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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

Prof Johan Spies learns about much more than genetics in Argentina
2014-04-23


People who attended the course enjoyed Argentina and its traditions very much.

Prof Johan Spies from the Department of Genetics visited Argentina, where he and Dr Carlos Acuna (Universidad Nacional del Nordeste, Corrientes, Argentina) presented a course for doctoral students and staff of Cerzos-Conicet Bahia Blanca (something like the equivalent of South Africa’s NRF) and Universidad Nacional del Sur, Bahia Blanca. Prof Spies presented chromosomal evolution and its effect on fertility, while Dr Acuna took care of apomixis.

Bahia Blanca is a city with a population of almost the same as that of Bloemfontein. The city lies at the mouth of the Naposta River, which almost forms a delta where it flows into the sea. Bahia Blanca (white bay) derives its name from the salt deposits that lends a white colour to the beaches.

The people are very friendly and one soon learns to extend a long arm in greeting. Otherwise you are stuck with an ‘Ola’ while men and women alike will grab even a complete stranger to plant a kiss on your cheek. For people who places great value on personal space, this friendly gesture is not always as welcome!

Barbeque is a choice dish and is usually in the form of beef rib. “It was great (especially if you shut your eyes and ignore the scrumptious fat and future heart attacks)! With the rib they usually had blood sausage and very tasty pork sausage on the grid. Everywhere people are sipping, through a silver straw, their ‘mate’ (pronounce maty), a type of tea made from the leaves and stems of Yerba paraguariensis. It is generally drunk from a special calabash ‘cup’ through a silver straw, which also serves as sift to keep the leaves from your mouth. The calabash is usually passed from one person to another, with each person taking a sip from the brew!  It is even passed around in class!  Another thing in conflict with the upbringing I received from my mother (as is the cup at communion)!,” says Prof Spies.

“My short visit also taught me that the Argentinians are a proud nation that often faced adversity in the past. Nevertheless, they do not try to change their past. Street names even refer to dates from their past when, for example, they were attacked by England (in 1807). Only the almost 30 000 people who disappeared under the military regime, are rarely talked about!,” says Prof Spies.

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