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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

Plant eco-physiologist finds effective solutions for crop optimisation
2016-07-24

Description: Orange trees Tags: Orange trees

The bio-stimulant was tested on
this citrus. This is the first time
that the product has been tested
on a crop.

In a time characterised by society facing increasing population growth, food crises, and extreme climatic conditions such as drought, it is essential for farmers to integrate science with their work practices in order to optimise crops.

Role of photosynthesis and plant sap data

By knowing how to use photosynthesis and plant sap data for determining plant health, fast and effective solutions could be established for the optimisation of crops. This technique, which could help farmers utilise every bit of usable land effectively, is the focus of Marguerite Westcott’s PhD study. She is a junior lecturer and plant eco-physiologist in die Department of Plant Sciences at the University of the Free State.

Westcott uses this technique in her studies to prove that a newly-developed bio-stimulant stimulates plants in order to metabolise water and other nutrients better, yielding increased crops as a result.

Agricultural and mining sectors benefit from research

The greatest part of these projects focuses on the agricultural sector. Westcott and a colleague, Dr Gert Marais, are researching the physiology of pecan and citrus trees in order to optimise the growth of these crops, thus minimising disease through biological methods. Field trials are being conducted in actively-producing orchards in the Hartswater and Patensie areas in conjunction with the South African Pecan Nut Producers Association (SAPPA) amongst others.
 
The principles that Westcott applies in her research are also used in combination with the bio-stimulant in other studies on disturbed soil, such as mine-dump material, for establishing plants in areas where they would not grow normally. This is an economical way for both the agricultural and mining sectors to improve nutrient absorption, stimulate growth, and contribute to the sustainable utilisation of the soil.

Description: Pecan nut orchards  Tags: Pecan nut orchards

The bio-stimulant contributes to the immunity of the plants.
It was tested in these pecan nut orchards (Hartswater).

Soil rehabilitation key aspect in research projects

“One of two things is happening in my research projects. Either the soil is rehabilitated to bring about the optimal growth of a plant, or the plants are used to rehabilitate the soil,” says Westcott.

Data surveys for her PhD studies began in 2015. “This will be a long-term project in which seasonal data will be collected continuously. The first set of complete field data, together with pot trial data, will be completed after the current crop harvest,” says Westcott.

 

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