Reaching for the stars with SKA support

2012-05-31 00:00

THE sky is no longer the limit for three young Pietermaritzburg women who are also reaching for the stars and beyond by doing their Masters degrees on Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project bursaries.

Susan Wilson and Kenda Knowles from Girls’ High School and Nikhita Madhanpall from Raisethorpe High all matriculated in 2006. The three have become firm friends and say they are pursuing their dreams of being part of the SKA team. They hope to get doctorates in astrophysics and continue being part of the world’s most powerful radio telescope project.

The Witness reported yesterday on seven doctoral and post-doctoral researchers working in the SKA arena and who have midlands links. The three masters students will now take this tally to ten.

Wilson, who is currently doing research in Spain, grew up on a farm in Richmond. She said she had a fascination with the stars from a young age, but only considered studying them as a career when she was in Grade 11. She approached University of KwaZulu-Natal professors Nithaya Chetty and Catherine Cress, who encouraged her to obtain a basic degree in physics before specialising in astronomy. She passed her matric with six As and was awarded a SKA bursary from her second year of studies onwards.

Wilson is doing her MSc under Dr Nadeem Oozeer, an operating and commissioning scientist at SKA.

Madanpall’s interest in astronomy started when she was 13 and living on a farm in Thornville. She had a small telescope her father had given her and tried to identify stars and planets. At 15, she attended an amateur astronomy course offered by the midlands branch of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa (ASSA). Madhanpall was awarded a SKA bursary during her honours year of study and remains on the bursary programme. Her masters with the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) at UCT involves an investigation into how well we will be able to determine the nature of dark matter using the South African SKA precursor telescope MeerKAT. She plans to start her PhD next year. Raisethorpe High principal Indran Pillay described Madhanpall as an excellent ambassador for the school and an all-rounder who had consistently produced outstanding results.

Knowles was born in Johannesburg but moved to the Midlands with her family in 1996. She says it was only in her matric year that she seriously considered astronomy as a career, thanks in part to discussions with Wilson. Knowles, who achieved six As in matric, went on to do a BSc in Computational Physics at UKZN Pietermaritzburg, graduating summa cum laude in both her bachelor and honours degrees.

Her masters thesis is on the growth of galaxy clusters — the most massive objects in the universe, held together by gravity. She says thanks to SKA funding and her supervisor at UKZN, Professor Kavilan Moodley, she has visited Australia, the U.S. and the Netherlands for work and will be soon going to India.

GHS principal Mary-Ann Akerman said the school was delighted and proud to hear of Wilson and Knowles’s involvement in the SKA project. “Susan’s teachers remember her as being passionate about the environment and space, and she always had an amazing general knowledge. Kenda was a very versatile learner with talents ranging from belly dancing to creative writing to science. Her teachers are thrilled to hear of her success, but not surprised,” she said.

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