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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

Famelab, the Pop Idols of science communication
2017-03-09

Description: Famelab Tags: UFS, CUT, Science, Competition, research, British Council, Famelab, NRF

Oluwasegun Kuloyo and Zanele Matsane proved to be
Bloemfontein’s young and wittiest science researchers.
They will represent the Free State at the Famelab
national semifinals in Johannesburg.
Photo: Oteng Mpete

Imagine sharks with laser beams attached to their heads and enzymes that wear coats, and yeasts that stage a coup d’état in your body when agitated. This was all explored at the FameLab Science Communication Competition. 

Hosting the FameLab regional competition was a collaborative effort between Dr Mikateko Hoppener, from the University of the Free State’s (UFS), the Centre for Research on Higher Education and Development (CRHED), and Edith Sempe from the Central University of Technology (CUT), Research and Development Unit. Taking place for the first time in the Free State, the event was held at the UFS Centenary Complex on 2 March 2017.

Witty minds make science fun

FameLab is a competition that promotes science and technology by creating a space for scientists to find their voices and reach public audiences. The Free State regional competition had 18 contestants and two emerged victorious on the day. Contestants had to ensure their three-minute talks were fun, charismatic, clear and entertaining.

The two regional winners were Oluwasegun Kuloyo, a PhD student with the department of Microbial Biochemical and Food Biotechnology at UFS, and Zanele Matsane, a Construction Management PhD student at CUT. 

Kuloyo's research deals with the management of the candida yeast which exists in most people’s bodies and which, with a healthy immune system can be kept under control, but when an immune system is compromised, the yeast reacts volatilely and can potentially lead to death in HIV/AIDS patients. 

Matsane’s research is centred on collaborative construction management inspired by the Toyota manufacturing process. She hopes to resolve the silos of construction and bring about a more harmonious and fluid process to construction projects, thus ensuring their successful completion. 

The panel of judges consisted of Oteng Mpete UFS Media Liaison Officer, Dr Elizabeth Conradie from the CUT Innovation Hub, and Prof Willie du Preez from the CUT Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing, as well as Robert Inglis from JiveMedia Africa.

Local scientists become jet-setters 
The two regional winners will head to Johannesburg to compete at the FameLab national semifinals, and the South African winner will go on to compete against winners from over 30 countries on an international stage, at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK.

FameLab is a programme of the Cheltenham Science Festival and is implemented locally by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), the British Council, and JiveMedia Africa. The competition has been running in South Africa for the past five years.

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