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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

Two academics will be sorely missed
2013-04-02

  

Prof Andrew Marston and Prof Bannie Britz
Photo: Supplied
02 April 2013

The staff and students of the University of the Free State (UFS) are deeply saddened by the recent passing in Bloemfontein of two of the university’s most esteemed and renowned academics, Prof Bannie Britz and Prof Andrew Marston.

Prof Britz was the Head of the Department of Architecture from 1992 to 2000. He was renowned in his field, winning numerous prizes for Architecture, including the Gold Medal for Architecture from the South African Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“As professional architect and urban designer, Prof Britz was a much awarded architect who received numerous award of merit from the South African Institute of Architects for buildings erected in South Africa over the years,” said Martie Bitzer, Head of the Department of Architecture.

Apart from his acclaim elsewhere, Prof Britz also played a major role in the day-to-day activities of university’s staff and students. He was responsible for the design of the many walkways on campus and the refurbishment of the Main Building on the Bloemfontein Campus. For the many contributions in his field, Prof Britz was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the UFS in 2007.

Prof Andrew Marston, a specialist in natural product chemistry and methods associated with the isolation and analysis of medically important chemicals from plants, was appointed from Geneva, Switzerland in 2009 under the UFS Strategic Cluster for Advanced Biomolecular Research.

He obtained a B-rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF) in 2011, and was consequently appointed as a senior professor in die UFS Senior Professor Programme. “He has made valuable contributions to the UFS in terms of teaching and postgraduate supervision, as well as research. In his short stay at the UFS, he already co-authored more than ten papers in international chemistry literature,” said Prof André Roodt, Head of the Department of Chemistry.

His research group was part of a multilateral agreement in the European Union (EU) with a number of African and three European universities. He obtained new research funding from the Seventh Framework Programme of the EU for the Building Sustainable Research Capacity on Plants for Better Public Health in Africa project, from the Norwegian Research Council for bioprospecting and the isolation and structure determination of compounds from plants and algae, and from the South African Rooibos Tea Council.

The memorial service for Prof Britz took place on Friday 5 April 2013 in the Berg-en-Dal Dutch Reformed Church in Bloemfontein. The service for Prof Marston took place in the Trinity Church, Charles Street, Bloemfontein.

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