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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

Researcher shares platform with Nobel Laureate at conference on nanomedicine
2013-01-10

Prof. Lodewyk Kock at the Everest viewpoint with Mount Everest behind him.
10 January 2013

Profs. Lodewyk Kock and Robert Bragg from the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology at the University of the Free State (UFS) both presented lectures at the first International Conference on Infectious Diseases and Nanomedicine that was held in Kathmandu, Nepal, late last year.

At the conference, also attended by senior representatives from the International Union of Microbiological Societies (IUMS), Prof. Kock delivered one of the two opening lectures, titled: Introducing New Nanotechnologies to Infectious Diseases (the other opening lecture was presented by Nobel Laureate, Prof. Barry J. Marshal). Prof. Kock also participated in the farewell address.

In two excellent lectures, Prof. Bragg spoke on Bacteriophages as potential treatment option of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and on Bacterial resistance to quaternary ammonium compounds.

For Prof. Kock this very first conference on infectious diseases and nanomedicine was followed by a very exciting yeast research excursion through the Mount Everest Highway which winds through the villages of the Sherpa tribe.

He describes his journey: “The Mount Everest Highway is a rough road stretching through hills and glacial moraines of unfamiliar altitudes and cold temperatures. Throughout the journey I had to take care of not contracting altitude sickness which causes severe headaches and dizziness.

“The only way of transport is on foot, on long-haired cattle called Yaks, donkeys and by helicopter. After flying by plane from Kathmandu (the capital of Nepal), I landed at Lukla, regarded as the most dangerous airport in the world due to its short elevated runway and mountainous surroundings. From Lukla, the land of the Sherpa, I walked (trekked) with my Sherpa guide and porter (carrier) along the Everest Highway surrounded by various Buddhist Mani scripture stands, other Buddhist representations and many spectacular snow-tipped mountains of more than 6 000 m above sea level. Of these, the majestic mountain called Ama Dablam (6 812 m), the grand 8 516 m high peak of Lhotse and to its left the renowned Mount Everest at 8 848 m in height, caught my attention.

“Dwarfed by these mountain peaks on the horizon, I passed various villages until I eventually reached the beautiful village called Namche Bazar, the heart of the Khumbu region and hometown of the Sherpa. This took three days of up to six hours walking per day, while I spent the nights at the villages of Phakding and Monjo. From there I walked along the Dudh Kosi River which stretches towards Mount Everest, until I reached the high altitude Everest viewpoint – the end of my journey, after which I trekked back to Lukla to return to Kathmandu and South Africa.

“This expedition is the first exploration to determine the presence of yeasts in the Everest region. Results from this excursion will be used in collaborative projects with local universities in Nepal that are interested in yeast research.”

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