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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

Suspension of the South African Doping Control Laboratory (SADoCoL) by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)
2016-05-04

The senior leadership of the UFS and the management of the South African Doping Control Laboratory (SADoCoL) take note of the decision by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to suspend the laboratory’s accreditation to perform doping control analysis on biological samples of athletes and sportsmen and -women until 30 September 2016. During this time of suspension, all sport-related samples will be sent for analysis to the WADA accredited laboratory in Qatar until the accreditation of SADoCoL is re-established. Analysis according to WADA accreditation will therefore not be interrupted during the period of the suspension of the accreditation of SADoCoL.

The announcement by WADA on 3 May 2016 follows a voluntary decision by SADoCoL in March 2016 to temporarily close the laboratory for some of its routine analytical duties for six months, as from 1 April 2016. The decision was taken in consultation with the senior leadership of the UFS and other role players, especially the Department of Sport and Recreation of South Africa (SRSA) and the South African Institute for Drug-Free Sport (SAIDS). SADoCoL is a specialised service laboratory of the University of the Free State (UFS) and has been in existence for more than thirty years.

Due to the ever-increasing demands on the number, variety and analytical sensitivity of compounds to be analysed according to the Prohibited List of WADA, technical and infrastructure adaptations need to be implemented in the laboratory continuously to keep up with the demands. Over the last year, SADoCoL has drastically increased its capacity in both personnel and infrastructure, to a point where these changes can be implemented for optimal performance of the laboratory.  This has to be done while normal routine analysis continues, and it became clear that at present, implementation cannot be successfully accomplished together with the workload from normal routine analyses.

The time of suspension will be utilised to implement and test these new systems in order to achieve the standard presently required by WADA, as well as to perform development and improvements.  This development will be performed in close collaboration with other role players in the anti-doping movement in South Africa, such as SAIDS and SRSA. Scientific development aid will also be acquired from other doping control laboratories worldwide in order to assure that the high analytical quality is maintained and expanded to meet the fast growing challenges in this field. The progress of the process will be closely monitored, and the upgraded methodologies will then, after rigorous testing, be implemented to ensure that the required analytical quality is maintained so as to obtain re-accreditation by WADA at the conclusion of the suspension period.

Issued by: Lacea Loader (Director: Communication and Brand Management)
Telephone: +27(0)51 401 2584 or +27 (0) 83 645 2454
E-mail: news@ufs.ac.za
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