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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

Multi-disciplinary research approach at UFS
2005-10-25

UFS follows multi-disciplinary research approach with opening of new centre 

“A new way of doing business in necessary in the research and teaching of agriculture and natural sciences in South Africa.  We must move away from  departmentalised research infrastructures and a multi-disciplinary approach to research involving several disciplines must be adapted,” said Prof Herman van Schalkwyk, Dean:  Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS).   

Prof van Schalkwyk delivered the keynote address during the launch of the Centre for Plant Health Management (CePHMa) at the Main Campus in Bloemfontein today (21 October 2005).  CePHMa is an initiative of the UFS Department of Plant Sciences.

According to Prof van Schalkwyk a tertiary institution must practice multi-disciplinary research to be a world-class research institution.  “It is difficult for researchers to admit that they do not know a lot about each other’s area of speciality.  It is therefore necessary for researchers to make a paradigm shift and to focus on inter-disciplinary co-operation.  To do this, we must encourage them to work together and to find a common language to communicate ideas en establish symbiotic relationships,” said Prof Van Schalkwyk.

“We tend to think that research is better and faster if it is specialised.  This is not true.  The new generation of scientists are young and they are trained to form a concept of the total system and not to focus on a specific area of speciality.  At the UFS we encourage this approach to research.  This was one of the main reasons for the establishment of CePHMa,” said Prof Van Schalkwyk.
CePHMa is the only centre of its kind in Africa and is established to extend the expertise in plant health management in South Africa and in Africa, to train experts in plant health and to conduct multi-disciplinary research about the health of agricultural crops.  

“CePHMa is a virtual centre comprising of ten disciplines applicable to crop production and crop protection,” said Prof Wijnand Swart, Chairperson of CePHMa during the opening ceremony.

“The UFS is the leading institution in Africa in terms of news crop development and manages three research programmes that concentrate on new crops, i.e. the New Crop Pathology Programme, the New Crop Development Programme and the Insects on New Crops Programme.  Other applied research programmes that are unique to the UFS are genetic resistance to rust diseases of small grain crops and sustainable integrated disease management of field crops,” said Prof Swart.

“Because the expected growth in population will be 80% in 2020 in sub-Saharan Africa, the future demands of food produce in Africa will be influenced.  Therefore research will in future be focused on ways to improve food security by employing  agricultural systems that are economically viable and environmentally sound,” said Prof Swart.

“Thorough knowledge of the concept of holistic plant health management is crucial to meet the challenge and it is therefore imperative that innovative crop protection and crop production strategies, with particular emphasis on plant health, be adopted.  This is why the Department of Plant Sciences initiated the establishment of CePHMA,” he said.

According to Prof Swart there is a shortage of expertise in plant health management.  “The UFS has shown the potential to address the demand of the sub-continent of Africa regarding expertise training and CePHMa is the leader in southern Africa to provide in this need,” he said.

The appropriateness and quality of training in plant health management is reflected in the fact that students from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania, Cameroon, Angola, Mozambique and Lesotho have already been trained or are in the process of being trained in at the UFS.

Scientists from CePHMa have forged partnerships with numerous national and international institutions including the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), various community trusts, seed, pesticide and agricultural chemical companies, in addition to overseas universities. 

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

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