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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

“My time at the UFS was the golden gem of my career”
2016-07-04

Description: Zig Gibson Tags: Zig Gibson

Prof Alan St Clair Gibson
Photo: Oteng Mpete

“My time at the University of the Free State (UFS) was the golden gem of my career. I have worked at medical schools or biomedical research centres in the United Kingdom, United States and at some of the top medical schools in South Africa, but working at the UFS was one of the highlights of my career,” says Prof Alan St Clair Gibson, Head of the UFS School of Medicine.

After spending just over two years at the UFS, Prof St Clair Gibson resigned from the institution in June 2016 and will take up the position of Dean: Health and Human Performance Sciences at the Waikato University in New Zealand in mid-July, where he will assist to establish a new faculty for all the health-science disciplines. “It was a privilege to work at the UFS. I come from a strong research background and wanted to grow research at the university, which I achieved. I came to the UFS because of the Academic and Human Projects and am proud of what has been achieved at the School of Medicine during the time I was here,” he said.

Prof St Clair Gibson highlighted some of these achievements, including the development of a management infrastructure across the disciplines of the school. “The establishment of an executive management committee for the school, as well as research champions in departments, highlighted the importance of proper governance and strategic management. By developing data dashboards, my management team and I could develop an understanding of research income and productivity, how the school works, what the role of teaching and learning is, and how the school could benefit in terms of third-stream income from the many contracts obtained by its academic staff. As a result, contracts and the financial management model of the school have also been reconfigured to the benefit of the university so that the institution and school can benefit from it,” he said.

His strong belief in an open-door policy has made staff feel part of the environment and it has created an atmosphere of equality and inclusivity. He believes in staff development and has, for instance, established leadership and management courses for heads of departments. Another factor to be proud of is the increase in the number of young researchers who recently joined the school, such as Prof Ross Tucker, who is one of the foremost sport scientists in the country. “It is a fact that staff retire or resign in all schools and departments of any university. It is also true that these departures offer opportunities to bring new academic and professional staff into the UFS. In fact, for the first time virtually every department in the School of Medicine now has a full-time Head of Department and 46 new staff were appointed since January 2015,” said Prof St Clair Gibson.

“I am especially proud of contributing, together with the senior leadership of the UFS, to stabilise the relationship with the Free State Department of Health (DoH). With the assistance of these parties, as well as my executive management team, we could find a better way of working together to the benefit of the school and the province.’’

Transforming the student profile to be representative of the country’s demographics is another milestone Prof St Clair Gibson will remember. “The intake of black and white students is of such a nature that we now have a much more balanced ratio of black and white undergraduate students than before.”

“I wanted to stay longer to see the effect of all the changes I made at the school, but the deanship is an offer I cannot refuse. I would have liked to see a steadier increase in the number of permanent clinical staff and have worked hard with both the UFS management and the DoH to try and achieve that; but more work needs to be done.”

I have worked with a number of fantastic staff members at the school, who are determined to do good in a challenging environment. I am amazed at the energy of the university leadership and how the Human and Academic Projects are executed. My wish for the university is to maintain and grow its standards and for the School of Medicine to maintain its reputation as one of the best schools in the country. I will always be a proud alumnus of the UFS,” he said.

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