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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

UFS hosts consortium to discuss broadening subcontinent’s food base
2017-03-14

Description: Cactus Tags: Cactus

The Steering Committee of the Collaborative
Consortium for Broadening the Food Base comprises,
from the left: Prof Wijnand Swart (UFS),
Dr Sonja Venter (ARC) and Dr Eric Amonsou (DUT).
Photo: Andrè Grobler

There is huge pressure on the agricultural industry in southern Africa to avert growing food insecurity. One of the ways to address this is to broaden the food base on the subcontinent via crop production. Climate change, urbanisation, population growth, pests and diseases continually hamper efforts to alleviate food insecurity. Furthermore, our dependence on a few staple crops such as maize, wheat, potatoes, and sunflower, serve to exacerbate food insecurity.  

Broadening the food base  
To address broadening the food base in southern Africa, scientists from the University of the Free State (UFS), the Durban University of Technology (DUT) and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) have formed a Collaborative Consortium for the development of underutilised crops by focusing on certain indigenous and exotic crops. The Consortium met at the UFS this week for two days (6, 7 March 2017) to present and discuss their research results. The Principal Investigator of the Consortium, Prof Wijnand Swart of the Department of Plant Sciences in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, said awareness had risen for the need to rescue and improve the use of orphan crops that were up to now, for the most part, left aside by research, technological development, and marketing systems.  

"Many indigenous southern African
plant grains, vegetables and tubers
have the potential to provide a variety
of diets and broaden the household
food base.”

Traditional crops Generally referred to as alternative, traditional or niche crops, five crops are being targeted by the Consortium, namely, two grain legumes, (Bambara groundnut and cowpea), amaranthus (leaf vegetable), cactus pear or prickly pear and amadumbe (a potato-like tuber). Swart said these five crops would play an important role in addressing the food and agricultural challenges of the future. “Many indigenous southern African plant grains, vegetables and tubers have the potential to provide a variety of diets and broaden the household food base.” The potential of the many so-called underutilised crops lies not only in their hardiness and nutritional value but in their versatility of utilisation. "It may be that they contain nutrients that can be explored to meet the demand for functional foods," said Swart.

Scientific institutions working together
The Collaborative Consortium between the three scientific institutions is conducting multi-disciplinary research to develop crop value chains for the five underutilised crops mentioned above. The UFS and ARC are mainly involved in looking at production technologies for managing crop environments and genetic technologies for crop improvement. The DUT is focusing on innovative products development and market development.  

 

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