Swiss-SA Astronomy Big Data Workshop

UKZN’s Professor Kavilan Moodley and Dr Martin Kunz of the University of Geneva who are Principal Investigators for the Swiss/South African Joint Research Programme (SSAJRP).

Scientists and astronomers from Switzerland and South Africa recently discussed Astronomy Big Data were at a bilateral workshop which unpacked how challenging astronomy problems involving Big Data could be solved using Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Big Bata refers to the study and applications of data-sets that are so big and complex that traditional data-processing software are rendered ineffective. The key challenge surrounding Big Data is to turn it into information and knowledge that has commercial value, brings scientific and technological advances or has a broader impact on society.

The workshop was a part of the Swiss/South African Joint Research Programme (SSAJRP), a collaborative platform in astronomy to address the scientific Big Data challenge faced by pathfinder telescopes to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) such as UKZN’s HIRAX (Hydrogen Intensity Mapping and Real-time Analysis Experiment), MeerKAT (Meer Karoo Array Telescope), the BINGO (BAO from Integrated Neutral Gas Observations) telescope, and the DES (Dark Energy Survey) telescope.

The principal investigators for the projects in the SSAJRP- Professor Kavilan Moodley of UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research and Dr Martin Kunz of the University of Geneva (UNIGE)- have extensive expertise in the required methods and techniques and are well placed to make significant contributions to the project. The Swiss-South African collaboration entails scientists developing methodologies and tools to build a framework to solve the challenges they face. Developing this framework and associated methodologies will result in cutting-edge discoveries in fundamental science that will benefit other fields of science using Big Data such as geospatial sciences and climate science as well as a variety of industries.

The workshop comprised two days of information exchange and discussions about the plan for the projects and how they fit into the overall collaborative project. Some of the topics covered by the speakers featured 21cm cosmology, next-generation modelling for connecting HI (atomic hydrogen) to dark matter, data challenges relating to the HIRAX telescope, quantum machine learning and data processing in cosmology using the examples of Planck and Euclid.

The proposed workflow that was discussed incorporates a number of different aspects of the Big Data challenge, including a data acquisition layer which is proposed to validate the measured data through calibration and high-end instrument model calibration. The data measurement process also involves pre-processing and sampling of the large pathfinder datasets. These techniques will ensure a high fidelity of data and a model to test for systematic effects in the data measurement process. The data analysis layer involves theoretical modelling that involves mathematical and computational techniques. Machine learning techniques will extract significant value from the large pathfinder datasets and offer the promise of new scientific discoveries.

‘This bilateral project between South Africa and Switzerland represents a great opportunity for both countries to profit from each other in terms of experience, knowledge and access to astronomical data,’ said Kunz. ‘I should add that every visit to South Africa, like on the occasion of this workshop, is a pleasure thanks to the warm and kind hospitality that is unfailingly extended to us.’

“The workshop was extremely productive and resulted in knowledge sharing and collaborative plans to guide various projects. The Swiss-South African collaboration will create high-impact outcomes that will address astronomy big data challenges” added Moodley.

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TATA Doctoral Scholarship for Astronomy Whizz

Ms Sinehlanhla Precious Sikhosana receives a TATA Doctoral Scholarship.

Ms Sinehlanhla Precious Sikhosana received a TATA Doctoral Scholarship at the Department of Science and Technology (DST) South African Women in Science Awards in Polokwane last week.

Sikhosana is one of three doctoral candidates to be awarded the honour for women working in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics where female participation is low.

Sikhosana, who is based in the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU), is conducting PhD research involving investigations into diffuse radio emission in galaxy clusters; work that she hopes will improve current scaling relations of the diffuse emissions and theories around the evolution of galaxy clusters. Sikhosana is passionate about empowering future generations in the sciences and hopes her research will inspire more young South African women to consider a career in Astronomy, which has few female scientists.

‘It is humbling to know that my hard work is being recognised at a national level,’ she said, adding, ‘The scholarship includes traveling grants, equipment grants and enables other activities that contribute towards improving my research. Most importantly, a public platform like this gives us a chance to inspire women to join the science field and stay in it.’

Named one of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science’s (CAES) Wonder Women in Science in 2017, Sikhosana has received a number of accolades over the course of her academic career, including the Hope Scholarship from the Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering (SAWISE) which enabled her to travel to Princeton University for a month in 2014 as well as a full undergraduate scholarship from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). She is also a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society at UKZN which enabled her to attend the International Scholar Laureate Programme hosted in Washington DC and New York in 2013. In March 2018, she presented her work at the American Astronomical Society’s ‘SnowCluster 2018: The Physics of Galaxy Clusters’ conference in Utah. She also presented her research at the ‘Hot spots in the XMM sky: Cosmology from X-ray to Radio’ conference in Mykonos in 2016 and was awarded the top prize for her oral presentation at the CAES Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium in 2015.

Sikhosana was among the top performing students in CAES between 2011 and 2013 and achieved her undergraduate and Honours degrees cum laude. She is passionate about giving back to the community, having tutored numerous high school pupils and undergraduate students.

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Zac Yacoob Scholarship Award for Aspiring Astrophysicist


Mr Dalian Sunder receives his award from Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim, CAPRISA Associate Scientific Director.

Mr Dalian Sunder, a BSc Applied Mathematician and Physics graduate, received the Zac Yacoob Scholarship Award at this year’s annual Scholarship Awards ceremony.

Youngest in his family, Mr Sunder recollects how his interest in outer-space blossomed to his passion for Maths and Physics during high school. At a tender age, Mr Sunder would spend hours at the library with his mother reading up on the universe and outer-space.

‘I was always fascinated by outer space from a young age. I would memorise facts such as Yuri Gagarin who in 1961 became the first man to journey to outer space. I always annoyed my parents with questions about everything. My mom should spend hours with me in the non-fictional section of the library, and it was there that I developed an interest for outer space and trying to understand how the universe works. This passion only grew throughout high school, and thus led me to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree,’ said Sunder.

He graduated earlier this year summa cum laude with a BSc degree in Applied Maths and Physics. He is currently pursuing a BSc Honours degree in Applied Maths. With this scholarship, he feels he will be able to accomplish his goals of becoming an astrophysicist.

‘I plan on continuing with postgraduate research at Master’s level. This will allow me to build on my current knowledge and delve deeper into topics that were introduced in my undergrad studies which will also prepare me for PhD studies. This is a step forward in becoming an astrophysicist,’ said Sunder.

For Sunder, receiving this scholarship is not only validation of his hard work but also serves as a motivation to continue in the same diligent streak in future.

‘The scholarship means acknowledgment of past work and motivation to work harder in the future. It is the happiness on my parents’ faces. It creates a sense of accomplishment. In short, it means a lot to me. I would like to make a special thanks to God, without whom, none of this would be possible. I also especially thank my parents for their endless support and encouragement, but most importantly, for selflessly sacrificing so much for me. Without them, I certainly would not be here today. You could say I stand on the shoulders of giants,’ he said, also extending gratitude to the scholarship donors.

‘Thank you for acknowledging my efforts. It is uplifting and shows your confidence in my generation. I thank you for your overwhelming generosity and will strive to emulate it in the future,’ says Mr Sunder.

Professor Kavilan Moodley, Mr Sunder’s lecturer, said he (Sunder) has performed exceptionally well in his undergraduate degree and has a bright research career ahead in the field of astrophysics and cosmology.

HIRAX: Remarks by the Honourable Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane

L to R: Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, Vice-Chancellor: UKZN, the Honourable Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane and HIRAX Principal Investigator Prof Kavilan Moodley at the launch of the HIRAX telescope










The Honourable Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane delivered the following address at the launch of the HIRAX telescope last Friday:

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, Vice-Chancellor: UKZN, and his Executive

Dr Pillay, Deputy CEO of the National Research Foundation NRF, and the NRF Executive

Dr Rob Adam, Managing Director: SARAO and his Executive.

Mr Takalani Rathiyaya, Deputy Head: Economic Development: eThekwini Municipality.

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

I am most pleased to be here today to launch the Hydrogen Intensity and Real Time Analysis eXperiment telescope project.

Last month we launched the MeerKat, which is a major milestone in the development of the Square Kilometre Array. When completed the SKA is going to be the largest Telescope in the world and it is going to foster collaboration amongst scientists from all over the world. Contrary to the narrow and prejudiced belief, science is not a museum of finished creations whose beauty should be credited to a specific group of people; it is rather an enterprise that is crafted from age to age, helping humanity to understand the universe better. As the eminent scientist, Freeman Dyson, observed in his essay called “The Scientist as Rebel” published in the New York Review of Books: “The vision of science is not specifically Western. It is no more Western than it is Arab or Indian or Japanese or Chinese. Arabs and Indians and Japanese and Chinese had a big share in the development of modern science. And two thousand years earlier, the beginnings of ancient science were as much Babylonian and Egyptian as Greek. One of the central facts about science is that it pays no attention to East and West and North and South and black and yellow and white. It belongs to everybody who is willing to make the effort to learn it.”

The project we are launching is a perfect example of the willingness of scientists from different parts of the work to learn and understand the universe through scientific tools. The HIRAX Project will seek to answer two of today’s most relevant questions in the field of astronomy – what is Dark Energy and what are Fast Radio Bursts.

The research imperatives of the HIRAX project include the mapping of the distribution of neutral hydrogen gas in the universe to learn about dark energy, finding new pulsars and probing the evolution of gas in galaxies. To tackle these research challenges HIRAX researchers will undertake a technical programme that involves building the instrument, carrying out science observations, analysing the raw data and scientific interpretation of the data.

The Department of Science and Technology strategic plan 2015 to 2020 has the following priorities amongst others: boosting our human capital development, for science, technology and innovation, with a special focus on transformation; promoting government, business and university investment in Research and Development; translating more effectively the outcomes of our investments in research into the development of new products and services for the South African economy. The HIRAX project seeks to establish an Interferometer Array telescope consisting of multiple dishes at the SKA Site in the Karoo desert, here in South Africa. The elaborate process of establishing this instrument will break-down barriers and create equity within the field of astrophysics by providing training through all phases of its implementation; including instrumentation development, instrument deployment, theoretical modelling and simulations and addressing Big Data challenges. Students involved in this project will be ideally placed to lead the next generation of world-class science projects. I was pleased to note that to date the project has trained 5 PhDs, 5 MSc and Honours students.

In addition to socio-economic gains through education, opportunities will extend to local industry through partnerships in various aspects of hardware development and instrument building. Much of the hardware will be developed and procured from local engineering firms, thereby growing the local manufacturing capacity in radio astronomy technologies. The data sets developed by HIRAX will lead to partnerships with the IT industry in the development of new algorithms for Big Data challenges. This project is a good demonstration of how we are making the priorities outlined in our strategic plan a reality.

The HIRAX project is aligned to the DST National Multi-wavelength Strategy (2016) as it addresses key scientific questions in each of the priority science areas identified by the Strategy, namely: Cosmology, Galaxy Evolution, and Stellar & Compact Object Astrophysics. Furthermore, HIRAX makes strong connections with the Strategy’s key programmatic areas in Human Capital Development and transformation, education and outreach, astronomy infrastructure and instrumentation, innovation, Big Data science, theoretical modelling and simulation, and international collaboration.

This project also compliments other South African led radio experiments to increase South Africa’s reputation as the world leader in Radio Astronomy. The project will have numerous synergies and complementarity with MeerKAT, thus adding significant value to a major SA investment, and further elevating the Karoo site as a destination for world-class astronomy telescopes. It will also compliment the HERA experiment as they conduct research in Hydrogen analysis.

Countries that have developed at a faster rate have always been countries with a strong innovation culture driven by investments in science and technology. Such investments are important in retaining and attracting the most talented researchers. The HIRAX project is a major international collaboration, with at least eight South African institutions participating, and many other international institutions. And I believe this is the best way that we can get our young people in South Africa to have an interest in science, technology and innovation.

Yesterday I spent a day with young high school learners from the rural part of this province. These are young and enthusiastic young children with lots of potential whose dream is to extract themselves from the poor conditions in which they live. It is my wish that they too can dream beyond their immediate needs and start to wonder about their place in the universe. The main reason for my visit was to help expose these young learners to careers that are possible for them in the area of science and technology. I told them that it is through their participation that our science and technology system will be broadened and enriched. The knowledge that we produce today will be their inheritance. I told them that “One of the central facts about science is that it pays no attention to East and West and North and South and black and yellow and white. It belongs to everybody who is willing to make the effort to learn it” and that they too can be the inheritors of the large body of science knowledge. The investments on research and projects such as HIRAX will produce knowledge that will form part of the inheritance for the learners that I have spoken about. I am simply saying that science at the end of the day is about the people in a community of humanity anywhere in the world.

As I said during the launch of the MeerKat last Month, to those who always wonder why projects like this are important, I will say to them in the words of the American cosmologist, Neil Tyson that “Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival, not only does that get people interested in sciences and all the related fields, [but] it transforms the culture into one that values science and technology, and that’s the culture that innovates. And in the 21st century, innovations in science and technology are the foundations of tomorrow’s economy.”

I thank you

Taken from

Wonder Women in Science – Receiving Signals from the Stars

Ms Zahra Kader, one of the 2018 candidates in the Wonder Women in Science Campaign

To commemorate National Science Week and National Women’s Month, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its female scientists through its Wonder Women in Science campaign. These are passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are making waves in the field of science.

Ms Zahra Kader is a Masters candidate in the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU) in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS).

She has always found science fascinating and loved mathematics and physics in school, and aimed for a career in the sciences to pursue knowledge of things humankind does not yet have answers to.

‘As a scientist, it is exciting to know that the small contributions I make today could lead to a big scientific breakthrough in the future,’ she said.

Kader’s interest in astrophysics began over a decade ago when her mother presented her with a science magazine that included material about the planets, asteroids and comets in our solar system, and featured the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

Fast forward a few years and Kader is the recipient of bursaries from SKA, and during her Honours year visited the SALT telescope. She graduated with her undergraduate and Honours degrees from UKZN summa cum laude, and was the top student in physics in her first and third years. She also recently visited the Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) in Australia.

Kader’s research now focuses on data gleaned from the recently launched Hydrogen Intensity Real-Time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX) radio telescope, designed and built by UKZN. She is investigating HIRAX-Data analysis and cosmological cross correlations. This involves examining fringe patterns from the dishes to determine the system temperature, a very important parameter to know in order to make signal-to-noise estimates. She is also correlating the signal from the Kinetic Sunyaev-Z’eldovich effect (KSZ) and the 21cm signal.

Kader explained that clusters (large groups of gravitationally bound galaxies) reach very high temperatures, and free electrons in the cluster interact with photons from the cosmic microwave background (CMB) and distort the CMB signal (the signal from light that has been travelling since 380 000 years after the big bang).

‘The movement of the cluster relative to us results in Doppler shifting of the 21cm signal emitted by neutral hydrogen or star forming gas,’ said Kader. ‘These two signals provide insight into the Epoch of Reionization (EoR), so both signals give indications of large-scale structures and the EoR, and combining signals can give us insight into these topics.’

As one of the few women working in astrophysics, Kader has been encouraged by the equal treatment of women in ACRU.

Her heroes in the field include the greats, namely Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Nobel Prize winners such as Kip Thorne and twice-awarded Marie Curie. Another hero is Jocelyn Bell, discoverer of dense, fast-spinning stars known as pulsars. She also admires little-known Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a deaf astronomer whose work with Cepheids enabled Edwin Hubble to determine that the universe was expanding.

Kader is motivated by the prospect of being an inspiration to others, even by simply sparking a growing interest in the sciences that leads young people to enter this field. Her Muslim faith is one of her biggest sources of strength and gratitude. Her advice to her younger self would include prioritising her faith, helping others, caring for the environment and developing a good conceptual understanding of the basic scientific concepts she learned at school.

Kader volunteers at Headway, which aids those suffering from head traumas, regularly visits old age homes and supports the work of the Al-Imdaad Foundation.

A challenge facing the development of the sciences is, according to Kader, the stereotypes placed on the roles of men and women, with some careers being seen as inherently ‘male’. She advocates for diversity and representation in the sciences if these fields hope to grow.

She recommended that mathematics and science be emphasised in schools, and that passionate teachers be equipped to teach these subjects in order to produce skilled individuals for engineering, mathematics, physics, computer science and similar fields.

Kader encouraged budding female scientists who are interested in mathematics and physics to ignore stereotypes and focus on what they would like to achieve, despite the rarity of female scientists. She encouraged them to look up to the examples of what women like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon had achieved.

Zahra’s plans include progressing to PhD and then postdoctoral studies in cosmology.

‘With the new upcoming telescopes, SKA and HIRAX, exciting times await those in the field of astrophysics and cosmology and I am privileged to be a part of it,’ she said.

Kader is a Wonder Women In Science that the university is proud to claim as its own.

Because we see Wonder Women in Science as modern-day heroines, we asked her to create a superhero profile for herself. This is how Zahra sees herself.

Q. What would you super power be and why?  
A.  Being able to absorb knowledge from others so that I could instantly become as smart as the lecturers and researchers in my field. The jump between Honours and Masters is a giant leap and I feel like this power would make that jump much more bearable.

Q. What would be your theme song?
A. Titanium by David Guetta featuring Sia

Q. Who would be your sidekick and why?  
A. My parents, because they are more fit than I am, and they give kick ass advice. They provide me with much needed motivation and I owe them more than I can possibly hope to repay. Hopefully choosing them as my sidekicks repays the debt to some degree.

Q. Where would your secret lair/ hide out be?
A. A countryside farm full of animals that is far, far away from civilization. A place where the night-time is truly dark enough for me to lay under the stars and admire the beauty of the cosmos.

Q. What is your kryptonite (weakness)?
A. My kryptonite is time. I do not have good time management skills at all and it is definitely something that I need to work on. Absorbing knowledge from others would go a long way towards helping me with time management.

HIRAX telescope project is officially launched.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) held a high profile launch for their groundbreaking HIRAX telescope today in Durban. The multimillion-rand telescope, launched by Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, will create cutting-edge South African science, stimulate economic and technological development and train students in critical skills. The HIRAX (Hydrogen Intensity and Real Time Analysis eXperiment) telescope will be located at the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa site in the Karoo and will have important synergies with the 64-dish MeerKAT, the country’s precursor to the SKA.

Jointly funded by UKZN and the DST through the NRF, HIRAX will be a compact radio telescope array of 1 024 six-metre dishes that will map about a third of the sky during its four years of observation. HIRAX will be able to determine the characteristics of dark energy during a critical period in our universe, between 7 – 11 billion years ago when dark energy became the dominant component in the universe causing it to expand at an accelerated rate. The main HIRAX array, combined with small arrays in partnering African countries, will be able to localize mysterious radio flashes called Fast Radio Bursts (FRB) within their host galaxies, a feat never achieved before. This will be a vital first step in determining the cause of these bursts.

The experiment will be managed by UKZN and is a result of a large global collaboration with at least eight South African institutions, and another dozen internationally. The researchers will undertake a technical programme that involves building the instrument, carrying out science observations and analysing the raw data. In addition, the project will work with industry to develop new technology and innovation, such as telescope hardware and big data analysis tools.

Speaking at the launch in Durban today, Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane said that HIRAX will enhance the national system of innovation by building research and innovation capabilities in the country. “The project will help South Africa develop innovative solutions, particularly in instrumentation and big data processing, directly impacting other economic sectors through technology transfer,” said the Minister.

The Minister also welcomed the project’s contribution to human capital development, saying that training PhD students would contribute to the achievement of the target of 100 PhDs per million of population by 2030, and inspire the next generation of learners to enter the exciting fields of science and engineering.

The HIRAX Principal Investigator, Professor Kavilan Moodley, who is based at UKZN, said “The HIRAX project is exciting because we are working with a dynamic group of students and scientists that work on all aspects of the project, from building the telescope and analysing the data to scientific interpretation. We are aiming to use our competitive advantage of being on the excellent SKA SA Karoo site to have an impact on the study of dark energy and fast radio bursts.”

UKZN Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, said “The University of KwaZulu-Natal is very proud of its HIRAX team. This team has made a significant impact at a national and international level in terms of the importance and significance of the HIRAX telescope project and its synergies with the SKA initiative. This radio-astronomy telescope to be erected on the radio-quiet SKA site aims to describe the effects of dark energy on the distribution of galaxies. The project is led from UKZN by a dynamic young team of Astronomers that are breaking new ground and leveraging the SKA investment to grow a new generation of young astronomers in KZN and South Africa.”

Searching For The Universe’s First Stars

Dr. Cynthia Chiang standing beside the PRIZM telescope located on Marion Island.

Dr Cynthia Chiang, a senior astrophysics lecturer at UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit, recently returned from Marion Island, located halfway between Antarctica and South Africa, where she upgraded the PRIZM radio telescope. The telescope, built by Dr Chiang and her astrophysics students, is being used to detect traces of the first stars that turned on in the Universe.

At the beginning of April, Dr Chiang visited the island with her students to install two additional antennaes on the telescope- the team’s first visit to the island after having installed the telescope in 2017. The two new antennas are of a different design and operate at lower frequencies, to the two existing antennae. At the end of May, Dr Chiang returned to Marion Island alone. At the Island, she repaired a portion of the telescope with the help of the overwinterer, base engineer, diesel mechanic, the helicopter team and the Department of Environmental Affairs. She also managed to swop out 500 kg’s of batteries to increase the lifespan of the experiment.

PRIZM (Probing Radio Intensity at high-Z from Marion) is a low-frequency radio telescope which collects information about the universe during the “Cosmic Dawn”, the period a few hundred million years after the big bang when the first stars in the universe formed.  The light from these first stars is too dim for optical telescopes to view, therefore they have never been measured directly. PRIZM was designed to make this measurement and to help determine when the first stars and galaxies formed.

In order to effectively capture data, the chosen site for the telescope, had to be free from man-made transmissions such as radio stations and cell phones. Marion Island was chosen due to its ideal remote location: It is separated from the nearest continental landmasses by 2000 km and is one of the most radio silent locations in the world.

Dr Chiang and her team experienced many challenges while working on the Island. The island lies in the Roaring Forties, an area notorious for high winds, rain and cold temperatures and the Island is only accessible via ship (The SA Agulhas II) once a year. In addition, time on the Island is extremely limited “We had a very compressed timeline of three weeks on the island to set up, get the equipment running, capture the data and leave. Sometimes weather and logistic delays gave us even less time to get things done” said Dr Chiang. Despite facing these challenges, Dr Chiang and her team managed to successfully upgrade the telescope.

The PRIZM telescope which has been collecting data for the past year at Marion Island.

Dr Chiang and her students are currently processing data collected from the PRIZM telescope data in the past 12 months. “With this telescope, we receive true signals from the sky as well as environment and systematic effects that might be introduced by an instrument, therefore there is a lot of work involved in separating these effects making sure to understand that what we’re seeing is the actual truth from the sky”, said Dr Chiang.

Dr Chiang has also contributed to other telescopes across the world including SPIDERPlanck High-Frequency InstrumentSouth Pole Telescope and C-BASS. However of all the locations that Dr Chiang has worked at, she feels that Marion Island has been the hardest. “You’re cold, tired, hungry and exhausted all the time but it is absolutely worth it for the science and it is just a beautiful location as well”.


We Hosted a National Workshop for Young Scientists and Engineers

Delegates at the radio astronomy workshop in Durban.

Academically excellent science and engineering undergraduate students from across the country descended upon Durban on Monday (2 July 2018) for a radio astronomy workshop, hosted by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). The workshop aimed to showcase exciting developments in astronomy, to encourage these young students to pursue their Masters and PhD degrees in radio astronomy science or engineering. In doing so, the workshop sought to help address the low numbers of appropriately qualified radio astronomers, researchers and engineers in South Africa.

Due to the multifaceted nature of radio astronomy, the students that have attended the workshop are from a variety of fields including astronomy, engineering, physics, mathematics and computer science.

The workshop covered a wide range of astronomy topics including black holes, building telescopes radio astronomy and computing. Furthermore, students obtained a better understanding of professional astronomy by interacting with both renowned UKZN astronomers and UKZN astronomy PhD and Masters students. “This is an amazing opportunity for undergraduate students to learn more about astronomy. I’m particularly looking forward to learning more about instrumentation” said Miss Denisha Pillay, a third year UKZN astronomy student who holds an astronomy bursary from SARAO.

UKZN was selected to host the workshop because it has a large number of students studying astronomy degrees. Furthermore UKZN, in partnership with the National Research Foundation (NRF), SARAO, and the Department of Science and Technology, will be constructing a R70 million telescope named HIRAX, which will provide students with the opportunity to develop relevant skills, as well as to engage in important research.

“The workshop will assist in creating an interactive and collaborative community, of students, local researchers and the SARAO team. We are looking forward to an exciting informative event that highlights the importance of postgraduate studies in astronomy” says Dr Mthuthuzeli Zamxaka, Manager of Research Capacity Development, at SARAO.

SARAO is responsible for coordinating Africa’s involvement in the design and construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), and for the design, construction and commissioning of South Africa’s Karoo Array Radio Telescope (MeerKAT). In addition, SARAO is coordinating the African VLBI Network (AVN) efforts, and a human capital development programme. SARAO is a project of the Department of Science and Technology, administered by the National Research Foundation.

Our Zahra: Congratulations from S.A. Government and MIT studies

Ms Zahra Essack graduated with a Masters in Astrophysics, cum laude.

Developing an algorithm to search for planets outside the solar system earned Ms Zahra Essack a Master of Science (MSc) cum laude in Applied Mathematics (Astrophysics) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. This brings the number of degrees Essack has received from the university to three, preceded by a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Science Honours – both awarded summa cum laude – in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The National Assembly during its sitting held on Tuesday, 24 April 2018 passed a motion of congratulation for Essack for developing this algorithm.

Essack developed an algorithm to detect transiting exoplanets in light curve data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. A transit occurs when a planet passes across the face of its host star and blocks out some of the star’s light. The blocking of star light creates dips in the light curve of the star (a light curve is a plot of brightness vs. time). If these dips occur periodically, it can be indicative of the presence of an exoplanet orbiting the star. The shape of the dips provides information about the size, period and orbital distance of the exoplanet.

Essack’s research was funded by an Innovation Masters Scholarship from the Department of Science and Technology – National Research Foundation (DST-NRF) and the Vincent Maphai Scholarship, awarded to the top-ranked masters student in the entire university.

In addition to receiving the Dean’s Commendation for eight consecutive semesters, Essack was the top student in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science throughout her bachelor and honours degrees. She was the recipient of nine scholarships from UKZN, most of which she accepted without purse, allowing them to be reallocated to other deserving students.

Among her achievements, Essack received the Brenda M Gourley Scholarship in 2015 when she was ranked second undergraduate student in the entire University, the Zac Yacoob Scholarship in 2016 for being the best student proceeding to an honours degree and the Maryam Babangida Scholarship in the same year for being the best female student in the entire university progressing from undergraduate to honours study. She also received the National Research Foundation Square Kilometre Array (NRF-SKA) Scholarship from 2014–2016.

Essack is presently pursuing her doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, supervised by Professor Sara Seager, a world leader in exoplanet research.

After attaining her PhD, Essack hopes to return to South Africa to start a Centre for Excellence in exoplanets. Centres of Excellence are an initiative of the DST-NRF which focuses on research excellence, capacity development as well as inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration.

‘South Africa has become a radio astronomy hub with the SKA project. In setting up a Center of Excellence on exoplanets upon my return to South Africa, the future generation of radio astronomers will have another field to pursue, a field not yet fully tapped into in South Africa. This would allow me to further my field of specialisation in South Africa within the SKA project in collaboration with MIT and other international networks I would have forged during my graduate studies,’ said Essack.

‘Research is a challenging process with a myriad of positive and negative turns that keep you perpetually motivated in search of solutions. It is ultimately a rewarding journey,’ said Essack.

‘I have been fortunate to learn from and work with world-class researchers in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science and the School of Chemistry and Physics at UKZN, who have inspired me and helped me to grow as a scientist and a researcher. I am grateful to have received an education that has allowed me to compete at an international level in my field.’

Professor Kavilan Moodley, of UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit said: ‘Zahra was involved in original research in developing an independent technique to extract transiting exoplanets from Kepler light curve data. Kepler has revolutionised the field of exoplanet research and Zahra’s successful analysis of this data demonstrates her competence with research methods and their application in this field.’

Dr Matt Hilton (senior lecturer, MSCS) said: ‘Zahra was a brilliant and hardworking student and it was a pleasure working with her. I wish her all the best for her PhD studies in the United States.’

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Beating all Obstacles to Pursue a Dream and Passion

Best Third Year Mathematics student in 2016, Mr Warren Naidoo has graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) Honours degree.

A young Chatsworth man dispelled what many people claimed was a ‘waste of time’ career choice. Mr Warren Naidoo was proud to graduate summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) Honours degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

It has been Naidoo’s dream to become an astronomer. After matriculating at Asoka Secondary School in Chatsworth, Naidoo was awarded the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) bursary through the Astrophysics, Cosmology and Research Unit (ACRU) to pursue a BSc degree at UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES).

‘Many people told me that my chosen field is a waste of time and there will be no jobs, but I can now say that they were wrong.’ said Naidoo.

Through perseverance Naidoo received the prestigious 2016 G I Bateman award for being the best third-year Mathematics student. In 2017, Naidoo graduated with a BSc degree cum laude.

‘My passion and childhood dream to one day become a scientist is what motivated me to pursue my Honours degree in Applied Mathematics. I have always been deeply fascinated by astrophysics and astronomy related fields as well as mathematics and its applications to describe everything we see around us,’ said Naidoo.

‘Studying towards my honours has been really enjoyable as I got to learn many interesting things like Einstein’s theory of general relativity which has always captivated my curiosity. It has also been truly satisfying as it symbolises a major step towards the ultimate goal of getting my PhD,’ said Naidoo.

In addition to Naidoo graduating summa cum laude with a BSc Honours, he received the top honours award for Applied Mathematics in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.

Currently Naidoo is doing his Master of Science (MSc) degree in Cosmology which involves cutting-edge scientific research. His future plans are to pursue a PhD and ultimately continue with research as an academic at a university or research institution.

Naidoo’s secret to his success, ‘Is determination and to never give up on your dreams to do what you are passionate about.’ He thanked his supervisor, Professor Kavilan Moodley, for guiding him through the academic journey.

Naidoo still finds time to indulge in some of his hobbies which include sketching, playing music, solving puzzles and reading.

His proud father, Mr S Naidoo said, ‘I am truly proud of my son Warren. He has truly become an inspiration to many other young people in our community. Many students come to Warren for advice and it is evident that these students gain confidence that they can reach their goals in life.  I know he will make all his dreams come true and continue to make us proud and amazed.’

‘Warren has achieved outstanding results in his honours degree, including his research project in Cosmology. He has already made significant advances during his master’s degree working on the UKZN flagship project, HIRAX. He will publish a paper shortly on his results, and has a very promising research career ahead of him,’ said Professor Kavilan Moodley.

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