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Mapping The Universe UWC PhD to attend Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2016

Mapping The Universe: PhD student Siyambonga Matshawule will attend Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2016

UWC astrophysicist Siyambonga Matshawule is one of five top young scientists nominated by the Academy of Sciences of South Africa (ASSAf) to attend the prestigious 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau, Germany.

The Meeting, which will take place from 26 June to 1 July 2016, brings together generations of scientists chosen worldwide by a high-level scientific review panel - over 400 young up-and-comers and Nobel Laureates alike, from 80 countries from fields like Physics, Chemistry, Physiology and Medicine - to discuss their research, share their knowledge, and inspire each other to reach new heights.

Not bad for someone who hasn’t always been passionate about astrophysics. In fact, Siyambonga didn’t fall in love with the subject until he’d already begun his studies.

“During my second year of my bachelors degree, I was invited for a night sky viewing session at the UWC physics department,” he says. “It was there that I looked through a telescope for the first time, and was amazed to see the craters on the moon. I was fascinated by how much scientists knew about objects that were so far away - and how much there still was to find out. Then and there I made the decision that one day I would become an astrophysicist.”

And that’s just what he did, earning an MSc (with distinction) from UWC in 2014 for his thesis investigating the distribution of galaxies in the universe to extract information about the history and evolution of the cosmos. His PhD studies aim to explore an observational technique called HI intensity mapping to probe the large-scale structure of the universe using the MeerKAT and SKA radio telescope - the world’s largest - in a project so big it will change the way astrophysicists work, generating enormous amounts of data and allowing them to investigate questions they couldn’t have considered in the past.

The opportunity to attend the Lindau Meeting will contribute immensely to Siyambonga’s career, of course - it will give him the opportunity to interact with leading scientists and science students from all over the world.

“But more importantly, it will allow me to learn more about different science disciplines,” he notes, “and how these disciplines assist in the world’s developing scientific understanding and developmental needs, and to find out how other countries have been able to use science to transform society.”

Pay it Forward: Astrophysics For The Next Generation

Hailing from the small town of Lady Frere in the Eastern Cape, Siyambonga completed his schooling at Ida High school, near the town of Elliott. His decision to come to UWC was a happy accident.

“The first time I heard of UWC was through a schoolmate who had the application forms - I read the brochure, liked what I saw, and applied. In first year, I found that I enjoyed physics and mathematics, and the enthusiasm and support of staff at the physics department motivated me to continue studying physics.”

Siyambonga hopes to share some of that motivation and inspiration with generations to come. Since January of this year, he has been a Next Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP) lecturer at UWC’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training, and is also a member of UWC’s Astrophysics Group.

“I would like to be one of the leading scientists making use of the SKA radiotelescope - and other telescopes around the world - to discover the secrets of the universe,” he says, “but  I also want to assist in the development of more young scientists, helping them to contribute to innovation through science, and forming part of a group of people who will be changing the face of basic education in South Africa.”

Partly, that’s because he knows that Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics skills can help South Africa develop, and he hopes to inspire young people to dream bigger, learn new things, and dare to be different. And partly, it’s because he knows how big a task astrophysics has set for itself.

“I’m driven by the passion to understand the universe,” he says. “What’s out there? How did we come to be? These are some of the most difficult problems in the world - and this is a quest that will require all the help we can give each other.”