Page 66 - UCT Research Report 2011

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UCT Research Report '11
The much-anticipated announcement that
South Africa will host the majority of the
Square Kilometre Array radio telescope
(SKA) – made in 2012 but reflecting the work
of the South African astronomy community
over many years and culminating in the
submission of the final bid in 2011 – is no
small achievement. Researchers in UCT’s
Department of Astronomy have supported the
SKAbid inmanyways.WhenProfessor Renée
Kraan-Korteweg, head of the department,
joined UCT in 2005 after a successful tenure
at the University of Guanajuato in Mexico,
she knew capacity development and radio
astronomy development would be imperative
to put South African astronomy on the map.
It was important to show the world that South
Africa would not only provide space for the
SKA, but also expertise.
“It was clear that the South African government had an
idea to start flagship projects to show how we can manage
projects that are up there with the rest of the world,”
she says. “There was also a realisation that the younger
generation of South Africans and Africans need to be
motivated to pursue careers in science and technology.”
As a result, South African astronomy – with the UCT
Department of Astronomy at the forefront – has grown
at an almost unprecedented rate, with renewed interest
sparking among a new generation of scientists. Today,
there are dozens of students joining the field and moving
on to postgraduate and postdoctoral level.
“In 2005, there were only two professors and one
postdoctoral researcher in the department, with three to
five postgraduate students. At present we have 10 staff
members (including four professors), 11 postdoctoral
fellows and more than 30 postgraduate students,” says
Professor Kraan-Korteweg.
On a teaching level, the development of an undergraduate
major in astronomy has contributed to this growth, with up
to 45 students registering for astronomy majors per year,
in comparison with the initial eight to 10 students in 2006.
“This growth has taken place largely because of the
opportunities on the horizon, and UCT has the only
dedicated astronomy department in the country,” she says.
A catalyst for transformation
Astronomy has become a catalyst for transformation as
well, says Professor Kraan-Korteweg. Transformation has
certainly characterised the subject’s growth among her
students – 75 percent of UCT’s undergraduate programme
are black South Africans. Although UCT has the only
astronomy department in South Africa, there are other
initiatives contributing to the growth of this sector. For
instance, the National Astrophysics and Space Science
Programme (NASSP), hosted by UCT, is a nationwide
programme that was launched in 2003 and focuses on the
development of honours and master’s degree students in
the astronomy and space science sectors by providing
adequate bursaries that will also make this career option
attractive to previously disadvantaged South Africans.
The DST/NRF South African Research Chairs Initiative
(SARChI) has also been integral in the growth of the
department, with the appointment of professors Erwin de
Blok (2007) and Claude Carignan (2011) as holders of
SARChI Chairs in Astronomy.
While Professor de Blok’s role as a SARChI chair holder
was specifically aimed at increasing the radio astronomy
expertise in the department, Professor Carignan’s role is
to grow local astronomy to create the next generation of
astronomers, who might be actively involved at the SKA
when it is to be completed in 2025.
It’s written in the stars:
South Africa is set to make its
“South African astronomy – with the
UCT Department of Astronomy at the
forefront – has grown at an almost
unprecedented rate, with a renewed
interest sparking among a new
generation of scientists.”