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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

Consumer Science at the UFS awards three PhDs
2015-07-08

Dr Gloria Seiphetlheng, Dr Natasha Cronje, Dr Ismari van der Merwe and Prof Hester Steyn.
Photo: Leonie Bolleurs

For the first time in its history, the Department of Consumer Science in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS) earned three doctorates at one graduation ceremony this year. This week three PhDs were awarded to Ismari van der Merwe, Natasha Cronje, and Gloria Seiphetlheng at the Winter Graduation that took place on the Bloemfontein Campus.

Electrochemically-activated water is widely used in the food and other industries, due to its excellent environment-friendly properties. However, it is not used in the textile industry yet, because too little research has been done to determine the possible positive and negative impact it may have on textiles.

With the thesis, The evaluation of catholyte treatment on the colour and tensile properties of dyed cotton, polyester and polyamide 6,6 fabrics,  Dr Cronje, a lecturer in the UFS’s Department of Consumer Science, and Dr Seiphetlheng from the Serowe College of Education in Botswana,  provided major new information with the thesis, Anolyte as an alternative bleach for cotton fabrics. This information is essential when considering the application of catholytes and anolytes in the textile industry.

Electrochemically-activated water divides water in catholytes and anolytes. The anolyte part is used as a disinfectant and bleach. It is not really suitable for domestic use, as it can cause colour loss in coloured textile products. However, it can be used in the hospitality industry where white sheets, towels, etc., are used and washed on a regular basis.

The catholyte part of the water has properties similar to washing powder. It can also be used in the textile industry as washing liquid.

According to Prof Hester Steyn, Head of the Department of Consumer Science and supervisor of all three PhD candidates, this electrochemically-activated water is also very eco-friendly. “It has a short shelf life. If the electrochemically-activated water isn’t utilised, it returns to normal water that wouldn’t harm the environment. No water is therefore lost, and no waste products are released that would contaminate the environment,” she says.

Dr Van der Merwe’s research focused on Degumming Gonometa postica cocoons using environmentally conscious methods. A lecturer in the Department of Consumer Science, she demonstrated that simple and environmentally-friendly methods can be used with great success to procure wild silk from the cocoons of the Gonometa postica worms living in the camel thorn trees found in the Northern Cape and Namibia.

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