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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

Monkey research attracts international attention
2016-07-11

Description: Monkey research attracts international attention  Tags: Monkey research attracts international attention

Prof Trudy Turner from the University of
Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Prof Paul Grobler
from the Department of Genetics at the
University of the Free State, together with one
of the students researching monkey genes.
Photo: Siobhan Canavan

For this year’s Summer School programme, Prof Paul Grobler, from the University of the Free State Department of Genetics focuses on research about the conflict between monkeys and humans in areas where monkeys are regarded as problem animals.

Global expert part of research

This year, Prof Grobler is hosting a group of students and lecturers from the United States of America (USA). The group includes Prof Trudy Turner from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), a global expert on vervet monkeys. She has been working with the Department of Genetics at the UFS for the past fifteen years, and has also been appointed as an Affiliated Professor in the department.

“The Summer School programme is an opportunity for the American Primatology students to gain practical experience in Africa,” says Prof Grobler.

International interest in Summer School

This year’s Summer School programme involves four lecturers and nine students. The lecturers are from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Boston University, and Central Washington University.

“We use the genetic information to determine
how monkeys historically infiltrated the
different areas in South Africa.”

This year’s focus is on the genetic structure of the monkeys in South Africa, and research that is being done on the differences and similarities in monkeys from different areas. “We use the genetic information to determine how monkeys historically infiltrated the different areas in South Africa,” says Prof Grobler.

Local nature reserve acting as host

The group will perform field work, including observing monkeys in the Soetdoring Nature Reserve, as well as laboratory work in the department, where they will be assisted by two laboratory technicians.

Two years ago, Prof Grobler and his department tested this idea on a smaller scale, and now they hope to make this a regular event. 

 

 

 

 

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