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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

Plant scientists address wheat rust diseases at SASPP congress
2015-02-02

Pictured from the left are: Prof Zakkie Pretorius, Dr Botma Visser and Howard Castelyn.
Photo: Supplied

In his research, Dr Botma Visser, researcher in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of the Free State, highlighted the population dynamics of the stem rust fungus (Puccinia graminis f. sp. tritici) in Southern Africa. In recent years, two foreign stem rust races were introduced to South Africa, and a local virulence adaptation occurred in a third.

All of these races form part of the Ug99 group, a highly virulent collection of rust races endangering wheat production in many parts of the world. Despite the fact that half of the members of the Ug99 race group is prevalent in South Africa, Dr Visser’s work has clearly shown that Ug99 did not have its origin here. This emphasised the need to include neighbouring countries in the annual stem rust surveys, to proactively identify new races that could threaten local wheat production. In his research, Dr Visser also mentioned the way in which he has optimised modern molecular tools to accurately detect Ug99 isolates.

Dr Visser is one of three scientists from the Department of Plant Sciences that addressed delegates attending the biennial congress of the Southern African Society for Plant Pathology (SASPP) on the Bloemfontein Campus earlier this month on progress regarding research on wheat rust diseases conducted at the UFS.

Howard Castelyn, a PhD student in Plant Sciences, presented his research on quantifying fungal growth of the stem rust pathogen in wheat varieties displaying genetic resistance. This resistance, which is best expressed in adult plants, has the potential to remain durable in the presence of new rust variants. His presentation at the congress focused on optimising microscopic and molecular techniques to track fungal development in stem tissues of adult plants. These results now allow scientists to link rust infection levels and cellular responses with particular resistance genes expressed by the wheat plant, and contributing to the understanding and exploitation of durable resistance.

Prof Zakkie Pretorius presented his research, explaining how new genetic diversity for resistance to the stripe (yellow) rust fungus (Puccinia striiformis) is discovered, analysed and applied in South Africa. This research, conducted in collaboration with Dr Renée Prins and her team at CenGen, is unravelling the genetic basis of stripe rust resistance in a promising wheat line identified by Dr Willem Boshoff, a plant breeder at Pannar. The line and DNA markers to track the resistance genes will soon be introduced to South African wheat breeding programmes.

The rust research programme at the UFS contributes significantly to the successful control of these important crop diseases.

In addition to the contributions by the UFS, rust fungi featured prominently at the SASPP, with first reports of new diseases on sugar cane and Acacia and Eucalyptus trees in South Africa. A case study of the use of a rust fungus as a biological control agent for invasive plant species in the Western Cape, was also presented.

 

For more information or enquiries contact news@ufs.ac.za .

 

 

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