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3 August 2021
Africa for Africa - Yao Marc becomes Ivory Coast's very first astrophysicist

His dream has always been to come to South Africa to study astrophysics. Today, Harris Yao Marc can proudly say he became the first to earn a PhD in astrophysics in his home country, the Ivory Coast.

Marc knew he was certainly aiming for the stars in wanting to become an astrophysicist, and when the opportunity presented itself, he grabbed it with both hands. He recalls how during his first years of university, he found a book about special relativity in his university’s library.  “I couldn't understand it well, but, since that day, I never missed an opportunity to watch a documentary about the universe on National Geographic.”

As a strong-willed youngster in his family, he would fight his siblings to watch National Geographic on TV: “I wouldn’t let them watch anything else,” he laughs. 

The family finally had the TV to themselves when Marc joined the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) in South Africa.

Astrophysics  - the branch of science that applies the laws of physics and chemistry to explain the birth, life and death of objects in the universe - was intensely intriguing to him. He was also impressed by the spin-offs from astronomy: applications in medicine, industry, defense, environmental monitoring, and consumer products. Knowing this made him excited to be part of the growing field of Astrophysics in Africa. 

“When it comes to scientific achievements, Africa was a bit left behind, but I’m happy that things are changing. As the first astronomer from my country, I would like to promote science by helping in the creation of a department of astronomy, where students can be trained to become future astrophysicists and form part of the new generation of African scientists who would see science as their own; not just the “science of the white man” as it is commonly referred to in the villages of my country. I really hope to play an active role in promoting science.”

The tough journey towards a PhD came with its own challenges for Marc, whose profession  worldwide only has a small number of researchers. “I came from a French-speaking country; so doing coursework in a new field in a relatively new language was extremely difficult. Astrophysics wasn't easy either. Never in my life had I taken an astrophysics course before, but here I was in South Africa studying towards my first science degree in astrophysics and later towards an Honours and Master's degree at the University of Cape Town.

“It was during the completion of my honours degree in astronomy in 2014 that I increasingly interacted with academic staff at UWC. I knew that this is where I wanted to continue my studies towards a Ph.D,” said Marc.

He started studying at UWC soon after completing his Master's degree in astronomy. “I completed the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) during my Honours and Master's coursework at UCT. Master's projects could be selected from any university in South Africa. Eventually, I chose UWC because I wanted to work with Associate Professor Michelle Cluver as the supervisor of my Master's project.”

Marc was especially honoured to be part of a team that made some captivating findings with the giant radio telescope, MeerKAT. The MeerKAT is South Africa’s precursor telescope to the international Square Kilometre Array and is currently one of the best radio telescopes in the world.  “This is a cutting-edge instrument that is allowing us to discover new structures as never seen before in the universe. The SKA to come will do even better!

“It’s the biggest scientific project and I had the experience to be part of an international effort and that makes me really happy,” said Marc.

“We are about 10 scientists, including my supervisors and myself. We submitted a proposal for observation time with MeerKAT.

“We proposed to study neutral hydrogen gas in the filament-like structures of radio galaxies. My role was to create a catalogue of those observations. This was then used to study the properties of those galaxies and to differentiate those in which new stars are forming from those that have a supermassive black hole in the centre that creates large jets.

“I also enjoy this field, because the public is curious about astrophysics. There are always lots of questions. The job also provides lots of opportunities to meet astrophysicists and scientists from around the world, which is really exciting.”

Looking back at his years of study, he is grateful for his supervisors, especially Associate Prof Michelle Cluver with whom he’s been working since his Master's degree, as well as  Prof Mario Santos, who he says has also been a great support during his Ph.D.

“Together with Prof Tom Jarrett from UCT, they are all very dedicated scientists who were always available for advice and to discuss my work.”

The journey has been worth all the effort, says Marc. “It is a lot of work that requires focus, and sacrifice. If you have a dream, hold it tight, work for it and opportunities will present themselves.”

He is back in the Ivory Coast where he hopes that ten years from now he will be an established scientist representing his country and working in collaboration with other scientists worldwide.