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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

Researchers international leaders in satellite tracking in the wildlife environment
2015-05-29

 

Ground-breaking research has attracted international media attention to Francois Deacon, lecturer and researcher in the Department Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences at the UFS, and Prof Nico Smit, from the same department. They are the first researchers in the world to equip giraffes with GPS collars, and to conduct research on this initiative. Recently, they have been joined by Hennie Butler from the Department of Zoology as well as Free State Nature Conservation to further this research.

“Satellite tracking is proving to be extremely valuable in the wildlife environment. The unit is based on a mobile global two-way communication platform, utilising two-way data satellite communication, complete with GPS systems.

“It allows us to track animals day and night, while we monitor their movements remotely from the computer. These systems make possible the efficient control and monitoring of wildlife in all weather conditions and in near-to-real time. We can even communicate with the animals, calling up their positions or changing the tracking schedules.

“The satellite collar allows us to use the extremely accurate data to conduct research with the best technology available. The volume of data received allows us to publish the data in scientific journals and research-related articles.  

“Scientific institutions and the public sector have both shown great interest in satellite tracking, which opens up new ground for scientific research for this university. Data management can be done, using Africa Wildlife Tracking (AWT) equipment where we can access our data personally, store it, and make visual presentations. The AWT system and software architecture provide the researcher with asset tracking, GPS location reports, geo-fencing, highly-detailed custom mapping, history reports and playback, polling on demand, history plotting on maps, and a range of reporting types and functions,” Francois said.

Data can be analysed to determine home range, dispersal, or habitat preference for any specific species.

Francois has been involved in multiple research projects over the last 12 years on wildlife species and domesticated animals, including the collaring of species such as Black-backed Jackal, Caracal, African Wild Dog, Hyena, Lion, Cheetah, Cattle, Kudu, Giraffe, and Black Rhino: “Giraffe definitely being the most challenging of all,” he said.

In 2010, he started working on his PhD, entitled The spatial ecology, habitat preferences and diet selection of giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa) in the Kalahari region of South Africa.

 

Since then, his work has resulted not only in more research work (supervising four Masters students) but also in a number of national and international projects. These include work in the:

  • Kalahari region (e.g. Khamab Nature Reserve and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park)
  • Kuruman region (Collared 18 cattle to identify spatial patterns in relation to the qualities of vegetation and soil-types available. This project took place in collaboration with Born University in Germany)
  • Woodland Hills Wildlife Estate and Kolomella Iron Ore – ecological monitoring
  • A number of Free State nature reserves (e.g. Distribution of herbivores (kudu and giraffe) and predators (camera traps)

Francois is also involved with species breeding programmes and management (giraffe, buffalo, sable, roan, and rhino) in Korrannaberg, Rustenburg, Hertzogville, Douglas, and Bethlehem as well as animal and ecological monitoring in Kolomella and Beesthoek iron ore.

Besides the collaring of giraffes, Francois and his colleagues are involved in national projects, where they collect milk from lactating giraffes and DNA material, blood samples, and ecto/endo parasites from giraffes in Southern Africa.

With international projects, Francois is working to collect DNA material for the classification of the nine sub-species of giraffe in Africa. He is also involved in projects focusing on the spatial ecology and adaptation of giraffe in Uganda (Murchison Falls), and to save the last 30 giraffe in the DRC- Garamba National Park.

This project has attracted a good deal of international interest. In June 2014, a US film crew (freelancing for Discovery Channel) filmed a documentary on Francois’ research (trailer of documentary). Early in 2015, a second crew, filming for National Geographic, also visited Francois to document his work.

 

More information about Francois’ work is available at the GCF website

Read Francois Deacon's PhD abstract

Direct enquiries to news@ufs.ac.za.

 

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