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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

Science and goodwill meet drought-stricken communities
2016-03-02

Description: Disinfecting tankered water  Tags: Disinfecting water

“Everyone should contribute to the delivery of clean water to every individual,” says UFS researcher.

The drought in South Africa has impacted the country in many ways. Apart from its economic and environmental implications, the drought also has social implications, leaving some communities without water.

Since 21 January 2016, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) is working together with the Department of Microbial, Biochemical, and Food Biotechnology at the University of the Free State. Dr Mariana Erasmus, post-doctoral fellow in the department, was appointed to lead a project for disinfecting tankered water supplied by the DWS to communities without water in the Qwaqwa area - which falls under the Maluti-a-Phufung Local Municipality.

She is working on the project with Robbie Erasmus from BioSense Solutions and Martin Bambo from DWS. A total of 53 trucks, 91 tanks, and 420 500 litres of water was disinfected so far, using sodium hypochlorite. “This is standard practice around the world,” Dr Erasmus said.

The work done by the UFS and DWS, who is monitoring the water quality as well as the process of water delivery, is very important. Disinfecting the trucks used to deliver water to drought-stricken communities decreases the formation of biofilm inside the tanks. “The biofilm could contain harmful bacteria such as E-coli. It is important to note that this is mostly the result of secondary pollution, since the water quality from the source where it was taken from, proved to be good. Drinking water with this harmful bacteria that has not been properly managed, can lead to health issues in humans when consumed,” Dr Erasmus said.

The Department of Microbial, Biochemical, and Food Biotechnology, interacting with the DWS on several water-related issues, volunteered to get involved in the project. They strongly believe that everyone should contribute to the delivery of clean water to every individual.

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