Carter, a school for astrophysicists

2012-05-30 00:00

IT WAS a short e-mail and Carter High is naturally over the moon.

The communication was from the University of the Western Cape’s Professor Catherine Cress, and it related to the involvement of several young scientists who grew up in Pietermaritzburg, and are at the cutting edge of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project. “Could you let Carter High know that they are the biggest producers of Astrophysics Ph.Ds in South Africa — Sarah Bryan, Sean Passmoor and Daniel Cunnama were all at high school there for some time.”

Carter High principal Ashwin Ramgoolam is ecstatic. He said the school was very proud and it came as no surprise that Bryan, Passmoor and Cunnama are at the forefront of this new frontier in space research.

Their teachers relate that all three students had in many ways shown an aptitude that they could do something different. The school has many talented students — both past and at present — who are quietly achieving in different fields making both the school and Pietermaritzburg proud, he said.

In total, The Witness knows of seven doctoral and post-doctoral researchers with Midlands links, including the Carter trio, who are key to the project, now that South Africa has been awarded the largest slice of the SKA. They are:

• Ed Elson, ex-Maritzburg College, who is a post-doctoral researcher working on the Australian side of the project.

• Professor Nithaya Chetty — with roots in both Thornville and the city — has been seconded by Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor to the National Research Foundation as the group executive in charge of astronomy. His job is to manage SA’s national astronomy facilities, including the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) and the South African Square Kilometre Array project office (Saspo). Chetty, who placed first in the 1980 national matriculation examinations, lectured at UKZN from 1997 to 2008 He is currently also an associate professor at the University of Pretoria.

• Cress, grew up in Johannesburg, but lectured at the UKZN Pietermaritzburg campus from 2001 to 2006. She is a member of the International SKA Science Working Group. Cress moved from UKZN to the University of the Western Cape (UWC) where her faculty position was funded by the SA SKA project. She will be joining the Centre for High Performance Computing at the University of Cape Town within the next week. Her abiding interest is the development of South African scientists at an undergraduate level and she believes more should be done in this area.

• Caroline Zunckel, from Westville, did her undergraduate studies on the Pietermaritzburg campus. She did her doctoral studies at Oxford and post-doctoral research at Princeton University. She presently lectures at UKZN in Durban. Her work on the SKA will include studying the growth of supermassive black holes located at the centres of active galaxies and the build-up of stars from the reservoirs of hydrogen gas contained in galaxies.

• Bryan, who matriculated from Carter in 1999, is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Manchester in the UK. Her area of expertise is understanding how galaxies such as the Milky Way form and evolve.

• Passmoor, of the Carter matric class of 2000, has just completed his Ph.D. on the clustering of radio galaxies and on some simulations of what the SKA telescopes will be able to see and do. He is currently working for SKA SA and is part of the team that is commissioning the KAT-7 telescope.

• Cunnama, a Carter matriculant in 2002, is due to complete his Ph.D. this year. His work is on simulations of galaxies and the large scale structure of the universe. He says that in particular he is focusing on neutral hydrogen, something which the SKA is designed to detect.

All these young scientists credit Chetty and Cress for both inspiring them and influencing them.

• nalini@witness.co.za

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