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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

Applications for the Vice-Chancellor's Prestige Programme for 2013/2014 now open
2012-12-06

This highly prestigious programme, led by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, seeks to identify, develop and promote the next cohort of the most promising and talented UFS academic members of staff who obtained a doctoral degree within the last five years. These are young scholars who have chosen academic careers and who are focused and determined to become senior academics in their respective disciplines.

Once identified, these scholars will be put through an intensive programme of academic and scholarship support that includes an advanced residential programme, exposure to leading scholars, intensive reading and writing programmes, high-level seminar participation and presentation, nuanced publication schedules and personal mentoring and advice.

The selection process is highly competitive, and aimed at those young scholars with the potential to obtain upper-level ratings (Y1 and P).  The selection criteria include the following:(1)

1. Recently obtained a PhD degree.
2. Evidence of an active publication record.
3. Early recognition of scholarly work, e.g. successful funding/grant applications and academic awards.
4. The early development of a post-doctoral intellectual project that shows evidence of scholarly “potential” (defined by the NRF Y-category).
5. Indication of the young scholar’s understanding of what their envisaged postdoctoral endeavours will contribute to the body of knowledge.
 
This period of support will run over a cycle of two years after which a new intake of next generation professors will be selected.
 
While this cohort will be selected for an intensive programme, ongoing development and support of all young scholars will continue. The selected scholars will reflect a balance of young academics from the humanities (broadly defined, including education, law, theology and the social sciences) and the natural sciences (broadly defined, including the agricultural and health sciences).
 
Call for Applications
This is a call for applications for the Vice-Chancellor’s Prestige Programme for 2013/2014. Candidates are invited to submit applications. No nomination is required, but deans and heads of department will also be asked to invite young scholars to apply.  Complete applications are due by Monday 21 January 2013. A full application will include the following documentation:

1. A complete curriculum vitae of the candidate.
2. A complete exercise of intent comprising the following:
2.1   Select two journal articles (copies of which to accompany the application) in the area you have identified for your intellectual focus post PhD. These articles have to be selected from journals of international standing in your field.
2.2   The articles need to be summarised (250 words each), and
2.3   Two questions have to be identified that you would want to pursue in relation to your intended project. 
2.4   This is followed by a brief, critical summary of a hundred lines maximum to indicate how these articles inform, integrate or provoke your planned future research.

Submission and contact address
A paper copy of the application must be submitted to the Vice-Chancellor’s secretary, Ms Melissa Coetzee, in the Main Building by 16:00 on Monday 21 January 2013 and an electronic copy of your entire application to the administrative assistant, Mr Albert Nell:nella@ufs.ac.za. You will be contacted to acknowledge receipt. Candidates will be informed of the outcome in February. Further information on the Vice-Chancellor’s Prestige Scholar Programme can be directed at any of the following co-directors (in alphabetical order):

Prof Jackie du Toit, Prof Neil Roos, Prof Aldo Stroebel or Prof Corli Witthuhn.
 
[1] The VC reserves the right to nominate young scholars to the programme and also to invite scholars to a panel interview to evaluate personal qualities, professional commitment and academic ambition.

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