Students star at SA SKA postgraduate conference

Article republished with kind permission from SKA Africa.

By Engela Duvenage, Stellenbosch University

The annual South African SKA postgraduate conference, now in its fifth year, is not only an excellent showcase for the high level of South African science students, but is fast becoming an extremely valuable meeting place for local and international researchers and students working together in fields such as astronomy, electrical engineering, astrophysics, applied mathematics and cosmology.

Delegates at the December 2010 SKA South Africa postgraduate conference, held in Stellenbosch

The conference was held from 29 November to 3 December 2010 at the Wallenberg Research Centre in Stellenbosch. It attracted 164 attendees from across South Africa and African countries such as Madagascar, Mauritius, Kenya and Botswana, which are part of the African SKA Working Group, as well as a strong international panel of plenary speakers from leading research groups such as Chalmers University of Technology (Sweden), the USA SKA Consortium, the University of Southampton (UK), the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) and Oxford University (UK).

Prof Patrick Woudt (associate professor at the University of Cape Town’s Department of Astronomy), Prof Rob Fender (professor in astronomy at University of Southampton) and Prof Erwin de Blok (SARChI Research Chair in the Department of Astronomy, University of Cape Town)

Prof Paul Baki (University of Nairobi, Kenya), Dr Dinesh Somanah (University of Mauritius), Mr Francois Kapp (SKA SA Pinelands) and Mr Charles Copley (PhD student at Oxford University)

Prof Minoson Rakotomalala (University of Antanarivo, Madagascar), Mr Patrice Okou-Ma (a PhD in applied mathematics at UCT, majoring in cosmology) and Mr Ezekiel Nkwe (third year electrical engineering student at UCT)

“We always invite more international speakers than we need to motivate our students, because inevitably not everyone can come, but this year no-one declined,” a very pleased Prof Justin Jonas, Associate Director of Science for the SKA South Africa project, said. “We had a very full programme, combining talks by our international visitors and our students, and for the first time also had parallel sessions as part of the conference structure.”

Upon reflecting on the growth in the conference, Prof Jonas said: “We see in this that people realise the value in coming here, that they are attracted to South Africa through work on MeerKAT and other instruments available, by our good students and by the opportunity for discussions with other researchers in related fields.” “This is truly a showcase in all manner of ways,” he said.

The conference is a valuable part of the SKA SA human capital development programme in support of studies at South African tertiary and research institutes to increase the number of highly-skilled scientists and engineers able to support the SKA and MeerKAT during the design, construction and operational phases of the telescopes. The project is funded by the Department of Science and Technology, through the National Research Foundation and the South African SKA Project Office.

Of the 72 talks presented, relating to topics such as radio astronomy, digital signal processing, antenna development and radio telescopes, 36 were given by doctoral and senior year masters degree students, based on the research work they are currently doing. Fourteen poster presentations were also made by students finishing off their first year of masters’ degree studies.

Dr Huib Jan van Langevelde, director and associate professor: Joint Institute for Very Long Baseline Interferometry in Europe (JIVE) described the conference concept as “clever”. “It not only exposes your postdoctoral students and students to international scientists, but also exposes the international community to what is being done here. This is a sound approach.”

Dr Paul Ho, director of the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taiwan and associate of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (USA), stressed the important role conferences such as these have to enthuse and motivate students to further pursue a career in astronomy and related fields. “It is good for them to see what the future will look like, and that it is not only their own professors that are interested in the field, but a much larger community from outside this country.”

According to Prof Patricia Henning, director of the Institute of Astrophysics of the University of New Mexico and vice-chair of the USA SKA Consortium, she was impressed by the student representativity shown. “I really don’t think there is something similar being done elsewhere in the world relating to SKA, which brings so many students together,” she said.

Astronomer Dr Dinesh Somanah of the University of Mauritius described the conference format as “pioneering” because it brings many disciplines within the African scientific community together. “You often find that people in different disciplines in Africa tend to work and meet in isolation from others.”

“SKA isn’t just a South African project anymore, it’s an African project,” he noted.

The international visitors to the conference were thoroughly impressed by the very high standard of work and findings presented by the students.

“Some of these talks have been fantastic and have been comparable if not better than those given by European students of the same age,” says Prof Rob Fender, professor of Astronomy at the University of Southampton (UK), who says that the conference is a good opportunity to scout for potential students to attract to his research group.

Dr Oleg Smirnov, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON), was impressed by the amount of work done in South Africa “in a relatively short time” since the SA SKA project started in 2006. “The diversity of topics being studied has impressed me at the conference,” he said.

“With new technology comes new problems, and these will always attract bright young people,” Dr Smirnov said of the opportunities opening up not only through SA SKA, but also through the establishment of MeerKAT.

Prof Steve Rawlings, professor in astrophysics at Oxford University, believes SA SKA is “uniformly attracting high quality people.” “Several significant findings have been presented at the conference,” he said. Prof Rawlings says he has been struck by the general desire of South African students studying at Oxford to at some stage return to their country to plough back into local science.

According to Mr Charles Copley, a former Rhodes University student now studying at Oxford University, it is “really an exciting opportunity to be involved in such a scale of project as the SA SKA right from the beginning stages.”

“I’d like to come back to South Africa once my PhD is completed, hopefully by the end of 2012, as I am keen to be working on the South African side of things.”

“It is exiting to be involved with something as tangible as this project. I prefer getting my hands dirty and working on something real,” he says about his doctoral research work relating to the C-Band All Sky Survey (C-BASS), which has been made possible through SA SKA funding.

Mr Darrell Moodley, a doctoral student in applied mathematics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said his SA SKA bursary has made it possible for him to change from the sugar industry to the stars, to pursue his ideals of obtaining a PhD qualification.

Mr Patrice Okou-Ma, a doctoral student from Gabon studying applied mathematics and cosmology at the University of Cape Town, said that the possibility of striking up research collaboration with someone he might meet at the conference was the part that excited him the most about attending the meeting. “This conference was of value to me on three levels: for my personal development, for my academic development and for the professional networking opportunities it provides.”

Dr Gideon Wiid, a postdoctoral fellow of Stellenbosch University, says he is impressed that he not only had the opportunity to meet fellow South Africans in the field, but could also make links with Swedish researchers doing similar work, which flowed from the presentation he made at the conference.

For Jacobus Diener, a doctoral student in astrophysics at Stellenbosch University, it wasn’t just the interaction with local and international academics that impresses him about the conference. “I also got to meet other young people in the field, and we were able to share challenges and questions in research.”

Ms Liesbeth Gouws from Rhodes University was one of only sixteen undergraduate students who were invited to attend the conference. Although she admits that much of what she heard was on a very high level, she says it was a great opportunity to find out what topics are currently being addressed. “It was great to have the freedom to put up my hand at one of the sessions and ask for a simpler explanation.”