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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-strengthening agent enhances natural ability of plants to survive
2015-07-27

Drought, diseases, and fungi. These are factors that farmers have no control over, and they often have to watch despondently as their crops are damaged. In addition, the practice of breeding plants in special and strictly-controlled conditions, has resulted in crops losing the chemical ability to protect themselves in nature.

Researchers in the Department of Soil, Crop, and Climate Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS) have developed an organic agent that restores this chemical imbalance in plants. It enables the plant to build its own resistance against mild stress factors, and thus ensures increased growth and yield by the plant.

ComCat®, a plant-strengthening agent, is the result of extensive research by the German company, Agraforum AG, together with the UFS. Commercialisation was initially limited to Europe, while research was done at the UFS.

“Plants have become weak because they were grown specially and in isolation. They can’t protect themselves any longer,” says Dr Elmarie van der Watt from the department.

Dr Van der Watt says that, in nature, plants communicate by means of natural chemicals as part of their resistance mechanisms towards various stress conditions. These chemicals enable them to protect themselves against stress conditions, such as diseases and fungi (biotic conditions) or wind and droughts (abiotic conditions).

Most wild plant varieties are usually well-adapted to resist these stress factors. However, monoculture crops have lost this ability to a large extent.

The European researchers extracted these self-protection chemicals from wild plants, and made them available to the UFS for research and development.

“This important survival mechanism became dormant in monoculture crops. ComCat® wakes the plant up and says ‘Hey, you should start protecting yourself’.”

Research over the last few years has shown that the agent, applied mostly as a foliar spray, subsequently leads to better seedlings, as well as to growth, and yields enhancement of various crops. This is good news for the agricultural sector as it does not induce unwanted early vegetative growth that could jeopardise the final yield ? as happened in the past for nitrogen application at an early growth stage.

“The use of synthetic agents, such as fungicides which contain copper, are now banned. Nowadays, options for natural and organic agriculture is being investigated. This product is already widely used in Europe, but because farmers are often swamped by quacks, the South African market is still somewhat sceptical.”

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