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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

Water erosion research help determine future of dams
2017-03-07

Description: Dr Jay le Roux Tags: Dr Jay le Roux

Dr Jay le Roux, one of 31 new NRF-rated
researchers at the University of the Free State,
aims for a higher rating from the NRF.
Photo: Rulanzen Martin

“This rating will motivate me to do more research, to improve outcomes, and to aim for a higher C-rating.” This was the response of Dr Jay le Roux, who was recently graded as an Y2-rated researcher by the National Research Foundation (NRF).

Dr Le Roux, senior lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of the Free State (UFS), is one of 31 new NRF-rated researchers at the UFS. “This grading will make it possible to focus on more specific research during field research and to come in contact with other experts. Researchers are graded on their potential or contribution in their respective fields,” he said.

Research assess different techniques
His research on water erosion risk in South Africa (SA) is a methodological framework with three hierarchal levels presented. It was done in collaboration with the University of Pretoria (UP), Water Research Commission, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and recently Rhodes University and the Department of Environmental Affairs. Dr Le Roux was registered for 5 years at UP, while working full-time for the Agricultural Research Council – Institute for Soil, Climate and Water (ARC-ISCW).

Water erosion risk assessment in South Africa: towards a methodological framework
, illustrates the most feasible erosion assessment techniques and input datasets that can be used to map water erosion features in SA. It also emphasises the simplicity required for application at a regional scale, with proper incorporation of the most important erosion-causal factors.

The main feature that distinguishes this approach from previous studies is the fact that this study interprets erosion features as individual sediment sources. Modelling the sediment yield contribution from gully erosion (also known as dongas) with emphasis on connectivity and sediment transport, can be considered as an important step towards the assessment of sediment produce at regional scale. 
 
Dams a pivotal element in river networks

Soil is an important, but limited natural resource in SA. Soil erosion not only involves loss of fertile topsoil and reduction of soil productivity, but is also coupled with serious off-site impacts related to increased mobilisation of sediment and delivery to rivers.

The siltation of dams is a big problem in SA, especially dams that are located in eroded catchment areas. Dr Le Roux recently developed a model to assess sediment yield contribution from gully erosion at a large catchment scale. “The Mzimvubu River Catchment is the only large river network in SA on record without a dam.” The flow and sediment yield in the catchment made it possible to estimate dam life expectancies on between 43 and 55 years for future dams in the area.
 
Future model to assess soil erosion
“I plan to finalise a soil erosion model that will determine the sediment yield of gully erosion on a bigger scale.” It will be useful to determine the lifespan of dams where gully erosion is a big problem. Two of his PhD students are currently working on project proposals to assess soil erosion with the help of remote sensing techniques.

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