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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

UFS boasts with world class research apparatus
2005-10-20

 

 

At the launch of the diffractometer were from the left Prof Steve Basson (Chairperson:  Department of Chemistry at the UFS), Prof Jannie Swarts (Unit for Physical and Macro-molecular Chemistry at the UFS Department of Chemistry), Mr Pari Antalis (from the provider of the apparatus - Bruker SA), Prof Herman van Schalkwyk (Dean:  Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS), Prof André Roodt (head of the X-ray diffraction unit at the UFS Department of Chemistry) and Prof Teuns Verschoor (Vice-Rector:  Academic Operations at the UFS).

UFS boasts with world class research apparatus
The most advanced single crystal X-ray diffractometer in Africa has been installed in the Department of Chemistry at the University of the Free State (UFS).

“The diffractometer provides an indispensable technique to investigate compounds for medicinal application for example in breast, prostate and related bone cancer identification and therapy, currently synthesized in the Department of Chemistry.  It also includes the area of homogeneous catalysis where new compounds for industrial application are synthesised and characterised and whereby SASOL and even the international petrochemical industry could benefit, especially in the current climate of increased oil prices,” said Prof Andrè Roodt, head of the X-ray diffraction unit at the UFS Department of Chemistry.

The installation of the Bruker Kappa APEX II single crystal diffractometer is part of an innovative programme of the UFS management to continue its competitive research and extend it further internationally.

“The diffractometer is the first milestone of the research funding programme for the Department of Chemistry and we are proud to be the first university in Africa to boast with such advanced apparatus.  We are not standing back for any other university in the world and have already received requests for research agreements from universities such as the University of Cape Town,” said Prof Herman van Schalkwyk, Dean:  Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the UFS.

The diffractometer is capable of accurately analysing molecules in crystalline form within a few hours and obtain the precise geometry – that on a sample only the size of a grain of sugar.   It simultaneously gives the exact distance between two atoms, accurate to less than fractions of a billionth of a millimetre.

“It allows us to investigate certain processes in Bloemfontein which has been impossible in the past. We now have a technique locally by which different steps in key chemical reactions can be evaluated much more reliable, even at temperatures as low as minus 170 degrees centigrade,” said Prof Roodt.

A few years ago these analyses would have taken days or even weeks. The Department of Chemistry now has the capability to investigate chemical compounds in Bloemfontein which previously had to be shipped to other, less sophisticate sites in the RSA or overseas (for example Sweden, Russia and Canada) at significant extra costs.

Media release
Issued by:Lacea Loader
Media Representative
Tel:   (051) 401-2584
Cell:  083 645 2454
E-mail:  loaderl.stg@mail.uovs.ac.za
19 October 2005   

 

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