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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

Newly operational sequencing unit in genomics at UFS
2016-09-09

Description: Next Generation Sequencing  Tags: Next Generation Sequencing

Dr Martin Nyaga and his research assistant,
Tshidiso Mogotsi in the Next Generation
Sequencing Laboratory.
Photo: Charl Devenish

The Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) unit at the UFS was established as an interdisciplinary facility under the Directorate for Research Development, Faculty of Health Sciences and Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.

The aim of the NGS facility is to aid internal and external investigators undertaking studies on Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) sequencing, assembly and bioinformatics approaches using the more advanced Illumina MiSeq NGS platform.

The NGS unit became operational in 2016 and is managed by Dr Martin Nyaga and administered through the office of the Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences, under the leadership of Prof Gert Van Zyl. Dr Nyaga has vast experience in microbial genomics, having done his PhD in Molecular Virology.

He has worked and collaborated with globally recognised centres of excellence in Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic genomics, namely the J. Craig Venter Institute and the Laboratory of Viral Metagenomics, Rega Institute, among others.

The unit has undertaken several projects and successfully generated data on bacterial, viral and human genomes. Currently, work is ongoing on bacterial and fungal metagenomics studies through 16S rRNA sequencing.

In addition, the unit is also working on plasmid/insert sequencing and whole genome sequencing of animal and human rotaviruses. The unit has capacity to undertake other kinds of panels like the HLA, Pan-cancer and Tumor 15 sequencing, among others.

Several investigators from the UFS including but not limited to Prof Felicity Burt, Prof Wijnand Swart, Dr Frans O’Neil, Dr Trudi O'Neill, Dr Charlotte Boucher, Dr Marieka Gryzenhout and Dr Kamaldeen Baba are actively in collaboration with the NGS unit.

The unit has also invested in other specialised equipment such as the M220 Focused-ultrasonicator (Covaris), 2100 Bioanalyzer system (Agilent) and the real-time PCR cycler, the Rotor-Gene Q (Qiagen), which both the UFS and external investigators can use for their research.

Investigators working on molecular and related studies are encouraged to engage with Dr Nyaga on how they would like to approach their genomics projects at the UFS NGS unit. 

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