“Big Data in Astronomy” Opens Doors for Honours Student

Computer Science Honours Student, Ms Lisa Dayaram.

Ms Lisa Dayaram, an Honours student in Computer Science on the Westville campus spent a study week at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) in June. The visit was funded by the Swiss-South Africa bilateral agreement.

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“Big Data” for Science and Society Launch Goes Big!

From left: Professors Deresh Ramjugernath, Francesco Petruccione, Onisimo Mutanga, Kavilan Moodley, Maheshvari Naidu and Kesh Govinder at the Big Data for Science and Society project launch.

With the launch of the Big Data for Science and Society (BDSS) project, UKZN’s Big Data and Informatics’ Research Flagship plans to transform research by creating scientific and socio-economic impacts.
Read more: http://ndabaonline.ukzn.ac.za/UkzndabaStory/isizulu/Big%20Data%20for%20Science%20and%20Society%20Launch%20Goes%20Big

Image credit: Albert Hirasen

R9m Boost to Big Data Research Flagship Project

Principal Investigators on the Flagship project (from left) Professor Kavilan Moodley, Professor Maheshvari Naidu and Professor Onisimo Mutanga.

UKZN has invested just over R9 million to kickstart the Big Data for Science and Society (BDSS) Flagship Project – one of three such projects to receive financial backing from the programme.

The Research Flagship Programme concentrates on four broad areas: Social Cohesion, African Health, Big Data and Informatics, and African Cities of the Future.

UKZN’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research Professor Deresh Ramjugernath emphasised the purpose of the Flagship Programme was to ‘promote research that has socio-economic impact and relevance to society and UKZN stakeholders, with the emphasis being on projects which are impactful, implementable and spur economic growth and social upliftment.’

The BDSS Project will support this mission through multi-disciplinary, cross-flagship, and cross-college collaboration in big data research that will have a significant scientific and social impact. The benefits of the cross-disciplinary approach include leveraging big data expertise to advance University-wide big data research projects in disciplines where large datasets currently exist but are not being fully exploited.

Three Principal Investigators (PIs) will lead the flagship project. They are Professor Kavilan Moodley – Astrophysics; Professor Maheshvari Naidu – Geospatial Humanities, and Professor Onisimo Mutanga – Earth Observation. In addition, the project has a number of Co-Investigators (Co-Is) from the fields of computer science and computer engineering, physics, statistics, psychology, management and information systems, and information and communication services.

The BDSS team comprises members from three Colleges: the College of Law and Management Studies, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science, and the College of Humanities.

The project will deploy interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary data-driven techniques that will blur the boundaries between disciplines resulting in scientific and societal benefits spanning a wide variety of topics ranging from dark energy, to climate change and urbanisation, to mobility and migration.

Professor in Anthropology, Academic Leader of Research in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and PI on the BDSS project, Professor Maheshvari Naidu, highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of the BDSS Flagship project. ‘This particular Flagship Project cements meaningful collaboration among a wide spectrum of disciplines. It’s particularly exciting for aspects of what can be described as computational social sciences,’ said Naidu.

‘One of the initiatives will be to work with colleagues from Physics and Computer Science to explore machine learning (ML) tools in the context of social science narrative data. The aim is to work towards a model that is adapted to heterogeneous and unstructured social science textual data. This kind of work will, in turn, allow social scientists to probe social science issues on a scale not imaginable in the past in the context of ML, Geographic Information System (GIS) and data mining,’ she said.

Innovative research in the BDSS flagship project will include:

  •  Utilisation of big data from key Astrophysics telescope projects, such as the Hydrogen Intensity and Real-time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX), the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, and the Meer – Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT) to develop big data pipelines, which will allow scientists to perform cutting-edge science in the topics of dark energy and fast radio bursts.
  •  Extraction and analysis of big data from Earth Observation sources to conduct invasive species mapping in the context of climate change for better understanding of the ecological impacts of invasive species and the overall impacts of climate change.
  •  Curation and analysis of big data from Geo-Spatial Humanities to map spatial patterns and human mobility through GIS.
  •  The utilisation of large datasets from Twitter to develop new and expand on existing ML sentiment algorithms that will provide insights into social enactments, raced, and gendered relations.
  •  Development of domain-specific ML and Artificial Intelligence (AI) techniques and algorithms that are tailor-made to discover patterns in data sets, intelligent data mining, and quantum computing techniques for big data analysis
  •  The utilisation of statistical clustering and data mining techniques for big data analysis including spatial clustering and data mining methods that will create a cohesive ‘picture’ that can be used to investigate selected social science phenomenon

Associate Professor in Astrophysics at UKZN, HIRAX PI and PI on the project, Professor Kavilan Moodley, extolled the benefits of this substantial project. ‘The BDSS flagship project will support big data research in a number of high-profile astronomy projects that seek to uncover the secrets of the universe. New techniques developed for these projects will also be applied to big datasets in other disciplines, resulting in important scientific and societal advances,’ said Moodley.

The scientific and socio-economic impact of this research will be magnified through collaboration with a strategic group of partners who will enable project sustainability and broaden the impact of programme outputs. These partnerships and key links include national government organisations such as the National Research Foundation, South African Radio Astronomy Observatory, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and South African National Parks. These organisations will support big data research in a multitude of topics and disciplines such as radio astronomy, biodiversity, land use planning and management, and wildlife management.

There will also be partnerships with local government through shared collaborative centres that will promote human capital development through big data innovations and technology spin-offs into industry. BDSS will also work with a number of multi-disciplinary research centres including the Centre for Artificial Intelligence Research, the Astrophysics Research Centre, and the UKZN-based Andrew Mellon funded Spatial Humanities Project. These research centres provide data processing, ML, and AI expertise and linkages with governments and end users.

Finally, the project boasts a growing number of international partners that currently span nine institutions in six different countries.

Professor in Ecological Remote Sensing and GIS at UKZN, the SA Research Chairs’ Initiative Chair in Land use Planning and Management and project PI, Professor Onisimo Mutanga, said: ‘The 4th industrial revolution big data research direction opens up avenues to integrating rem

ote sensing data, advanced climate information, crop/agro hydrological models and machine learning tools for early warning systems on environmental perturbations. This makes informed decisions on climate risk and adaptive land use management.’

In addition to the societal and scientific impacts resulting from the research itself, the flagship’s projects are also geared at developing local staff and students. BDSS will focus on equity and gender transformation of students, postdoctoral fellows and senior researchers, and support the funding of additional postdoctoral fellows and graduate students to work together across disciplines and with the project’s many external partners. This cross-disciplinary co-supervision and collaboration model will promote skills development in both big data techniques and their application across disciplines. The training of transdisciplinary PhD-level students and postdoctoral fellows will have a long-term impact on society by boosting student entrepreneurship, increasing job growth and raising the local and national gross domestic product.

Article sourced from: http://ndabaonline.ukzn.ac.za/UkzndabaStory/Vol7-Issue5/UKZN%20Invests%20in%20Innovative%20Big%20Data%20Research%20to%20Boost%20Flagship%20Project

Swiss-SA Astronomy Big Data Workshop

UKZN’s Professor Kavilan Moodley and Dr Martin Kunz of the University of Geneva who are Principal Investigators for the Swiss/South African Joint Research Programme (SSAJRP).

Scientists and astronomers from Switzerland and South Africa recently discussed Astronomy Big Data were at a bilateral workshop which unpacked how challenging astronomy problems involving Big Data could be solved using Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Big Bata refers to the study and applications of data-sets that are so big and complex that traditional data-processing software are rendered ineffective. The key challenge surrounding Big Data is to turn it into information and knowledge that has commercial value, brings scientific and technological advances or has a broader impact on society.

The workshop was a part of the Swiss/South African Joint Research Programme (SSAJRP), a collaborative platform in astronomy to address the scientific Big Data challenge faced by pathfinder telescopes to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) such as UKZN’s HIRAX (Hydrogen Intensity Mapping and Real-time Analysis Experiment), MeerKAT (Meer Karoo Array Telescope), the BINGO (BAO from Integrated Neutral Gas Observations) telescope, and the DES (Dark Energy Survey) telescope.

The principal investigators for the projects in the SSAJRP- Professor Kavilan Moodley of UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research and Dr Martin Kunz of the University of Geneva (UNIGE)- have extensive expertise in the required methods and techniques and are well placed to make significant contributions to the project. The Swiss-South African collaboration entails scientists developing methodologies and tools to build a framework to solve the challenges they face. Developing this framework and associated methodologies will result in cutting-edge discoveries in fundamental science that will benefit other fields of science using Big Data such as geospatial sciences and climate science as well as a variety of industries.

The workshop comprised two days of information exchange and discussions about the plan for the projects and how they fit into the overall collaborative project. Some of the topics covered by the speakers featured 21cm cosmology, next-generation modelling for connecting HI (atomic hydrogen) to dark matter, data challenges relating to the HIRAX telescope, quantum machine learning and data processing in cosmology using the examples of Planck and Euclid.

The proposed workflow that was discussed incorporates a number of different aspects of the Big Data challenge, including a data acquisition layer which is proposed to validate the measured data through calibration and high-end instrument model calibration. The data measurement process also involves pre-processing and sampling of the large pathfinder datasets. These techniques will ensure a high fidelity of data and a model to test for systematic effects in the data measurement process. The data analysis layer involves theoretical modelling that involves mathematical and computational techniques. Machine learning techniques will extract significant value from the large pathfinder datasets and offer the promise of new scientific discoveries.

‘This bilateral project between South Africa and Switzerland represents a great opportunity for both countries to profit from each other in terms of experience, knowledge and access to astronomical data,’ said Kunz. ‘I should add that every visit to South Africa, like on the occasion of this workshop, is a pleasure thanks to the warm and kind hospitality that is unfailingly extended to us.’

“The workshop was extremely productive and resulted in knowledge sharing and collaborative plans to guide various projects. The Swiss-South African collaboration will create high-impact outcomes that will address astronomy big data challenges” added Moodley.

Article sourced from: http://ndabaonline.ukzn.ac.za/UkzndabaStory/Vol6-Issue53/Swiss%20SA%20Big%20Data%20Workshop%20at%20UKZN

TATA Doctoral Scholarship for Astronomy Whizz

Ms Sinehlanhla Precious Sikhosana receives a TATA Doctoral Scholarship.

Ms Sinehlanhla Precious Sikhosana received a TATA Doctoral Scholarship at the Department of Science and Technology (DST) South African Women in Science Awards in Polokwane last week.

Sikhosana is one of three doctoral candidates to be awarded the honour for women working in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics where female participation is low.

Sikhosana, who is based in the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU), is conducting PhD research involving investigations into diffuse radio emission in galaxy clusters; work that she hopes will improve current scaling relations of the diffuse emissions and theories around the evolution of galaxy clusters. Sikhosana is passionate about empowering future generations in the sciences and hopes her research will inspire more young South African women to consider a career in Astronomy, which has few female scientists.

‘It is humbling to know that my hard work is being recognised at a national level,’ she said, adding, ‘The scholarship includes traveling grants, equipment grants and enables other activities that contribute towards improving my research. Most importantly, a public platform like this gives us a chance to inspire women to join the science field and stay in it.’

Named one of the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science’s (CAES) Wonder Women in Science in 2017, Sikhosana has received a number of accolades over the course of her academic career, including the Hope Scholarship from the Association of South African Women in Science and Engineering (SAWISE) which enabled her to travel to Princeton University for a month in 2014 as well as a full undergraduate scholarship from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). She is also a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society at UKZN which enabled her to attend the International Scholar Laureate Programme hosted in Washington DC and New York in 2013. In March 2018, she presented her work at the American Astronomical Society’s ‘SnowCluster 2018: The Physics of Galaxy Clusters’ conference in Utah. She also presented her research at the ‘Hot spots in the XMM sky: Cosmology from X-ray to Radio’ conference in Mykonos in 2016 and was awarded the top prize for her oral presentation at the CAES Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium in 2015.

Sikhosana was among the top performing students in CAES between 2011 and 2013 and achieved her undergraduate and Honours degrees cum laude. She is passionate about giving back to the community, having tutored numerous high school pupils and undergraduate students.

Article sourced from: http://ndabaonline.ukzn.ac.za/UkzndabaStory/Vol6-Issue43/TATA%20Doctoral%20Scholarship%20for%20Astronomy%20Whizz/

Zac Yacoob Scholarship Award for Aspiring Astrophysicist


Mr Dalian Sunder receives his award from Professor Quarraisha Abdool Karim, CAPRISA Associate Scientific Director.

Mr Dalian Sunder, a BSc Applied Mathematician and Physics graduate, received the Zac Yacoob Scholarship Award at this year’s annual Scholarship Awards ceremony.

Youngest in his family, Mr Sunder recollects how his interest in outer-space blossomed to his passion for Maths and Physics during high school. At a tender age, Mr Sunder would spend hours at the library with his mother reading up on the universe and outer-space.

‘I was always fascinated by outer space from a young age. I would memorise facts such as Yuri Gagarin who in 1961 became the first man to journey to outer space. I always annoyed my parents with questions about everything. My mom should spend hours with me in the non-fictional section of the library, and it was there that I developed an interest for outer space and trying to understand how the universe works. This passion only grew throughout high school, and thus led me to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree,’ said Sunder.

He graduated earlier this year summa cum laude with a BSc degree in Applied Maths and Physics. He is currently pursuing a BSc Honours degree in Applied Maths. With this scholarship, he feels he will be able to accomplish his goals of becoming an astrophysicist.

‘I plan on continuing with postgraduate research at Master’s level. This will allow me to build on my current knowledge and delve deeper into topics that were introduced in my undergrad studies which will also prepare me for PhD studies. This is a step forward in becoming an astrophysicist,’ said Sunder.

For Sunder, receiving this scholarship is not only validation of his hard work but also serves as a motivation to continue in the same diligent streak in future.

‘The scholarship means acknowledgment of past work and motivation to work harder in the future. It is the happiness on my parents’ faces. It creates a sense of accomplishment. In short, it means a lot to me. I would like to make a special thanks to God, without whom, none of this would be possible. I also especially thank my parents for their endless support and encouragement, but most importantly, for selflessly sacrificing so much for me. Without them, I certainly would not be here today. You could say I stand on the shoulders of giants,’ he said, also extending gratitude to the scholarship donors.

‘Thank you for acknowledging my efforts. It is uplifting and shows your confidence in my generation. I thank you for your overwhelming generosity and will strive to emulate it in the future,’ says Mr Sunder.

Professor Kavilan Moodley, Mr Sunder’s lecturer, said he (Sunder) has performed exceptionally well in his undergraduate degree and has a bright research career ahead in the field of astrophysics and cosmology.

Wonder Women in Science – Receiving Signals from the Stars

Ms Zahra Kader, one of the 2018 candidates in the Wonder Women in Science Campaign

To commemorate National Science Week and National Women’s Month, the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science is honouring its female scientists through its Wonder Women in Science campaign. These are passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are making waves in the field of science.

Ms Zahra Kader is a Masters candidate in the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU) in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (SMSCS).

She has always found science fascinating and loved mathematics and physics in school, and aimed for a career in the sciences to pursue knowledge of things humankind does not yet have answers to.

‘As a scientist, it is exciting to know that the small contributions I make today could lead to a big scientific breakthrough in the future,’ she said.

Kader’s interest in astrophysics began over a decade ago when her mother presented her with a science magazine that included material about the planets, asteroids and comets in our solar system, and featured the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

Fast forward a few years and Kader is the recipient of bursaries from SKA, and during her Honours year visited the SALT telescope. She graduated with her undergraduate and Honours degrees from UKZN summa cum laude, and was the top student in physics in her first and third years. She also recently visited the Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) in Australia.

Kader’s research now focuses on data gleaned from the recently launched Hydrogen Intensity Real-Time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX) radio telescope, designed and built by UKZN. She is investigating HIRAX-Data analysis and cosmological cross correlations. This involves examining fringe patterns from the dishes to determine the system temperature, a very important parameter to know in order to make signal-to-noise estimates. She is also correlating the signal from the Kinetic Sunyaev-Z’eldovich effect (KSZ) and the 21cm signal.

Kader explained that clusters (large groups of gravitationally bound galaxies) reach very high temperatures, and free electrons in the cluster interact with photons from the cosmic microwave background (CMB) and distort the CMB signal (the signal from light that has been travelling since 380 000 years after the big bang).

‘The movement of the cluster relative to us results in Doppler shifting of the 21cm signal emitted by neutral hydrogen or star forming gas,’ said Kader. ‘These two signals provide insight into the Epoch of Reionization (EoR), so both signals give indications of large-scale structures and the EoR, and combining signals can give us insight into these topics.’

As one of the few women working in astrophysics, Kader has been encouraged by the equal treatment of women in ACRU.

Her heroes in the field include the greats, namely Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Nobel Prize winners such as Kip Thorne and twice-awarded Marie Curie. Another hero is Jocelyn Bell, discoverer of dense, fast-spinning stars known as pulsars. She also admires little-known Henrietta Swan Leavitt, a deaf astronomer whose work with Cepheids enabled Edwin Hubble to determine that the universe was expanding.

Kader is motivated by the prospect of being an inspiration to others, even by simply sparking a growing interest in the sciences that leads young people to enter this field. Her Muslim faith is one of her biggest sources of strength and gratitude. Her advice to her younger self would include prioritising her faith, helping others, caring for the environment and developing a good conceptual understanding of the basic scientific concepts she learned at school.

Kader volunteers at Headway, which aids those suffering from head traumas, regularly visits old age homes and supports the work of the Al-Imdaad Foundation.

A challenge facing the development of the sciences is, according to Kader, the stereotypes placed on the roles of men and women, with some careers being seen as inherently ‘male’. She advocates for diversity and representation in the sciences if these fields hope to grow.

She recommended that mathematics and science be emphasised in schools, and that passionate teachers be equipped to teach these subjects in order to produce skilled individuals for engineering, mathematics, physics, computer science and similar fields.

Kader encouraged budding female scientists who are interested in mathematics and physics to ignore stereotypes and focus on what they would like to achieve, despite the rarity of female scientists. She encouraged them to look up to the examples of what women like Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon had achieved.

Zahra’s plans include progressing to PhD and then postdoctoral studies in cosmology.

‘With the new upcoming telescopes, SKA and HIRAX, exciting times await those in the field of astrophysics and cosmology and I am privileged to be a part of it,’ she said.

Kader is a Wonder Women In Science that the university is proud to claim as its own.

Because we see Wonder Women in Science as modern-day heroines, we asked her to create a superhero profile for herself. This is how Zahra sees herself.

Q. What would you super power be and why?  
A.  Being able to absorb knowledge from others so that I could instantly become as smart as the lecturers and researchers in my field. The jump between Honours and Masters is a giant leap and I feel like this power would make that jump much more bearable.

Q. What would be your theme song?
A. Titanium by David Guetta featuring Sia

Q. Who would be your sidekick and why?  
A. My parents, because they are more fit than I am, and they give kick ass advice. They provide me with much needed motivation and I owe them more than I can possibly hope to repay. Hopefully choosing them as my sidekicks repays the debt to some degree.

Q. Where would your secret lair/ hide out be?
A. A countryside farm full of animals that is far, far away from civilization. A place where the night-time is truly dark enough for me to lay under the stars and admire the beauty of the cosmos.

Q. What is your kryptonite (weakness)?
A. My kryptonite is time. I do not have good time management skills at all and it is definitely something that I need to work on. Absorbing knowledge from others would go a long way towards helping me with time management.

Searching For The Universe’s First Stars

Dr. Cynthia Chiang standing beside the PRIZM telescope located on Marion Island.

Dr Cynthia Chiang, a senior astrophysics lecturer at UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit, recently returned from Marion Island, located halfway between Antarctica and South Africa, where she upgraded the PRIZM radio telescope. The telescope, built by Dr Chiang and her astrophysics students, is being used to detect traces of the first stars that turned on in the Universe.

At the beginning of April, Dr Chiang visited the island with her students to install two additional antennaes on the telescope- the team’s first visit to the island after having installed the telescope in 2017. The two new antennas are of a different design and operate at lower frequencies, to the two existing antennae. At the end of May, Dr Chiang returned to Marion Island alone. At the Island, she repaired a portion of the telescope with the help of the overwinterer, base engineer, diesel mechanic, the helicopter team and the Department of Environmental Affairs. She also managed to swop out 500 kg’s of batteries to increase the lifespan of the experiment.

PRIZM (Probing Radio Intensity at high-Z from Marion) is a low-frequency radio telescope which collects information about the universe during the “Cosmic Dawn”, the period a few hundred million years after the big bang when the first stars in the universe formed.  The light from these first stars is too dim for optical telescopes to view, therefore they have never been measured directly. PRIZM was designed to make this measurement and to help determine when the first stars and galaxies formed.

In order to effectively capture data, the chosen site for the telescope, had to be free from man-made transmissions such as radio stations and cell phones. Marion Island was chosen due to its ideal remote location: It is separated from the nearest continental landmasses by 2000 km and is one of the most radio silent locations in the world.

Dr Chiang and her team experienced many challenges while working on the Island. The island lies in the Roaring Forties, an area notorious for high winds, rain and cold temperatures and the Island is only accessible via ship (The SA Agulhas II) once a year. In addition, time on the Island is extremely limited “We had a very compressed timeline of three weeks on the island to set up, get the equipment running, capture the data and leave. Sometimes weather and logistic delays gave us even less time to get things done” said Dr Chiang. Despite facing these challenges, Dr Chiang and her team managed to successfully upgrade the telescope.

The PRIZM telescope which has been collecting data for the past year at Marion Island.

Dr Chiang and her students are currently processing data collected from the PRIZM telescope data in the past 12 months. “With this telescope, we receive true signals from the sky as well as environment and systematic effects that might be introduced by an instrument, therefore there is a lot of work involved in separating these effects making sure to understand that what we’re seeing is the actual truth from the sky”, said Dr Chiang.

Dr Chiang has also contributed to other telescopes across the world including SPIDERPlanck High-Frequency InstrumentSouth Pole Telescope and C-BASS. However of all the locations that Dr Chiang has worked at, she feels that Marion Island has been the hardest. “You’re cold, tired, hungry and exhausted all the time but it is absolutely worth it for the science and it is just a beautiful location as well”.


We Hosted a National Workshop for Young Scientists and Engineers

Delegates at the radio astronomy workshop in Durban.

Academically excellent science and engineering undergraduate students from across the country descended upon Durban on Monday (2 July 2018) for a radio astronomy workshop, hosted by the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). The workshop aimed to showcase exciting developments in astronomy, to encourage these young students to pursue their Masters and PhD degrees in radio astronomy science or engineering. In doing so, the workshop sought to help address the low numbers of appropriately qualified radio astronomers, researchers and engineers in South Africa.

Due to the multifaceted nature of radio astronomy, the students that have attended the workshop are from a variety of fields including astronomy, engineering, physics, mathematics and computer science.

The workshop covered a wide range of astronomy topics including black holes, building telescopes radio astronomy and computing. Furthermore, students obtained a better understanding of professional astronomy by interacting with both renowned UKZN astronomers and UKZN astronomy PhD and Masters students. “This is an amazing opportunity for undergraduate students to learn more about astronomy. I’m particularly looking forward to learning more about instrumentation” said Miss Denisha Pillay, a third year UKZN astronomy student who holds an astronomy bursary from SARAO.

UKZN was selected to host the workshop because it has a large number of students studying astronomy degrees. Furthermore UKZN, in partnership with the National Research Foundation (NRF), SARAO, and the Department of Science and Technology, will be constructing a R70 million telescope named HIRAX, which will provide students with the opportunity to develop relevant skills, as well as to engage in important research.

“The workshop will assist in creating an interactive and collaborative community, of students, local researchers and the SARAO team. We are looking forward to an exciting informative event that highlights the importance of postgraduate studies in astronomy” says Dr Mthuthuzeli Zamxaka, Manager of Research Capacity Development, at SARAO.

SARAO is responsible for coordinating Africa’s involvement in the design and construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), and for the design, construction and commissioning of South Africa’s Karoo Array Radio Telescope (MeerKAT). In addition, SARAO is coordinating the African VLBI Network (AVN) efforts, and a human capital development programme. SARAO is a project of the Department of Science and Technology, administered by the National Research Foundation.

Our Zahra: Congratulations from S.A. Government and MIT studies

Ms Zahra Essack graduated with a Masters in Astrophysics, cum laude.

Developing an algorithm to search for planets outside the solar system earned Ms Zahra Essack a Master of Science (MSc) cum laude in Applied Mathematics (Astrophysics) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. This brings the number of degrees Essack has received from the university to three, preceded by a Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Science Honours – both awarded summa cum laude – in 2016 and 2017 respectively. The National Assembly during its sitting held on Tuesday, 24 April 2018 passed a motion of congratulation for Essack for developing this algorithm.

Essack developed an algorithm to detect transiting exoplanets in light curve data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. A transit occurs when a planet passes across the face of its host star and blocks out some of the star’s light. The blocking of star light creates dips in the light curve of the star (a light curve is a plot of brightness vs. time). If these dips occur periodically, it can be indicative of the presence of an exoplanet orbiting the star. The shape of the dips provides information about the size, period and orbital distance of the exoplanet.

Essack’s research was funded by an Innovation Masters Scholarship from the Department of Science and Technology – National Research Foundation (DST-NRF) and the Vincent Maphai Scholarship, awarded to the top-ranked masters student in the entire university.

In addition to receiving the Dean’s Commendation for eight consecutive semesters, Essack was the top student in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science throughout her bachelor and honours degrees. She was the recipient of nine scholarships from UKZN, most of which she accepted without purse, allowing them to be reallocated to other deserving students.

Among her achievements, Essack received the Brenda M Gourley Scholarship in 2015 when she was ranked second undergraduate student in the entire University, the Zac Yacoob Scholarship in 2016 for being the best student proceeding to an honours degree and the Maryam Babangida Scholarship in the same year for being the best female student in the entire university progressing from undergraduate to honours study. She also received the National Research Foundation Square Kilometre Array (NRF-SKA) Scholarship from 2014–2016.

Essack is presently pursuing her doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, supervised by Professor Sara Seager, a world leader in exoplanet research.

After attaining her PhD, Essack hopes to return to South Africa to start a Centre for Excellence in exoplanets. Centres of Excellence are an initiative of the DST-NRF which focuses on research excellence, capacity development as well as inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration.

‘South Africa has become a radio astronomy hub with the SKA project. In setting up a Center of Excellence on exoplanets upon my return to South Africa, the future generation of radio astronomers will have another field to pursue, a field not yet fully tapped into in South Africa. This would allow me to further my field of specialisation in South Africa within the SKA project in collaboration with MIT and other international networks I would have forged during my graduate studies,’ said Essack.

‘Research is a challenging process with a myriad of positive and negative turns that keep you perpetually motivated in search of solutions. It is ultimately a rewarding journey,’ said Essack.

‘I have been fortunate to learn from and work with world-class researchers in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science and the School of Chemistry and Physics at UKZN, who have inspired me and helped me to grow as a scientist and a researcher. I am grateful to have received an education that has allowed me to compete at an international level in my field.’

Professor Kavilan Moodley, of UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit said: ‘Zahra was involved in original research in developing an independent technique to extract transiting exoplanets from Kepler light curve data. Kepler has revolutionised the field of exoplanet research and Zahra’s successful analysis of this data demonstrates her competence with research methods and their application in this field.’

Dr Matt Hilton (senior lecturer, MSCS) said: ‘Zahra was a brilliant and hardworking student and it was a pleasure working with her. I wish her all the best for her PhD studies in the United States.’

Article sourced from: http://ndabaonline.ukzn.ac.za/UkzndabaStory/Vol6-Issue14-CAES/From%20MSc%20to%20MIT%20UKZN%20Masters%20Student%20Graduates%20Cum%20Laude