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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

HIV Cure – Just another fantasy?
2016-07-27

Description: HIV Cure – Just another fantasy? Tags: HIV Cure – Just another fantasy?

Dr Dominique Goedhals, Prof John Frater,
Dr Thabiso Mofokeng and Dr Jacob Jansen van Vuuren,
attended the lecture. Prof Frater has been working in
collaboration with the UFS Department of Internal
Medicine on HIV resistance and HIV immunology
since 2007.

Photo: Nonsindiso Qwabe

Twenty-years ago, after a person had been diagnosed with HIV, their lifespan did not exceed three years, but thanks to the success of antiretroviral therapy programmes, life expectancy has risen by an average of ten years. However, is antiretroviral therapy always going to be for life? This is the societal issue that Professor John Frater, addressed in his talk at the University of the Free State. He is an MRC Senior Clinical Fellow, Associate Professor and Honorary Consultant Physician in Infectious Diseases at  Oxford University.

Antiretroviral medicine therapeutic

The discovery of antiretroviral therapy - the use of HIV medicines to treat the virus - has had a positive effect on the health and well-being of people living with it, improving their quality of life. Unfortunately, if treatment is stopped, HIV rebounds to the detriment of the patient. Now, research has shown that some patients, who are treated soon after being infected by HIV, may go off treatment for prolonged periods. Work is being done to predict who will be able to stop treatment.

“The difference made by starting treatment earlier is enormous. Delaying treatment is denying yourself the right to health,” Professor Frater says. However, this does not mean that the virus is cured. “A person can live for ten years without being on HIV treatment, but is that enough?” he went on to ask.

Healthy lifestyles encouraged

The National Department of Health will adopt a test and treat immediately strategy later this year to improve patient health and curb the spread of HIV. ,This is another reason why everybody should know their status and start treatment as soon as possible.

Search for a cure continues

More research is being conducted to establish whether HIV can be eradicated. Remission gives hope that a permanent cure may be found eventually. “Will a cure for HIV ever be found? Time will tell,” he concluded.

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