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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

UFS International Studies Group makes history come alive globally
2015-07-15

The UFS International Studies Group comprises students who are top achievers drawn from South Africa, Southern and Central Africa and even further afield.
Photo: Charl Devenish

Headed by Prof Ian Phimister, the UFS International Studies Group comprises six master’s, twelve PhD and twelve postdoctoral fellows who concentrate their research endeavours on African, Imperial and Global History. All of these students are top achievers drawn from South Africa, Southern and Central Africa and even further afield. This group, now only in its third year, presents a phenomenal research output with an international reach.

In the course of the past year alone, five PhD students secured fully-funded invitations to conferences and research seminars in South Africa, Britain, as well as the Netherlands. Our researchers have been publishing articles globally and securing visiting fellowships and research awards.

Dr Clement Masakure and Dr Rosa Williams won funding to present papers at the International Network for the History of Hospitals. Tinashe Nyamunda won a prestigious three-month Cadbury Fellowship at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. Anusa Daimon has been selected as a 2015 Harry Guggenheim award winner, which covers workshop attendance in Nairobi, Kenya.

From among the group, twelve articles have been published or accepted for publication in refereed scholarly journals, as well as four chapters in edited books. Book reviews written by these highly-motivated graduate students, have appeared or will appear in leading national and international academic journals. Remarkably, seven book reviews appearing in one particular issue of African Studies Review, were written by this group. Four scholarly monographs have recently been published, or soon will be. One PhD student is the joint editor (with a senior Canadian academic) of a forthcoming study on Zimbabwe’s controversial Marange diamond mining industry.

Another outstanding researcher, Dr Lindie Koorts, won the award for the best debut writer at the 2014 Woordfees for her book ‘DF Malan and the Rise of Afrikaner Nationalism’ – the first non-fiction writer to achieve this. Her book now appears on the longlist for the 2015 Alan Paton Award.

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