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17 April 2019 | Story Leonie Bolleurs
Science ambassadors
Friends Tekano Mbonani and Chaka Mofokeng are pursuing graduate degrees in respectively Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS) and Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape. The two got together and decided to reach out to the high school, Leseding Technical Secondary School, where they came from.

It was a full house as more than 120 learners packed the hall at the Leseding Technical Secondary School in the Free State, where two young Astronomy researchers had come home to tell their younger peers about their studies and career prospects across South Africa.

Chaka Mofokeng and Tekano Mbonani are both former learners at the high school. Currently pursuing graduate degrees – for Mbonani in Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS), and for Mofokeng in Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape – the two friends got together and decided to reach out to the high school where they came from.

The event took place in January before schoolwork, tests, and exam preparations are occupying learners’ minds, inviting them to think about the big picture – the future, and how to be part of it. This is timely, because in July last year, the MeerKAT radio telescope was inaugurated in the Karoo. The MeerKAT is the first step to the international SKA telescope project, but it is already one of the best radio telescopes in the world and has placed South Africa firmly on the world map of radio astronomy and engineering.

Building a bridge
“This project enables us to build a bridge between secondary and tertiary institutions. Currently focused on senior secondary students, we aim to promote science through outreach events and activities. Using science and technology-based activities and events, such as stargazing at an observatory or exploring the universe in a planetarium, we want to attract these future secondary graduates. We also provide mentorship, hoping to help them improve their academic performance in matric,” said Mbonani.

For a whole morning, they spoke about their journeys, about science, about the skills that scientists acquire during their studies and all the opportunities such studies open up in an era where the 4th Industrial Revolution is predicted to reduce the number of jobs in many traditional professions. They addressed their peers in both English and Sesotho.

Astronomy in South Africa contributes to critical-skills development. Investing in the MeerKAT, for example, meant that over a thousand bursaries were made available through the SKA South Africa Human Capacity Development programme. Young scientists like Mofokeng and Mbonani have the opportunity to be part of MeerKAT science projects through their studies, using machine learning and other skills that are high in demand in today’s world. This was one of the messages they brought home.

Gaining new skills

“As an Astronomy research student, I have gained skills such as data analysis, mathematical modelling, communication and writing, programming, and teamwork, among others. These are requirements for most companies and institutions. With the unfolding of the 4th Industrial Revolution, such skills sets make young and aspiring scientists the perfect candidates for making the most of future opportunities,” reflected Mofokeng.

Most of the learners said they have never attended a science-outreach event. They were inspired by the young scientists’ stories and nearly half of them said they could see themselves pursuing a career in science. The learners also expressed a strong interest in more events of this kind, as well as mentorship during Grades 11 and 12 from peers at university. They asked about the salaries earned by astronomers, how long the studies take, and where astronomers are working in South Africa.

This initiative, started by two bright young scientists, hopefully marks the beginning of many more events of this kind. Mofokeng and Mbonani are already planning what to do on their next trip home.

News Archive

UFS study on cell development in top international science journal
2008-09-16

A study from the University of the Free State (UFS) on how the change in the packaging of DNA with cell development influenced the expression of genes, will be published in this week’s early edition of the prestigious international, peer-reviewed science journal, the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS).

The PNAS journal has an impact factor of 10, which means that studies published in the journal are, on average, referred to by ten other scientific studies in a two year period. The South African Journal of Science, by comparison, has an impact factor of 0.7.

The UFS study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the National Research Foundation (NRF), looked at how the change in the packaging of DNA with cell development influenced the expression of genes. It is very relevant to research on stem cells, an area of medicine that studies the possible use of undifferentiated cells to replace damaged tissue.

Prof. Hugh Patterton, of the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology at the UFS, who led the study, said: "We are extremely proud of this study. It was conceived in South Africa, it was performed in South Africa, the data were analysed in South Africa, and it was published from South Africa."

When a gene is expressed, the information encoded in the gene is used to manufacture a specific protein. In eukaryotes, which include humans, there is approximately 1m of DNA, containing the genes, in every cell. This length of DNA has to fit into a cell nucleus with a diameter of only about 10 micrometer. In order to fit the DNA into such a small volume, eukaryotic cells wrap their DNA onto successive protein balls, termed nucleosomes. Strings of nucleosomes, resembling a bead of pearls, is folded into a helix to form a chromatin fiber. The study from the UFS investigated how the binding of a specific protein, termed a linker histone, that binds to the length of DNA between nucleosomes, influenced the formation of the chromatin fiber and also the activity of genes.

"We found that the linker histone bound to chromatin in yeast, which we use as a model eukaryote, under conditions where virtually all the genes in the organism were inactive. It was widely believed that the binding of the linker histone caused the inactivation of genes. We studied the relationship between the amount of linker histone bound in the vicinity of each gene and the expression of that gene for all the genes in yeast, using genomic techniques. We made the surprising discovery that even through the linker histone preferentially bound to genes under conditions where the genes were shut off, this inactivation of genes was not caused by the binding of the linker histone and folding of the chromatin,” said Prof. Patterton.

He said: “Instead our data strongly suggested that the observed anti-correlation was due to the movement of enzymes along the DNA molecule, involved in processing the information in genes for the eventual manufacture of proteins. This movement of enzymes displaced the linker histones from the DNA. This finding now requires a rethink on aspects of how packaging of DNA influences gene activity."

Prof. Patterton said that his research group, using the Facility for Genomics and Proteomics as well as the Bioinformatics Node at the UFS, was currently busy with follow-up studies to understand how other proteins in nucleosomes affected the activities of genes, as well as with projects to understand how chemicals found in red wine and in green tea extended lifespan. "We are certainly having a marvelous time trying to understand the fundamental mechanisms of life, and the UFS is an exciting place to be if one was interested in studying life at the level of molecules," he said.


Media Release
Issued by: Lacea Loader
Assistant Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2584
Cell: 083 645 2454
E-mail: loaderl.stg@ufs.ac.za  
18 September 2008
 

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