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14 October 2019
UWC Physics Doctoral Graduate receives NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship

(Published - 14 October 2019)

I met Raji in 2010 through a stroke of serendipity while managing the University’s academic enterprise in community engagement, teaching and learning, and research and innovations as DVC Academic. He wrote to me expressing concern at having come from Nigeria some ten months earlier to study for a PhD, but he had reached a dead end. I asked for a meeting, requesting he bring along evidence of his qualifications. At the meeting a few days later I noticed Raji had produced a nice dissertation for his MSc studies at Olabisi Onabanjo University in Nigeria, using a numerical model based on fluid dynamic theory to investigate blood flow. I informed him that in one of my research areas I also use a fluid dynamic approach to study not blood plasma, but plasma of a different kind, namely a flow of oppositely charged particles, relevant to laboratory, near-Earth space and astrophysical environments. Some of my then recent publications were shared with him for perusal.

The next day he returned and expressed an interest in a PhD in space physics. I assessed he was not only talented but also committed as he asked questions of clarity on the work in my publications. Consequently, with my collaborators - Professors S V Singh and G S Lakhina from the Indian Institute of Geomagnetism, Mumbai, India as co-supervisors - we designed a challenging PhD project for Raji on fluctuation phenomena in different regions of the Earth’s magnetosphere. To build his knowledge base in space plasma physics a series of lectures were delivered to him and other postgraduate students at the Space Science Directorate of the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) in Hermanus by myself and Professor S K Maharaj, a researcher at SANSA who had earlier completed his PhD under my supervision at the then University of Durban-Westville.

Raji is a go-getter with much resolve and self-belief in his capabilities. In the final year of his PhD studies, he was already thinking of postdoctoral work at NASA. We realised that to succeed he had to develop a project proposal that was within the mandate of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and one which will be supported by a NASA scientist. While teaching part-time at UWC and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology he continued with postdoctoral research. As a first-step towards realising his NASA dream he applied for an EB-1 permanent residency visa to the USA based on his expertise, knowledge and skills.

In parallel, Raji developed a research proposal on the analysis of broadband plasma waves in the Earth’s radiation belts, which was a continuation of the research undertaken at UWC and was directly related to NASA’s Van Allen (Belt) Probes spacecraft explorations in the study of space weather, to be undertaken under the mentorship of Dr George Khazanov of NASA. A continuous understanding of space weather is essential because of its effect on global communication systems such as the internet, global positioning systems and radio communication.

Raji’s application for an EB-1 permanent residency, supported by myself and Professor FS Mozer from the University of California, Berkeley, was successful. He left with his family for Baltimore, Maryland, in May 2019 and shortly thereafter obtained a part-time teaching post at Maryland College. His NASA postdoctoral award was announced on Wednesday 09 October 2019. He will start in November 2019 at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The strength of Raji’s project submission to NASA was the quality of his four journal articles from his PhD thesis and four others from postdoctoral research - all of which were published in leading journals in the field. I called Raji soon after the announcement. In congratulating him I reminded him that what he had achieved is but a mere dream for many, many space physics researchers across the world. Therefore, he should focus on working harder than ever before in seeking to move his career to higher levels.


On reflection, Raji and I must acknowledge the support of Professors Rob Lindsay and Reggie Madjoe of the Department of Physics and Astronomy who facilitated Raji’s registration for the PhD degree and settled him into the Department while I was attending to the matters of a busy office, as well as Professor Chris Arendse for affording Raji the space and support to undertake postdoctoral research in the Department. Raji and I have agreed to explore collaboration between NASA, UWC and SANSA, Hermanus.