(Published - 19 March 2019)
“Being a scientist isn’t just about knowing things - it’s about seeking knowledge and solving problems and finding answers, and it requires creativity, passion and tenacity.”
It’s that kind of thinking that drives astrophysicist Palesa Nombula to devote her time to studying the stars. And it’s that kind of thinking that made her the perfect science interpreter to take part in a special recording of the BBC World CrowdScience programme, where scientists answer all the questions asked by listeners and the wider public.
Nombula, who is finishing her Masters studies at UWC’s Astrophysics group while working in commercialisation at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), joined the Crowd Science panel in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape where the BBC was taking part in SciFest, Africa’s largest science festival.
“It’s important to be able to talk about my work as a scientist because I get a deeper understanding of my research and I learn how to get someone else excited about it,” Nombula noted. “Doing this, I develop the ability to explain something that is complex in a simple way, thus developing teaching skills.”
The programme also featured Professor Sampson Mamphweli, Director of the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at Stellenbosch University, and Dr Adriana Marais, Head of Innovation at SAP Africa and Mars One finalist. The panel fielded questions from all over two continents, on everything from solar power and global climate change to the length of a day on Mars, the effects of meteor impacts on the moon, and the expansion of the universe.
Among other things, Nombula discussed how commercialisation of new technologies developed in the context of the design and the construction of the MeerKAT telescope contributes to the growth of the country and the African continent.
“Africa is still underdeveloped in many ways compared to the rest of the world,” she said. “Not only can many South Africans also benefit from the technology and information the SKA produces, but building the instruments requires investing in the surrounding communities, and that can make a big difference.”
She also explained how her research will help our understanding of the universe by attempting to prove theories wrong, as the scientific method is a constant process of eliminating potential theories.
“Science doesn’t prove things right,” she said. “We can only prove them wrong, and then test out new ideas to see if they’re wrong as well. And that’s how we improve our ideas over time.”
The recording of Crowd Science is available on the BBC World Service website: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswvy2.
Palesa Nombula: Stargazing From Bloemfontein To The BBC
“I always wanted to be a scientist,” Nombula explains. “Star gazing was a way for me to cope with stress, and over time my curiosity grew to become my career goal. And now astrophysics is not only a career choice for me, but also an expression of true freedom that the former president Nelson Mandela wanted for our generation.”
Born in Bloemfontein and raised in Soweto, Palesa is also a recipient of the InspiringFifty 2018 South Africa award which recognises inspiring women in science and technology in the country.
“There are still stereotypes in our societies which minimise our expectations of women - and awards like these help open a conversation about the struggles many women experience in STEM, and encourage us to find solutions which will benefit the younger generation.”
From humble beginnings to working on scientific research with the MeetKAT telescope, commercialisation and communicating science, Nombula is part of a new, diversely skilled generation of South African scientists.
“It’s important to promote leadership among our up-and-coming scientists like Palesa and her peers,” says Dr Carolina Odman, Associate Director: Development and Outreach at the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) and member of the InspiringFifty network. “They are great role models and prove that promises made to South Africa when investing in projects like the SKA hold true.”
There’s plenty more promise in Palesa’s future - she plans to pursue a PhD in Astrophysics and follow it up with an MBA...and that’s just for starters.
“I plan to establish a company which will be aimed at advancing scientific standards in Africa,” she says. “By incubating students from a young age to be specialists in various sectors, and to think big picture at the same time, I can help produce the leaders who will solve the biggest challenges of the twenty-first century.”