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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 extends footprint abroad
2015-12-14

In its constant pursuit of research excellence, the UFS has this year performed well in mainly two areas.

Apart from the research done by the UFS on national level, e.g. the involvement of its researchers with the SKA telescope, the pioneering work they do with the satellite tracking of giraffes, as well as research on trauma, forgiveness and reconciliation – to name but a few of the research areas, the university also has a research focus abroad.

Japan, Europe, America and Botswana. These are just some of the places where academics from the university are involved in research abroad.

Japan

Dr Dirk Opperman, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Microbial, Biochemical and Food Biotechnology, and Carmien Tolmie, a PhD student in the same department, visited the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Onna, Japan, during November and December 2014. During the visit, experiments were performed in the Microbiology and Biochemistry of Secondary Metabolite Unit of Dr Holger Jenke-Kodama.

This formed part of a larger NRF-funded project on carcinogenic toxins produced in certain Aspergillus fungi. These fungi infect food and feedstuff and are a big concern in developing countries because it may lead to severe economic losses. The research ultimately aims to find inhibitors to block the production of these fungal toxins.



Europe and America

In 2012, an international network was established in the frame of the FP7-PEOPLE-2011-IRSES programme, called hERG-related risk assessment of botanicals (hERGscreen). The South African group included Dr Susan Bonnet and Dr Anke Wilhelm, both from the UFS Department of Chemistry.

Extracts from more than 450 South African plant species have been investigated systematically to assess the potential cardiotoxic risk of commonly consumed botanicals and supplements. The idea of the project, funded by the European Commission, is to identify safety liabilities of botanicals.

Other international partners included the University of Innsbruck, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Biomedical Research Foundation of the Academy of Athens, University of Basel, University of Vienna, University of Florida, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina.

Botswana


A memorandum of understanding was signed between the UFS and Botho University in Botswana in September 2015, which will be valid for three years.

The agreement, includes student and staff exchange programmes, collaborative research, teaching and learning and community engagement activities, sharing of results, and PhD/ MPhil guidance.

Young researchers

Another research focus of the UFS is the development of its young researchers. In 2015, the UFS has delivered 13 Y-rated researchers. Ten of the researchers are from the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and three from the Faculty of the Humanities. Three of them received an Y1 rating from the NRF.

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