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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

Mellon Foundation awards R10 million research grant to Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Studies
2015-02-20

Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Senior Research Professor in Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Studies, and Dr Saleem Badat, Programme Director at the Mellon Foundation.
Photo: Johan Roux

Through her profound insight, vast experience, and unfaltering belief in humanity, Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, has secured a R10 million grant from one of the world’s most prestigious foundations funding human sciences research.

“This is one of the biggest grants that the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded to a university”, said Dr Saleem Badat, Program Director: International Higher Education and Strategic Projects at the Mellon Foundation. Prof Badat attended the press event that took place on 16 February 2015 on our Bloemfontein Campus.

UFS Trauma, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation Studies, spearheaded by Prof Gobodo-Madikizela, will manage the research project.

Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS, expressed great excitement “about this particular grant and the subject on which it focuses is so incredibly timely and germane to our own situation.”

Trauma, Memory and Representations of the Past: Transforming Scholarship in the Humanities and Arts

This new-found partnership between the Mellon Foundation and the UFS will enable a five-year research programme. The focus area of this initiative will be ‘Trauma, Memory and Representations of the Past: Transforming Scholarship in the Humanities and Arts’.

The research will pivot specifically around the question of how trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next. “South Africa lends itself to these questions,” Prof Gobodo-Madikizela said, “because we are now dealing with a generation of young people who were born after the traumas of the past.” These past experiences, though, are “passed on to the younger generation and become their own stories and narratives as if they themselves experienced the traumas directly.”

“This is an investment in how we can in fact create a different kind of community,” Prof Jansen said, “in which we eventually recognise each other – not by the accident of our skin, but by that elusive sense of a common humanity.”

Arts and theatre

Other aspects critical to this study are the inclusion of the arts and theatre. Many people have great difficulty in expressing their experiences of trauma in the spoken word. The arts and theatre provide an ideal platform to engage the public and stimulate conversation. As an example of the power these platforms possess, Prof Gobodo-Madikizela highlighted the success of the Johannes Stegmann Art Gallery – situated on the Bloemfontein Campus and curated by Angela de Jesus – in engaging the public in very productive ways.

Participants

Some of the artists, directors and scholars who will join in this project include:

• Lara Foot-Newton, Director/Playwright
• Sue Williamson, Activist Artist
• Angela de Jesus, Visual Artist/Curator
• Dr Buhle Zuma, Social Psychology Research
• Dr Shose Khessi, Social Psychology Research
• Prof Tamara Shefer, Women’s and Gender Studies
• Prof Kopano Ratele, Gender/Men and Masculinities
• Prof Jan Coetzee, Sociology of Developing Societies
• Prof Helene Strauss, Literary and Cultural Studies

New intellectual frontiers

“There is an aspiration in this proposal,” Dr Saleem Badat said. “We were born through this pain of colonialism and apartheid; we even went through the TRC. Our scholars in this country, our universities, should be at the forefront of this research. This is not research we can leave to the institutions in the north.”

Prof Gobodo-Madikizela agreed. “The overarching theme of this work is new knowledge production, focusing on the experiences in South Africa as experiences that can teach us something new.”

This will serve not only South Africa, but can also establish support for, and inform, countries facing similar dilemmas. In fact, “any part of the world in which genocide and murder and racism remains as legacies from the past,” Dr Badat said.

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