Cape Town: the best city in the world – by Nienke Pannekoek

One month in Cape Town is not enough. It just does not cut it. It is not enough to enjoy the city and all it has to offer, but also not to really get started on a big, international collaboration. Just when you start to find your feet and get into the topic of your project, it is already time to go. It should not be much of a surprise that I jumped at the chance to return for another, extended period of 6 months to continue working on the social anxiety disorder mega-analysis at the Groote Schuur Hospital!

Together with Jean-Paul (JP) Fouché I was coordinating a big international project on which we had already been working since JP’s visit to Leiden, The Netherlands, in early 2012. At this stage, the social anxiety mega-analysis (or, as we like to call it, the mega-SAD) involves MRI data of subjects with social anxiety disorder and control subjects from 11 research centres in five countries. This does not just mean trying to get the data from all these sites in one place, but it also means dealing with the ethics committees of each centre, which takes time and patience. During JP’s visit to Leiden and my first visit to Cape Town last year, we had been doing some necessary preparatory work. It took us a while, but once we were in possession of all the data, we could really dive in and my six months were spent doing quality checks, troubleshooting, preprocessing, troubleshooting, creating the analysis designs, and more troubleshooting. Did I already mention that there was a lot of troubleshooting? All this resulted in a final dataset of a whopping total of 458 subjects! Each step forward got us more and more excited about the project, and the initial preliminary results look extremely promising.


JP Fouche and I have spent a lot of time working together since early 2012

Unfortunately I am no longer in Cape Town, but some final analyses are now running, and we are looking forward to start writing up the results very soon. Apart from working on the mega-analysis, I have had the pleasure of attending meetings, seminars and lectures, and some new and exciting collaborations have been established with my colleagues at the Psychiatry Department of the Groote Schuur Hospital.


The stunning backdrop of Table Mountain

Of course, living in the most beautiful city in the world (it didn’t get voted ‘best city in the world 2013’ by the Telegraph for nothing…) means that there is more to do than just work. My free time was spent hiking and running on and around the Mountain, wine tasting (and even a combination of both, in costume!) failed attempts to win quiz night, making many great friends, spending time on the beach in front of my house, and enjoying fantastic food in the Mother City. It has been a journey with many ‘firsts’. When you come from a cold and rainy country like The Netherlands, spending Christmas in the sun is such a strange experience! And to celebrate New Year’s Eve ON TOP of Table Mountain is something you only do once in a lifetime.


Working (slash-running-slash-wine tasting) with colleagues

One thing I will never forget is being in South Africa when the beloved Nelson Mandela passed away. Knowing beforehand that this was a possibility during my stay, I was not sure what to expect in the unfortunate event of his death. However, the unity that I witnessed in Cape Town was astonishing. I went to several events remembering Madiba, including an interreligious service that featured speakers each of a different faith, where all people had gathered as one to remember him. Apart from expressing profound sadness of his passing, South Africa paid respect and gratitude to the Father they loved. But there was also joy, and Mandela’s life was energetically celebrated. Several memorial concerts were organised nationwide, and I attended the one at the Cape Town Stadium. The speeches by politicians were moving and heartfelt, the artists were visibly proud to pay a musical tribute to Madiba, and the crowd was celebrating his life. The message of all speakers and performers was clear: South Africa must never forget this great man and build upon the foundations he laid for a better future.


The mega-SAD analysis is still in full swing and there are countless opportunities to continue this project. I am looking forward to presenting the results in the near future, and this is only going to be the first of many publications that can be based on the international database resulting from this exciting collaboration.

For me, this opportunity has meant more to me than I could have ever imagined. The project has been challenging and educational, and I have learned a lot. As for living in the Mother City, Cape Town has fully embraced me and I have fully embraced Cape Town. After my previous visit last year, I knew within 24 hours after arriving in Leiden that I would be back in South Africa a couple of months later. This time I do not know exactly when I will be back, but I can guarantee that it will not be long. Once one has experienced life in Cape Town, once simply cannot stay away!

– Nienke