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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

Researcher in Plant Breeding one of nine women on the African continent to receive acknowledgement for work in food security
2015-08-04

 
 Prof Maryke Labuschagne

Prof Maryke Labuschagne, Plant Breeding researcher in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of the Free State (UFS), is one of only nine women on the African continent to receive the prestigious ‘Country Lifetime Achiever Award’ from Africa’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government Programme (MIW) this year.

During a breakfast event, CEO Communications recognised the Most Influential Women in SADC South who are Building Nations. The event took place at the Vodacom Dome in Midrand on 28 July 2015.

She received the award for her commitment and continuous contributions to food security. “I am concerned about this. We need to develop people who can go into Africa to work together for food security on the continent,” says Prof Labuschagne.

Prof Labuschagne
and her students’ research focuses on the genetic improvement of food security crops in Africa, including such staples as maize and cassava. “These crops are genetically improved for yield, drought tolerance, disease, and insect resistance, as well nutritional value.”

“Food security is one of the key factors for stability and prosperity on the continent,” she says.

Apart from the fact that her research is helping to provide food for thousands of people on the continent, she is also an NRF-rated researcher, and author or co-author of over 160 articles in accredited journals.

This is not the firstaward that Prof Labuschagne has received for her work. In 2008, she was chosen as the National Agriculturalist of the Year by the Agricultural Writers Association of South Africa. In 2012, she received the Researcher of the Year award from Grain South Africa, as well as the African Union’s Kwame Nkrumah Science Award for Life Sciences on the continent. 

The Country Lifetime Achiever Award is a prestigious award that recognises and honours the lifelong efforts, achievements, and contributions by individuals in their local communities. This recognition covers all sectors and countries, to create a platform where the work and involvement of extraordinary people can be displayed and noted.

About the award, Prof Labuschagne says: “It is always great to be recognised for your work.”

Elana Meyer (athlete) and Thuli Madonsela (Public Protector and advocate) have also received awards from the programme this year.

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