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Five PhDs push the boundaries of the known world



“The best thing about doing a PhD is being able to have the time and luxury of thinking. It’s three years, and yes, it’s very busy, but your job is to think, create, and contribute something new. That isn’t something many people get given the opportunity to do.”

This is the reflection of Ruby Birin, a Johannesburg-born and now Oxford-University-based doctorate student in archaeology, one of five PhD students which the SA Jewish Report interviewed to get an insight into the space of contemplation and creativity behind such studies.

Ruby Birin – archaeology of southern Africa

Birin originally chose archaeology as a “good crossover” between her interests in history, classics, and geography. Since then, she has thrived in the field, having taken part in excavations in Israel and Italy, as well as working as a lab technician.

For her DPhil in archaeological science, as the degree is termed in Oxford, Birin is working to establish the chronology of the Middle Age and later Stone Age in southern Africa.

“My work is trying to explore when new technologies are invented. Where do we see these new innovations popping up? And how do they spread across the continent?

“This is the period in which we start seeing art and culture represented. We start finding things like ochre which can be used as paint, and engravings on shell, beads, and ostrich eggs. We know people are starting to do things a little bit differently and with more complexity.”

Birin says that a vast amount of work has been done in excavations and dating of artefacts from this period. She’s now collating the research to establish spatial and temporal patterns – “whether we can spot where and how quickly these things are spreading”.

Though her findings are still at a preliminary stage, it can be seen that even in the same places at the same time, people go through periods of rapid change and yet are also making autonomous decisions: “There is a wave where people make lots of the same things and then also periods where people are making very different things from each other – even their neighbours. Humans were diverse as they are today. We all come from this very complex and vibrant history, and it’s really remarkable how we can see that through the material artefacts that people have left behind.”

Birin says she would like to continue to do research in the future, although she’s also interested in museum work and bridging the gap between academia and the public where she “could make these ideas exciting, innovative, and interactive and so that people can have ownership over their own past because if we’re not doing it for people to understand their own past, then what’s the value of doing it?”

Sarah Berman – psychology of fatherhood

Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Sarah Berman chose to focus her doctorate at the University of the Witwatersrand on fatherhood, exploring the development of a sense of self in this role.

She conducted interviews which revealed how the process of shaping this identity wasn’t “necessarily an easy one” and took time. “Many of the fathers felt excluded from pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. They felt unprepared for fatherhood because they experienced it through the bodies of their partners as opposed to their own bodies,” Berman says.

Nevertheless, as fathers actively reflected on their role, they came to strong insights about it, often wanting to demonstrate a generational shift towards greater connection to childcare.

“One participant said the stigma of, ‘Oh my goodness, you left the baby with the father’ and when you return ‘the house is upside down. The child’s got socks on his hands and vomit all over.’ That’s not the way dads are anymore. Dads are much more involved.”

Yet, in focusing on supporting their partner and baby, the fathers sometimes didn’t give themselves the space to unpack their own feelings. When they began to do so in the interviews, they were able to formulate a stronger sense of their bond.

“One of the fathers initially struggled to respond to my question how he thought his daughter saw him as a father. A week later, he returned and told me that our first interview made him more aware of how his daughter responded to him. In this interview, he said, ‘Every time I come home, she gives a smile. She definitely loves me.’”

Berman elected to do a part-time PhD starting in 2015, as she runs her own private practice. She also had her own children while working on the PhD, and is now the mother of a one-year-old baby and twins, aged three. This has been a “juggle”, she says.

Yet, as she now writes up her final thesis, Berman says she feels privileged to have had the experience of interviewing these fathers who were willing to speak so openly about their personal experience. It has offered findings that can directly benefit therapeutic practice, particularly regarding parenting.

David Fachler – Johannesburg Jewish history

David Fachler, who qualified as a lawyer in South Africa, left for Israel in 1999 and began studying again, this time in the field of contemporary Jewry. He decided to pursue his doctorate in the subject as a long-distance student with Associate Professor Adam Mendelsohn at the University of Cape Town.

While at first, his focus was on the ba’al teshuvah movement in the 1970s (the return of secular Jews to a religious way of life), his research has branched out into multiple facets.

For example, the shifting focus of the office of the chief rabbinate over the decades illuminates some of the key questions regarding communal identity. “There’s always been that tension of how you see yourself. In terms of a universalist approach, as a rabbi for the whole community, or do you want to focus on strict religious observance? Where do you draw the line between diversity and communal discipline?”

Jewish educational institutions have also grappled with curriculum design and the type of Jewish identity they shape. “There was a big argument in the 1950s and 1960s about the division of the Jewish Studies curriculum,” Fachler says, whether Hebrew was to be positioned as a secular-language subject or an element of Jewish Studies. As different sectors of the community reached different outcomes, the branching off of smaller independent schools emerged.

Moreover, as international movements like Ohr Somayach and Chabad came into South Africa, they brought varying approaches. While the former focused on encouraging full observance, the latter promoted making people as aware as possible within a wider reach.

Fachler says it’s also interesting to contemplate whether the orthodoxy shaped in South Africa was a reclamation of the Lithuanian traditions from which many South African Jews originate or something new. Indeed, the big change today is that most of the Orthodox leadership is home-grown talent – either the offspring of those who originally came from overseas to build religious life or the products of the institutions they set up.

“When you have local elements, you have stronger traction because you have the same mentality. There is a kind of warmth but there is also a lowering of intensity [of strict observation],” Fachler says.

He says he hopes his research helps to bring the full story of the community to life. “The younger generation is unaware of all the different contributing factors that make orthodoxy and Jewish life in general. It’s important to restore the narrative, and to see things in their proper perspective.”

Jessica van Jaarsveld – environmental ethics philosophy

Jessica van Jaarsveld’s love of her area of study is clear when she reveals that she even thanked her (then-master’s degree and now PhD) supervisor in her wedding speech!

However, Van Jaarsveld’s initial university studies at the University of Johannesburg began in a strikingly different field from her current pursuit. She started with aeronautical engineering, for which she developed, she quips, “a burning, passionate hatred”. She switched to a politics, philosophy and economics degree, and then stayed with philosophy. Now she’s an internationally renowned and award-winning expert in environmental ethics.

In some ways, she says, her engineering and philosophical studies stemmed from the same “desire to understand how the world worked behind the scenes. If engineering was the black-and-white mechanics of it all, philosophy opened up a whole world of questioning and critical thinking that I hadn’t really come across before,” Van Jaarsveld says.

Her research focuses on a new theory of human development that pushes back against the limitation of looking only at economic measures, instead casting for a more holistic viewpoint. “The leading voice in that kind of counter movement is called the capabilities approach, which looks at what people are actually able to be and do in everyday life; what choices and opportunities are available to them,” she says.

While these models talk about the need to live in and with concern for nature, there is little discussion of what that actually entails. “I’m trying to expand on what that means, and argue what it would take in terms of government policy to really protect that.”

Furthermore, it’s often polarised by those that see nature as having its own intrinsic value and others that evaluate it according to what purpose it serves for humankind. “I’m arguing for a middle ground, which I’m calling green anthropocentrism. This acknowledges that human concern very much comes into our value perception, but not in a way that reduces the environment to just its material resources. We value the environment because it’s a core component of what being human is.”

Van Jaarsveld’s doctoral studies have coincided with her entry into motherhood, with a toddler by her side and another baby on the way. Her research has bridged her Jewish and South African identity. “Philosophical methods of conversational interrogation and arguing have such strong parallels in Judaism and Jewish education; it’s how we would attack a portion of Gemarah in the same way, with the same logic,” she says.

Her work has resulted in her applying the indigenous concept in sub-Saharan Africa of ukama – a theory that extends from ubuntu, which is between people, to the relationality of the human and non-human community. “There are these absolutely beautiful theories that encompass the idea of mutual coexistence,” Van Jaarsveld says.

Steven James – artificial intelligence

Steven James is basking in the light, quite literally, after handing in his final dissertation for his computer science doctorate in artificial intelligence.

“It’s been a tough few last months, and I haven’t had much sun, but, yes, it’s great,” he said, reflecting on his journey at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he started off as an undergraduate and now works as a lecturer.

“The reason I got into computer science in part was because I really enjoyed doing things like puzzles, crosswords, and paying chess. Computer science was almost like a meta problem, a grander puzzle. Then, artificial intelligence just followed naturally.”

James’s doctorate, which was co-supervised by Brown University in the United States, is about a subfield called reinforcement learning, essentially “how you can get physical robots in the real world to solve tasks”. His focus was on how higher-level concepts can be incorporated in machine learning and planning.

It’s query was based on whether an artificial-intelligence system could begin to recognise an image as a symbolic representation and then incorporate prior knowledge of its functions and apply these to different tasks. For example, could a machine learn that any door opens and closes and then “combine that into a high-level concept that can be used for planning? If it sees a new door, will it know what it does?”

For part of his research, James coded a video-game stimulation that played out various scenarios and evaluated the success of an artificial-intelligence system in navigating these.

“The general takeaway showed that we have a system that can reuse past knowledge, and the more tasks it sees, the more levels it solves, the more knowledge it has to bring to bear on a brand-new level that it has never seen before. In doing that, it makes learning and task solving quicker.”

However, scaling these ideas to the real world was a long process. “The world is a very noisy place, unexpected things happen all the time,” James says. As such, he’s passionate about continuing research in this field.

He has found collaboration to be particularly beneficial, saying that “to produce good work, a cross-pollination of ideas” brings richness and stimulation.

Indeed, he remembers one night, working with a colleague on a project that had already taken months. “Eventually we cracked it. I was tired, it was dark, and no one was on campus. I remember just sitting there and looking over the empty campus, and it was a good feeling of satisfaction, making a breakthrough with someone I’d been working with for a while – and I thought to myself, I would like to chase that feeling,” he says.

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