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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

Hearing loss a silent public health crisis in South Africa
2017-03-27

Description: Hearing loss a silent public health crisis in South Africa Tags: Hearing, Deaf, World Hearing Day
Dr Magteld Smith engages on the topic of hearing loss
and how it coincides with the commemoration of
World Hearing awareness during the month of March.
Photo: Oteng Mpete 

Communication is a principal challenge for people with hearing loss. It can be difficult to negotiate everyday interactions, whether in the workplace, on the street, in classrooms, courts, during consultations with health professionals, or even when contacting the police. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) World Hearing Day is an annual advocacy event held each year on 3 March to raise awareness and promote ear and hearing care across the world. In many countries this awareness campaign usually starts on 3 March but many continue to create awareness for the full month of March. 

Hearing loss is a global reality
According to Dr Magteld Smith, a researcher at the University of the Free State (UFS) School of Medicine’s Department of Otorhinolaryngology, unaddressed hearing loss poses a high cost for the economy globally and has a significant impact on the lives of those affected. Interventions to address hearing loss are available in South Africa but are not accessible or affordable for most citizens. This is partly because not only persons with hearing loss but also people with disabilities experience barriers in accessing services that many of us take for granted, including health, education, employment, and transport as well as information. These difficulties are exacerbated in less-advantaged communities.

“WHO estimates that there are more than 360 million persons with hearing loss globally. The statistics in South Africa are unreliable due to the different definitions used by Statistics South Africa and the absence of training of the officials who conduct and collect statistics concerning hearing loss in South Africa,” says Dr Smith. 

According to Dr Smith, analysis from retrospective studies reflects that about 17 out of 1 000 infants are born daily in South Africa with severe to profound hearing loss. However, Dr Smith states that the number could be higher because of late diagnosis, high levels of undiagnosed and untreated hearing loss. This excludes young adults, adults and the elderly as well as children with acquired (become deaf after birth) hearing loss.

Crisis that needs urgent intervention 
Dr Smith says hearing loss is an emergency which the South African government fails to prioritise. She says that research published confirms that the risk compounding the projected increase in hearing loss that comes with an ageing population. This is a looming and silent public-health crisis.
She believes that the government should take urgent action to align research-spending with the current and projected size and impact of hearing loss. It should also collaborate across related conditions, such as vision, neurodegenerative diseases and neurological conditions. Furthermore, the government needs, and is obligated, to deliver more accessible and integrated services and develop quality standards that take account of the whole pathway – linking public health, clinical and social needs.

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