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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

African Union acknowledges one of our own
2012-01-23

 

Prof. Maryke Labuschagne
Photo: Hannes Pieterse

The African Union awarded an international award to Maryke Labuschagne, a professor in Plant Breeding at our Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, for her contribution to science in Africa.

Prof. Labuschagne received the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Scientific award in the category Life Sciences – Continental level. This is the highest level of this prestigious award programme.

The African Union Commission is committed to ensure that science and technology contributes to sustainable development efforts. In 2008 the African Union Commission launched the prestigious African Union Scientific Award Programme. This programme was later renamed the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Scientific awards.

The programme is implemented at National level for young researchers, Regional level for women scientists and is open to all scientists on Continental level.

The Continental level is the highest level of the programme. The objective is to give out scientific awards to top African scientists for their scientific achievements, valuable discoveries and findings.

Prof. Labuschagne has been part of our university for the past 23 years. Over the last 20 years she has been involved in training and educating scientists in plant breeding all over Africa. Her work also entails the development of better cultivars to ensure food sustainability on the continent.

“I really did not expect to win this award. The criteria were really strict and one always sells yourself and your achievements short,” says Prof. Labuschagne.

With this award, Prof. Labuschagne also receives US $100 000 (about R 804 180) in prize money, which will be used to renovate her department’s lab facilities and provide bursaries.

The official award ceremony will be held on Saturday 28 January 2012 at the United Nations Conference Centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
 

 

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