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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

Justin J. Kennedy leads new Programme in Personal Excellence
2012-05-08

 

Justin J. Kennedy
Photo: Leatitia Pienaar
8 May 2012

Justin J. Kennedy has been appointed as the Manager of the new Programme in Personal Excellence. The programme is hosted in the Centre for Business Dynamics, the commercial unit of the Business School.

He studied at Rhodes University and the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and his research has been published in various health-related publications. His D.Psych. at the University of California migrated into a Ph.D. with research partner DiscoveryHealth.

While in New York, he was part of the research laboratory Helicor that developed the world’s first hand-held medical device for measuring heart-rate variability of the peripheral nervous system.  This device forms part of the programmes offered to control stress and improve cognitive performance as per clinical trials at the UCT Department of Human Biology. This programme evolved into developing the M.Sc. course work on occupational stress and Ph.D. student supervision.

The programme will launch during the university's Beneficiary Programme for Academic Heads of Department, and will focus on the neuro-economics of stress resilience.

Justin’s most recent research is peer review for an international leadership journal where he has presented evidence on how people can improve their cognitive performance and working memory by building functional stress resilience. The overall aim of the programme is to not only reduce stress, but to improve ability to be excellent at work.  Clinical results have shown it is beneficial for performance anxiety, insomnia, migraine, hypertension control and improved ability at cognitive tasks.  The aim of his work is to ensure that simple and practical skills provide academics, students and corporate participants with enduring, functional techniques that are easily applied in their working lives.

The programme has three roles: to offer services that equip students and academics; consulting services to corporate clients, financial groups and private hospitals; and publication of results in peer-reviewed journals. 

This initiative also envisages offering a postgraduate qualification and selected coaching qualifications.  For more info about corporate interventions and programmes open to students and academics, please contact Ansie Barnard at barnardam@ufs.ac.za.
 

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