Dr Sarah Fawcett is a young woman making strides in the world of science through her research, publications, university teaching and with outstanding supervision/mentorship. She is a Harvard and Princeton graduate who holds a number of accolades under her belt, including the Claude Leon Merit Award for Early-Career Researchers, in April.
Sarah Fawcett was born in Benoni, a city located on the East Rand of the South African province, Gauteng. She attended Benoni High School, a government high school in her hometown. By chance, after high school, Sarah was presented with an opportunity to spend some time in the United States of America at a friend’s home who she went to high school with. Her friend’s mother was the one who broke the ice and planted the idea in her mind to apply to some American universities. This suggestion was a realm far from young Sarah’s and her dad’s plans as they had at the time, planned for her to take a gap year and the following year enrol with the University of Cape Town to study medicine. Harvard University was the only Ivy League University that offered the kind of financial support to foreigners as they did to Americans at the time and Sarah took advantage of that, was accepted to the University after taking a standardised test. Fawcett took advantage of the Ivy League education as she studied from undergraduate to MSc with Harvard University and philandered on with a Ph.D. and Postdoctoral research with Princeton University.
As it had always been part of the plan, Dr Fawcett decided to return to South Africa, her place of birth. South Africa for her is a wonderful place to live, the country ignites the excitement to do meaningful science and the life-work balance is most advantageous. Her passion, in fact, lies in the Southern Ocean which is much more accessible from South Africa than it is from the USA. Interests mainly include the Southern Ocean and its role in climate. Sarah’s short term visions include setting up an active research group that is excited about marine biogeochemistry, has a mindset of creating outstanding quality data, developing and reinforcing strong lab and field components. Dr Fawcett aims to set up research and technical capacities which currently lack in her relatively new research lab, The Fawcett Lab. This will allow her team to be able to break borders through making measurements that we presently cannot carry out at all in South Africa and have the potential to be used to answer various important questions. In the long term, the intention is to understand the multi-faceted question, “what is the role of the Southern Ocean in global ocean carbon cycling?”. This question underpins the majority of Sarah’s research! Her research includes some more local sites as she has just started working on the biogeochemistry of False Bay and South Africa’s understudied and yet economically important, Benguela Upwelling System.
Dr Sarah Fawcett’s work is highly relevant to society because the processes that she is interested in are the fundamental reason why we have a habitable planet. The science she is deeply involved in gives us a better understanding of our planet, what happened in the past, what we are experiencing now and what to expect in the future. More importantly, Dr Fawcett strongly believes that her work is most effective and required towards student training which she regards as a huge responsibility of hers. As an academic, she communicates and markets her work through scientific journals, conferences and works with outreach programs which teach young kids in high schools about the science she and many others are involved in. As Primary Investigator of the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition XII, Sarah admits to getting even more training as she has had to engage with world-renowned news outlets and in that way having to send the message across to individuals from all walks of life.
Sarah feels that there still is a lot of gender discrimination in the world of science, in fact from her point of view, the discrimination is much stronger in the United States than it is in South Africa. In South Africa, for example, women have higher chances of being accepted into science as is the case in her very own research group which entails 10 students and only 3 are males. Nonetheless, she has witnessed that women end up having to work harder than men.
Her advice to young and old who would like to take tips from her life is: “Be fierce! You have to fiercely protect that which is important to you. Don’t give up. Figure out what it is that you want to be fierce about and sometimes you have to just sit back quietly and keep going. Women don’t ask as much as men. So ask! Ask for what you want!”. This is when, during the interview, Sarah Fawcett brought tears to my eyes.
Dr Sarah Fawcett as known to me isn’t just all talk. She walks the talk! All the opportunities she has been fortunate to get in life are not hogged. I can safely say, this lady has come as a blessing in my life and to every single student’s in her research group because she picks you up, dusts you off and polishes you into a genie bottle desired all over the science world. This is Sarah Fawcett’s journey- MAJESTIC MENTOR.