The transition from Early Career Researcher (ECR) to head of a new laboratory
When you are in the midst of working on your PhD you feel that this must surely be the toughest challenge you’ll ever face, only to emerge on the other side and realise that it was a holiday in comparison to the academic journey post-PhD.
I completed my PhD at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) and immediately launched myself into a postdoctoral fellowship embedded in a relatively large international research initiative. Building on the expertise and knowledge I gained from my postgraduate work, I generated new pollen and microcharcoal records from the southern Cape and west coast regions of South Africa in order to reveal details about how climate and associated environmental conditions have changed during the Holocene. I found the transition from working almost entirely independently on my PhD to collaborating within the context of a large multidisciplinary and multinational team equally very exciting, and very challenging. At this time imposter syndrome hit me hard and I had a bit of an existential crisis (I’m overqualified, too specialized and not earning enough, what the hell am I doing with my life? – I know we’ve all been there!). Just as I was about to give up on academia, I was approached by Nelson Mandela University, one of the smaller, lesser known, public universities in South Africa, situated in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province. After a lot of soul searching, I accepted a research fellowship at NMU, moved out of my home in Cape Town (where I had lived my entire life) and relocated to a new city – by myself, with no contacts, friends or family there.
The primary focus of the new state-of-the-art palaeoecology laboratory at Nelson Mandela University is to conduct palynological studies, with a strong geographic emphasis on the Cape south coast and the Cape Floristic Region in general. While our initial and primary focus will be on pollen analysis, our overarching goal is to establish a highly versatile open science resource-base for palaeoscience research at Nelson Mandela University.
Erin Hilmer completed an undergraduate BSc degree at Nelson Mandela University followed by an honours in geology at the University of Stellenbosch. In addition to her role as the Senior Laboratory Technician of the new palaeolab, she manages Port Elizabeth’s only pollen and spore trap and generates weekly pollen and spore data for the city. This work forms part of a national monitoring network (www.pollencount.co.za). She also has expertise in geochronology and scanning electron (SEM) microscopy.