SAIAB News » Water World flows at Scifest Africa

Water World flows at Scifest Africa

By: Lucky Dlamini – WWF Communications Intern
Edited by: Penny Haworth – SAIAB Communications Manager 

South Africa’s National Science Festival celebrated its 23rd edition from 6 to 12 March 2019, under the theme “Discover your element”, which marks the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements as proclaimed by the United Nations.

Water World

Scifest Africa is a momentous science festival for the Eastern Cape Province, our local town, Makhanda (Grahamstown), and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB). As part of its commitment to promoting science education in practical and informal interactive ways, SAIAB brought together 13 exhibitors which included its own internal research platforms and other institutions involved in aquatic science and research, under the banner of ‘Water World’. The Water World displays flowed strategically from Source-to-sea, starting with the ‘Physics of water’ as an introduction to many more aquatic related fields that lay ahead in the stream of exhibits. Visitors moved through exhibits about freshwater systems to marine-related displays at the end. This stream of exhibitions highlighted the importance of the planet’s natural aquatic resources and species, and how they are interconnected, impacted and relate to biodiversity.


Leading minds in aquatic research represented SAIAB. These included the South African Research Chair for Inland Fisheries and Freshwater Ecology, Professor Olaf Weyl, Acoustic Tracking Array Platform Instrument Scientist, Dr Taryn Murray, Marine Remote Imagery Platform Instrument Scientist, Dr Anthony Bernard, whose team is contributing to the national assessment of South Africa’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), as well as other scientists and research students making an impact in their various scientific fields. All gave of their time to discuss critical issues, impart their knowledge and enjoy the opportunity to share their work with hundreds of budding young scientists.

Science is Listening

Some of our scientists went an extra mile from exhibiting at Water World, to becoming involved in the broader activities of the main Scifest programme. An activity that was popular among our scientists was the ‘Science is Listening’ experimental science cafe which brought scientists from different streams of research, under the themes waterhealth and environment, to a round table discussion at which the public were given a chance to tell scientists what they (the public) think they should be researching.

This activity saw some of our scientists like Dr Murray and Dr Bernard interacting with the general public, making the world of science more accessible. Dr Murray said, “Despite a relatively low turnout, I think this event provided an outlet for the public to air their thoughts, make suggestions and have an open conversation about what research is currently being conducted and what could be done in the future.” She suggested that, “It would be great to run this workshop again and it will be interesting to hear what more members of the public have to say. After all, much research is conducted with tax-payers’ money, so I feel it is important for the public to have their say.”

The ‘Science is Listening’ event was an opportunity to inject different perspectives and creatively engage different actors in dialogues as researchers, industry and civil society agents, and citizens. The event was well received by both public and scientists who attended.

The ‘Science is Listening’ cafe was a collaboration between the DST/NRF Chair in Biotechnology Innovation & Engagement at the Rhodes University Centre for Biotechnology, SAIAB and Scifest Africa.


Speed-date a Scientist

SAIAB PhD research students Yonela Sithole and Samantha Ockhuis volunteered to participate in the ‘Speed-date a Scientist’ activity. Groups of learners met our science students for ten minutes to find out what they do as scientists before moving on to another table to meet other scientists. This open and informal, relaxing space attracted an audience of learners between grades 8-12.

Ockhuis felt that, “This was a brilliant activity, both for me as well as the kids. I enjoyed sharing my experience and motivating them to pursue a career in science, especially in marine science. I found that some kids were quite enthusiastic and were asking lots of questions, but some were quieter.” While Sithole said, “At first I was worried that I would not be able to explain the key concepts of my research in a way that the learners would understand, as I’m not confident in my science communication skills. However, the relevant questions they asked made it easy for me to explain what I do and its importance in a way they could understand. It was overwhelming to see happy faces after each engagement I had.”

For many young school learners, this was their first opportunity to meet a scientist. This event was organised by the DST/NRF Chair in Biotechnology Innovation & Engagement, Professor Janice Limson.

Yonela Sithole sharing her career experience and motivating learners to pursue a career in science, especially in marine science. Samantha Ockhuis being interviewed by the Rhodes University radio journalism students, after she finished speaking to learners. 
Left pic: Yonela Sithole sharing her career experience and motivating learners to pursue a career in science, especially in marine science.
Right pic: Samantha Ockhuis being interviewed by the Rhodes University radio journalism students, after her active engagement with learners.


Three Water World displays received the following awards at the Contributors Awards Evening at Scifest Africa:

  1. Best Water World Exhibition First Place awarded to – NRF-SAIAB “Physics of Water” display.
  2. Best Water World Exhibition Second Place awarded to – “Centre for Biological Control Rhodes
    University Department of Zoology and Entomology” display.
  3. The Best Water World Exhibition Third Place awarded to – NRF-SAEON Elwandle Node display.


Water World facilitated learning in an informal and hands-on way, providing learners with a genuine opportunity to discover aquatic sciences outside the classroom. Informal science teaching and learning is important in order to raise young children’s awareness of the different aspects encompassing science and to get them to start thinking of innovative ways to tackle societal challenges that could be solved through science innovation.

Water World also attracted a broad diversity of actors who would not normally interact with each other on matters of science. For example, Water World received a special visit from a group of senior citizens who showed a curious interest in science. This was a wonderful opportunity for SAIAB to contribute to building a more scientifically literate society able to actively participate in and support science development and education.

Left pic: Gogos from a local old age home in Makhanda curiously looking into microscopes - an experience which
gave them a whole new perspective on aquatic biodiversity.

Right pic: The elderly getting a whole new understanding and appreciation 
of water at the ‘Physics of water’ stand.

Left pic: Leaners attentively listening to SAIAB’s Principal Aquatic Biologist, Professor Paul Cowley as he explains the dynamics
of the acoustic telemetry platform (ATAP), which studies marine animals movement behaviour,
habitat use patterns and ecology of coastal fishery species.

Right pic: Mzwandile Dwani, SAIAB’s Collections & Safety Officer engaging learners on the National Fish Collection of South Africa
and giving the learners hands-on exposure to SAIAB’s dry collection with a shark’s lower jaw.


SAIAB remains extremely grateful to its 13 collaborating partners who made Water World possible and made each learner’s experience worthwhile at Scifest Africa: the Rhodes University (RU) Zoology Department’s Centre for Biological Control (CBC), the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA), South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON), RU Department of Biochemistry & Microbiology, RU Department of Ichthyology & Fisheries Science (DIFS), the Albany Museum and RU Institute for Water Research, the DST/NRF Chair in Inland Fisheries and Freshwater Ecology which is hosted at SAIAB, the Acoustic Tracking Array Platform (ATAP), the African Coelacanth Ecosystem Programme (ACEP) and the Marine Remote Imagery Platform, the ACEP Phuhlisa Programme, the SAIAB Collections Platform and a SAIAB exhibit on the Physics of Water which was awarded First Prize by the Scifest judges.