know how to ask. I was always like that go-between, that if you don't want to directly ask the lecturer you can come to me. I know from my past experience how I did it because some people are not born-talents with the highest intelligent and I could relate with that. They are coping methods I've used that have helped me really grasp some of the concepts.
I also realised sometimes that, with tutoring, it's more than just the books. You get to know a human and that you get to find out their story and find out why they might be struggling. You kind of find ways to work around that or, if it's above me, then that's when I would probably escalate the matter – be it to the lecturer or the counselors. That's when some of the students really gravitated towards me and I realized that that was one of my gifts because I always say – like not in a cocky manner – that my purpose in life is to be a blessing.
AB: That’s beautiful!
AC: Everything that I do, [I] always try to do it in a manner that I can bless you in small little aspects. I think that's when I [realised] this is one of the things that I have to do, and obviously I was getting income from that. I wasn’t being a blessing for free, the money was good too (laughter)
AB: You deserved that check!
AC: This friend of mine was a tutor; he worked for a company externally who really liked university students to assist with the either primary school students [or] with high school students, so I reached out to the lady and [said], 'I am already doing this on campus; how can I how can I help out?' At that point, she [said], 'I don't have high school students, but I've got primary school students, and most of the students require a little bit more work.' I was like, 'OK, let me try.' My first student was [in] grade 5, so he was this 11 year old kid [who] also had his own troubles as well. He felt not seen in class; I ended up being more than just teacher. I had to sometimes listen to him. He had a very low self-esteem. Given his own home situation, I also realized that I had to play the role of showing him what he can be and who he can be. I think that's where some of the mentorship also built and I didn't realize that I was mentoring somebody at that point but it was small things like that. Even his grandmother sent me a personal message and she was like, 'Anne, thank you –there's a whole improvement; his whole attitude is more positive.' I had some really great teachers, [so] I decided to kind of pay it forward unintentionally from then on. I won't lie and say it's easy-peasy 'cause it's not. But there's always that satisfaction at the end of the day; I see there's a whole transformation in the human being – not only the marks, but the the behavior, the motivation. This is why I'm doing what I'm doing because now you're motivated; you want to do better, you wanna be better.'
AB: Even though you might not have realized it, you reached out to me in a time when the world was just an absolute mess, and even though it was based off of another connection – through Visibility STEM Africa – I had been seeking out a sense of community, and you started that ball rolling from me. I don't know if you realize that . You truly are a blessing; I really do mean that. I don’t want to cry, but it was something that I don't think I've even verbalized to you, how much it meant to me. I've spoken about it to my partner and my mother as well, [about] how it's almost like the universe heard what I needed and all of a sudden I got this email from you. I [thought], 'oh my goodness, what is this – this is incredible! When you were saying that [you want to be a blessing], I was like, 'I'm glad she knows that she is a blessing' because you really are.
AC: Thank you so much for that. Kudos to you for replying so quickly! I was so excited; we connected so instantly [and] we have the same missions and similar views. I mean, we've never met –
AB: I know!
AC: Even you – you also inspire me and you also came at a very good time when I needed. Especially with the PhD thing! Just talking to you and hearing about your journey. You are very open about it; you're so honest [and] you explained that of course it wasn't easy but you realize why you needed to be who you are and [in] these programs and to take up these necessary spaces, just to be that voice. I didn't realize it at that point. I think the universe connected us for a reason and we both just needed each other in more ways and we actually [thought], [more] than just 'hey. let's connect; we're doing something similar'. It is really really beautiful.
AB: It is. I'm so incredibly thankful for that. Speaking of your PhD journey that you're just about to embark on, tell us a little bit about that what was like – preparing for your PhD. What were some of the mental or emotional tribulations or joyous moments that you feel you faced as you prepare to embark?
AC: Oh, that's a beautiful question – I love it. Me just saying that I'm a PhD student is wild in my head. [I] still haven't really grasped that idea, that concept. When I think back, for example, when I was in my second year and I had these tutors, the postgrads. I still think that could never be me, like there's no way. Also maybe because my master's journey was a real journey: it's had its highs but it also had its lows, very deep deep lows for me. There were moments where I didn't even want it.
I was reflecting back with one of my mentors who is also somebody who is really very pivotal in me finishing my Masters. I remember [telling him] that I'm not gonna do my PhD. I was giving him every single reason why I shouldn't do my PhD, how I need to gain work experience, how I'll be [under] qualified, every single reason that I needed to just not do it. Obviously, after I finished I didn't want to hear that word [PhD] because that was always a question: 'oh, you finished the Masters, so what what's the next step? Are you going to work?' I didn't know if I was going to work, [then] of course the global pandemic happened so that just makes it really difficult. Already, South Africa unemployment rates are ridiculously high, which is scary – even for graduates. There's so many people sitting with these degrees, very high degrees – honours, master's degrees – people don't have jobs so now I'm trying to find a job in a pandemic, like really?
So there was that, and I'm an international student so I needed to have a visa. My visa was expiring end of July. I [thought], 'so what are you gonna do because this job thing is not happening in this pandemic.' I mean, for three months most of everything was closed. I remember I [thought], 'OK, fine, let me apply for my PhD.' My university had said that they might not be taking new students. Thankfully, Doctor Odindo, my academic father, told me of an opportunity of where there was a scholarship. This [was] like end of June; I had a month my life in order!
AB: Goodness me!
AC: It was the most stressful two weeks for me: to put this concept [together], to be accepted, and my [Masters] mark was not the greatest. They were really looking for your cum laudes. I didn't get that so I [didn't] know. It was such an emotional month for me because my anxiety was at [its] wits-end. My fate literally rested in so many people who I didn't know. Thankfully, I got the news that I was expected and I've got the funding, and now my university allowed me to register. Just last week, I got the email that I've been accepted; I was ecstatic!
AB: I can imagine! I was excited for you.
AC: I was like, 'Dr Anne Chisa' loading! Oh my word, I was ecstatic. And then, [that] Wednesday I wake up and I think it really sunk in. I [thought], 'did you not see that your whole Masters journey wasn't really that great? A lot of people can actually see that you're a fraud.' Just feeling very sorry for myself. I reached out to some of the incredible people who I met – which I can also attest that I've met some amazing people – even Nathasia! Like you said, I'm part of the Visibility in STEM Africa, both Natashas, some of the people who I've met during this journey of during my podcast. Most of these people are pursuing their degrees. And I [realized], 'hey, it's actually normal!'
AB: Yes! Absolutely!
AC: It's perfectly normal that you are scared. I remember I got an email from my supervisor and he said to me:
'Being a little anxious – especially about something unfamiliar – is sometimes a good thing. This causes you to have raised levels of adrenaline, and is something our ancestors acquired during evolution. It prepares us to fight or flight. In your case, the animal is this thing called 'PhD'. You're afraid of it at the beginning, but I'm glad that you've decided to fight. Now we must plan how you are going to fight the animal.
AB: Wow! That is beautiful!
AC: That's when I realized, 'hey dude, you're not alone. You've got great support system.' My parents, my partner, he's fantastic as well. He keeps on calling me Doctor Anne Chisa. My friends as well... I have amazing support system! Of course, it's not going to be easy but we're going to fight.
AB: I can't wait to see what comes next for you, because the fact that you've already recognized that the community exists and you haven't even started is a gift in and of itself! So much loneliness, I find, comes out of feeling like there's no one in the world who possibly feels the way that you do. Impostor syndrome is so real and it can be so debilitating. Coming into a PhD knowing you have the shoulders of some of the giants that you've mentioned that you stand on, I think you are set up for success. I think you are going to have the most beautiful experience doing your PhD because you're walking in feeling like you got this. You're going to have moments where that changes and that's OK. It's OK have moments of doubt; it's OK to have moments of hesitation and self deprecation, although reasonably. Let's check it every once in a while! (laughter) But the fact that you have that and you've recognized it already, you're leaps and bounds ahead of where I felt I was. I'd look around and feel like, 'I don't really fit in here; I don't blend in here, and no one else is ever going to validate my experience because everyone else feels perfectly comfortable, feels perfectly fine.' The crazy thing about the way the world is now is I didn't necessarily need to have someone in my cohort who looked like me. I just needed to connect with someone in the world who felt the way that I did or who looked the way that I did and walked into spaces where their face was abnormal or minoritized in many ways.
I would like to speak a little bit about your feelings of anxiety that you felt during your Masters and even in the last week of venturing into your PhD. What was it about your Masters experience that you felt triggered some of those feelings of anxiety? If you feel comfortable speaking about it, of course.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.Sure. In my master's, I felt very very isolated and I didn't recognize some of these feelings are normal and I didn't have a word for them. I just felt like [I was] panicking.. Like you said, reaching out to some of the community; I'd just like to touch on that. The community doesn't need to be the people who you see every day. For me, my community – I only realized it at the end of my Masters when I was wrapping up – was academic Twitter, my God!
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.Right?!
AC: The support I got near the end of my Masters – if I had that in the beginning, it probably would have been so much easier. I felt like I didn't have a sense of control; maybe I didn't fully understand my project as well as I should have. I really, really advocate that; sometimes it's great to have supervisors tell you what to do, but sometimes what then happens [is] you don't know what you're doing without them telling you what you're doing. That was the problem for me. I was told, 'do this, do this' and each time I tried to think on my own there was some barrier. It was never really mine, if I can say that. When things started to fall apart, that's when I panicked because I was like, 'so what do I do now?' I'm in agriculture [so] I had to plant a type of legumes called pigeon-pea. In order for me to collect my data, I needed to harvest a specific amount of things and it didn't work like that because also Mother Nature was like 'no'. This is what July last year. If you [had told] me that I was going to finish in December, I would have been like, 'you are lying! How? How will I do that?' But then again that's when I believe that God sent Saul Mwale, [he] came in and really helped me with the statistics part of it.
I remember when somebody was asking me like an how's it going and I'd be like, 'yoh, it's hard' and then people used say 'oh, don't worry, it's gonna be OK'. I hated that because I don't need to hear that. [Instead] somebody said to me, 'it's gonna end' and I was like, 'yes! That's what I need to hear.' Not having a sense of control and the panic and then it escalated to the point where I was stressed. I think I'm a stress eater, so I gained a whole lot of weight and I was not able to recognize myself. [Before] I was an avid gym-bunny: gym-ing was my thing. Now I didn't have time to exercise... no, time that I was there. I just didn't have the motivation.
AC: I didn't have the strength to wake up in the morning and go to gym ...[and then] people [were asking], 'are you OK? Are you pregnant?What's going on?' I just felt like I'm now losing control – not only do I not have control of this project. Now, [I] no longer have controlled my body. I remember there was a point where I I cut my hair... I I just went to the salon and I told him please just cut my hair. I just needed something that I felt like I could control. I just needed to start afresh. [Cutting] my hair, it [helped] a bit but then the cycle continued again; I wasn't able to recognize it. That was my masters journey and it went off to other issues.
AB: OK – so two things. First of all, I definitely want the audience to recognize that it is never OK to talk about someone's body; don't point out peoples acne, don't point out peoples gray hair, don't. None of it is any of your business. That's the first thing. The second thing that I wanted to say was, or the question [rather] that I wanted to ask is related to what you just said. It seems like there was a sudden switch, a realization that [you] want to do things differently. Was the switch someone else telling you, 'hey, something's happening here and I want to talk to you in a deep way' or was it self-introspection and you went, 'this isn't OK.'
AC: I think it was a self realization. No shade to the people who love me, but I think they realized that it wasn't the moment yet; when people love you they will love you in any shape, form, size, mental state. After I submitted and I was like, 'oh wait, there was a problem. I think they tried in their small ways try and remind me who I was but I think sometimes as much you can take a horse to the river, or donkey to the river, but you can't make it drink. It needed to come from me. Just after I finished my Masters, when I was not sure what I was going to do next, I reached out to the therapist from my college. Thankfully, even during lockdown they allowed us to have remote consultations. I told them, 'I'm not me; I just don't feel like me and I thought it would stop now that I've submitted my my thesis.' As much as I am a very positive person but I would have these low lows and I didn't understand. I think that's why I've been trying to not suffer in silence, to be more intentional. [Recently] when I had this anxiety, I remembered those coping solutions that my therapist told me: tell people, tell them that you're struggling and [you'll] find that they actually understand. I didn't really understand this whole mental health thing but, the more that I speak to others, I realize that there's such a huge problem in academia.
AC: We don't get told that we can do this. We don't talk about these things often enough. I think that's why some of us have to be intentional and just say, 'Anne sounds like she's got everything going on but actually, she doesn't'. It's really great that there are people who are now creating conversations and spaces for us to talk about it. And even now, I've never really gotten this honest about it so I'm just thankful that some people who know me from just seeing me – be it on Twitter or some of my people, friends – they probably didn't know this story. It's not easy; it's not easy at all but it's something that we need to talk about.
Her Royal Science jingle