Using an Empty Packet of Chips to View a Solar Eclipse: A Lecturer in the Making

Mr Mthokozisi Mdlalose graduated with his Masters in Physics with the support of his family.

Mr Mthokozisi Mdlalose graduated with a Masters in Physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. His passion for astronomy had previously earned him summa cum laude when he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Applied Mathematics and Physics, majoring in Astrophysics at the University.

Mdlalose fondly recalled how as a young boy he used an empty packet of chips as a filter to view a solar eclipse.

After completing matric at Sukuma Comprehensive School in Pietermaritzburg, Mdlalose pursued a Bachelor of Science (BSc) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

In 2014, Mdlalose embarked on his BSc Honours degree in Physics. His exceptional results saw him scooping the 2016 UKZN Talent Equity and Excellence Scholarship award. Mdlalose effortlessly graduated cum laude with his BSc Honours degree in Physics.

‘Astronomy has been used for thousands of years to understand the connection that exist between earth, the solar system and the whole universe. The principle derived from astronomical observation has been used to develop a day-to-day life of human beings.  It was an inherited curiosity about the interconnectedness of the universe and the inevitable task to address poverty, inequality and injustices that propelled me to study Astronomy,’ said Mdlalose.

Thereafter Mdlalose set his sights on doing his master’s degree with Professor Jonathan Sievers. His research focused on the Quasi-Redundant Calibration. It was to look at how high sensitivity telescope and high precision calibration instruments such as the Precision Array to Probe the Epoch of Re-ionization (PAPER), Hydrogen Epoch of Reionization Array (HERA)  and SKA-low (located at Karoo, Northern Cape) is able measure the 21cm signal radiated by neutral hydrogen from a distance past around 100-500 millions after the Big Bang “the creation of the universe”.

Cosmologists will use the 21 cm signal to study the physics behind the formation of the first stars and galaxies, and further answer the question about the nature of mysterious dark matter and dark energy.

Mdlalose’s master’s research investigated the impact of instrumental imperfections that can potentially make the 21 cm signal measurement impossible. In addition, he employed a new technique calibration to mitigate those instrumental imperfections.

Currently Mdlalose is doing a PhD in Physics under supervision of Professor Yinzhe Ma and Professor Jonathan Sievers, exploring similar research but focusing on analysing real data from HERA-19 (located in SKA site, Karoo). His future goal is to complete his PhD by 2020 and then pursue a two-year postdoctoral degree. Ultimately, Mdlalose wants to lecture in the School of Chemistry and Physics.

Mdlalose was grateful to his supervisor, Professor Jonathan Sievers for his guidance and giving him opportunities to attend the Summer School programmes at the University of Pennsylvania and University of Toronto.

In his spare time, Mdlalose has a keen interest in Social Entrepreneurship. He is a founding member of the Afrikan Emancipation Student Movement (Afri-ESM) which is based at the Westville campus, UKZN.  One of his own ventures includes being part of a fast growing startup called Black Diamond Suit.

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Astrophysics Student Returns from Prestigious Research Programme

Miss Zahra Kader in front of the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) telescope in Narrabri, Australia.

Miss Zahra Kader, a student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU) recently returned from Australia where she participated in a summer vacation programme, sponsored by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

The vacation programme was held over the 2017/2018 summer holidays for 11 weeks. Students from numerous countries applied to participate in this prestigious programme and Kader was one of the few to be selected. This programme provided an opportunity for high achieving students to receive astronomy training from leading CSIRO scientists using world class facilities.

Pulsars are objects in outer space which emit light. For this programme, Kader spent time searching for pulsars as well as trying to find a new method of detecting pulsars. She also had the privilege of working with Dr Shi Dai, a postdoctoral researcher who specialises in pulsar science. Kader did not find any new pulsars but learnt a great deal about pulsars, coding and research.

‘It was absolutely amazing to be able to work at the CSIRO Astronomy and Space department (CASS). Though I am not continuing to study pulsars for my masters, the skills that I obtained during this vacation project will help me in my future studies. Aside from the work, the staff at CSIRO encouraged us to explore the city during the weekends which we were only too happy to do. It was amazing to experience all that Sydney had to offer. It really is a beautiful city and I hope to visit again,’ said Kader. Kader plans to study a PhD in Astronomy at UKZN after completing her master’s degree and then aspires to become a Postdoctoral researcher at ACRU.

Kader hopes that more women will explore opportunities in science: ‘I think women should definitely not feel daunted to enter the world of science. There are women in CASS that really stand out and make immense contributions to science. If your passion lies in science, then you should definitely pursue it. You will be doing a great service to yourself and science,’ she said.

Kader has excelled in her undergraduate studies having attained numerous accolades. She will have the opportunity to make valuable contributions to the HIRAX telescope (UKZN’s flagship project) during her masters and PhD studies. This will hold her in good stead for her long-term scientific career and for advancing South African astronomy.

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Bumper cohort of UKZN Delegates participate in SKA conference

ACRU delegates at the SKA Postgraduate conference

A bumper cohort of students, postdoctoral researchers and staff from UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU) recently returned from Cape Town where they participated in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) Postgraduate conference. The SKA funds astronomy and engineering students and postdoctoral researchers who have a record of academic excellence and an interest in working on the SKA project. This conference is a platform for these students and postdoctoral researchers to display their research.

The event is attended by a large number local professional astronomers and also includes many international astronomers. The UKZN delegation, which was the largest group in attendance, of any university, delivered excellent presentations with lead to a great deal of engagement with the audience. The conference provided an opportunity for the sharing of ideas and experiences pertaining to the astronomy landscape. It also allowed for future collaborations with local and international astronomers to be discussed.

Miss Sinenhlanhla Precious Sikhosana, an ACRU PhD student delivered an excellent poster presentation on “Diffuse Radio Emission in ACTPol Clusters” which is the subject of her research. Sikhosana said that the highlight of the conference was the question and answer session. “It was less formal, more interactive and people raised their views on how to make the conference better. We, as students, received constructive criticism from the senior academics,” she said.

Mr Kabelo Kesebonye, a current ACRU Masters student also presented a well-received poster on his work entitled “Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) measurements at a possible HIRAX outrigger site in Botswana”. For Kesebonye, the highlight of the conference was meeting other SKA postgraduate students and hearing about their projects. “I got to learn a lot about radio astronomy from just listening to people talk about their research,” he said. Kesebonye plans to study a PhD in astronomy so that he can further develop his instrumentation and research skills.

Dr Matt Hilton, a senior astronomy lecturer at ACRU said, “The annual South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) bursary holder’s conference provides a valuable opportunity for our postgraduate students and postdocs to gain experience of presenting their work. The range of work being done in South African radio astronomy is very impressive, from engineering to science projects that will be done with MeerKAT, and I was encouraged by the overall level of the presentations by the students and postdocs. The plenary talks organised by SARAO for this year were also excellent.”

Postdoc wins prestigious L’OREAL-UNESCO fellowship

Dr Kenda Knowles


Dr Kenda Knowles, an ACRU postdoctoral researcher was recently awarded a Postdoctoral fellowship by the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Sub-Saharan Africa programme.

Dr Knowles received this fellowship based on her current project: Statistical study of diffuse radio emission in ACT galaxy clusters with MeerKAT. The primary aim of this survey is to detect diffuse radio emissions in a statistically significant, uniformly selected sample of clusters which lie, in mass and redshift, beyond the currently and previously studied selection criteria. The study of the cosmological evolution of these systems, greatly improves on the currently limited understanding of these diffuse emissions. The research also has the potential to address basic current unanswered questions about the largest gravitationally bound objects in the universe.

Dr Knowles has achieved numerous accolades including receiving bursaries from the Square Kilometre Array South Africa project, winning the Doctoral Fellowship category at the 2015 Women in Science Awards and being selected to attend the 2015 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany, where she engaged with other leading young scientists from various countries.

The 2017 edition of the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Sub-Saharan Africa ceremony celebrated 14 young female scientists. As part of the programme launched in 2010, female scientists from across Sub-Saharan Africa were honoured for their work and impact in the scientific field.  Their fields of research vary across different disciplines and address key global issues. Sandeep Rai, Managing Director, L’Oréal South Africa highlighted the power of these women scientists and the women scientists who have been celebrated this year. “The world continues to face unprecedented challenges such as climate change, water scarcity, illnesses and food security among other issues.  Only a shared, controlled science, at the service of the world’s population, is able to meet the major challenges of the twenty-first century, and our researchers are the proof.”

Dr Knowles was ecstatic at receiving the L’Oréal fellowship, saying “I’m humbled to be a recipient of this fellowship, and I am extremely grateful to my mentors whose support and training have been a large part of getting me here. I am so proud to see the amazing research happening all over Africa by some dynamic and driven young women.”

ACRU MSc graduate heads to Princeton for PhD

Ms Heather Prince, an astronomy postgraduate student in the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) has been accepted to study a PhD degree in Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. She joins the prestigious institution’s Department of Astrophysical Sciences in September this year.

HeatherPrince received her Masters degree in astrophysics from UKZN in April this year and has since worked on writing up results from her Masters thesis work. Her research focused on gravitational lensing of the relic Cosmic Microwave Background light from the Big Bang and intensity mapping of light emitted by neutral hydrogen. Prince also studied what could be learned from combining observations of both these cosmic probes.

Gravitational lensing occurs when light is refracted or bent when travelling though portions of outer space. It is a phenomenon which helps astronomers understand how matter is distributed throughout the Universe. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and neutral hydrogen atoms emit light with a wavelength of 21 centimetres. Intensity mapping of neutral hydrogen is an observational method that allows astronomers to study how neutral hydrogen is disributed in the Universe. Prince’s research will form the basis for two research papers.

Prince who hails from Pietermaritzburg, discovered her passion for Maths and Physics while attending Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School. In 2009 she matriculated as one of the top 10 public school learners in the National Senior Certificate examinations in KwaZulu-Natal. After completing a BSc degree in 2012 at Rhodes University, she became interested in astronomy which lead to her enrolling for a BSc Honours degree, specialising in cosmology, at UKZN in 2013. Prince was awarded this degree summa cum laude and proceeded to study a Masters degree in astronomy. After completing her PhD at Princeton, she plans to return to South Africa to continue her career by focussing on astronomy research and academia at a South African university.

Prince expressed her excitement about being accepted to study at Princeton University. “It is a dream come true to be able to study at Princeton and learn from the leading scientists in my field, in a department where top researchers from all over the world come to give talks and to visit. I am so excited about the opportunities that I will have to learn more and to become a world class researcher.” she said.

Prince is very passionate about her studies and this has motivated her to work diligently. As a result, she has received numerous accolades during her academic career including the Rhodes University Foundation Scholarship (awarded to the top student graduating with a Bachelor’s degree from Rhodes University), the Vincent Maphai Scholarship (awarded to the top-ranked Masters student at UKZN based on Honours results) and a bursary from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa organisation.

When questioned about what she will miss about studying in South Africa, Prince replied “I will miss the people at ACRU. My supervisor and the rest of the staff, students and postdoctoral researchers have created a really great, friendly learning environment and I will be sad to leave that! I also really enjoyed the international environment at ACRU, with people from many different countries. I am especially grateful to SKA SA for providing me with support and funding for my Masters degree.”

Registration open for “Cosmology with Large Surveys” South Africa – China bilateral workshop

Registration is now open for the first South Africa – China bilateral workshop in cosmology, “Cosmology with Large Surveys”.

The workshop aims to bring together all relevant astronomers and cosmologists in South Africa and China, especially in the field of large-scale structure of the Universe and radio astronomy, to discuss science, new technological developments, and prospective collaborations.

The workshop will take place between 19 – 27 November 2016 in Durban. For more details, please visit the website.

UKZN PhD astronomer finds a new radio halo

Dr Kenda Knowles, a Claude Leon postdoctoral researcher at the Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit, has found evidence for a new radio halo in a low-mass galaxy cluster. Her paper on the detection, based on her PhD thesis work, was published this month in “Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society”, an international peer-reviewed astronomy journal (open access arXiv version of the article here).

For more details, see the press release by SKA South Africa.

UKZN astronomers discover mysterious magnetised radio burst with the Green Bank Telescope

A group of astronomers, including ACRU members Jonathan Sievers, Tabhitha Voytek, and PhD student Apratim Ganguly, have discovered a fast radio burst (FRB) using the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia. Only 16 of these events, which last for only milliseconds, have been found to date. This is the first polarised FRB to be discovered, which indicates that the burst came from a dense, magnetised region: possibly a supernova or star forming nebula. The results are published in Nature.

For more on this story, see the press releases by NRAO and SKA South Africa.

Artist impression of a Fast Radio Burst (FRB) reaching Earth. The colors represent the burst arriving at different radio wavelengths, with long wavelengths (red) arriving several seconds after short wavelengths (blue). This delay is called dispersion and occurs when radio waves travel through cosmic plasma. Credit: Jingchuan Yu, Beijing Planetarium
Artist impression of a Fast Radio Burst (FRB) reaching Earth. The colors represent the burst arriving at different radio wavelengths, with long wavelengths (red) arriving several seconds after short wavelengths (blue). This delay is called dispersion and occurs when radio waves travel through cosmic plasma. Credit: Jingchuan Yu, Beijing Planetarium

New ACRU member finds missing matter

A group of astrophysicists, including new ACRU member Dr. Yin-Zhe Ma, has perhaps solved a long standing problem in cosmology.

A number of observations tell us that only 5% of the Universe is made up of the ordinary matter that we encounter in everyday life (baryons), with the remaining 95% being made from a combination of the mysterious ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’. However, locating even the 5% of ordinary matter that is expected to exist has been a challenge – this is referred to as the “missing baryons” problem.

Using observations of the cosmic microwave background, taken with the Planck satellite, in the directions of galaxies identified in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, the missing baryons may have been found. The motion of gas inside and around the galaxies indicates that these regions contain roughly half of the total amount of baryons in the Universe. If the spatial distribution of the ordinary matter follows that of the dark matter, then it seems likely that all of the baryons will be found in and around the galaxies.

The paper describing the study is published in Physical Review Letters and is highlighted as an Editor’s suggestion.


UKZN to host 5th NRF Astronomy Advisory Council meeting-26th June 2015

UKZN will host the 5th National Research Foundation (NRF) Astronomy Advisory Council meeting on the 26th of June 2015 at the Westville campus. The Council is responsible for providing scientific advice to the NRF Astronomy sub-Agency, which is headed by the Deputy CEO for Astronomy, Prof Nithaya Chetty.

Ground breaking research, international academic collaborations and facilities such as the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT) and the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) have driven the growth of astronomy in South Africa. The Council, which is composed of leading researchers will guide the implementation of South Africa’s Astronomy strategy which aims to further grow this field of science and thereby benefit both the local and international community. In addition, it will also encourage the production of important new research in various areas of astronomy and strive to increase the number of local astronomers.