Africa’s universities can shrug off history and stage science revolutions

The sky is the limit for African science when universities work together. Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

South Africa’s University of the Western Cape (UWC) has been ranked number one for Physical Science in Africa by top journal Nature. Nico Orce, an associate professor with UWC’s nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics group, tells The Conversation Africa what lessons there are for other universities on the continent – and why there’s more work to be done.

UWC still serves a historically disadvantaged community and is less well-funded than many previously white universities in South Africa. Against this backdrop, what did it take for you, your colleagues and your students to get this far?

Being ranked number one on the continent is strongly linked to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope being built in South Africa. A number of UWC’s scientists are very involved in this project.

Smart strategic planning and a real push for funding helped to stimulate the physical sciences at UWC. That energy attracted more and more talented researchers, including post-doctoral candidates. This is a crucial way to speed up transformation: bringing in highly skilled researchers from all over the country and the world to train a new generation of local scientists.

The sciences have had a good year at UWC. Your group is also about to become the first from an African institution to lead an experiment at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. How did that happen?

When I was finishing my degree in Fundamental Physics back in Spain I convinced some of my friends to attend a summer school at CERN. We asked the professor in charge of international exchange programmes to sign our applications. He told us with malicious pleasure that, “Only the crème de la crème goes to CERN – students from Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. You come from the University of Granada. I cannot believe you even thought of it.” He wouldn’t sign it, so there went our slight chance of working at CERN.

Since then, I promised myself that one day I would go to CERN through the big door and open it up to the ones behind me: young hopeful students.

That promise came to fruition in September 2013 when our group’s proposal to run an experiment at CERN was approved. Our work, which will finally be conducted in November 2016, involves measuring the nuclear shapes of very rare nuclei. Some of our postgraduates have already received training, and did so well that they were awarded a prestigious CERN fellowship.

UWC students (bottom from left to right) Kenzo Abrahams, Makabata Mokgolobotho and Craig Mehl. They are with CERN employees, including (back, second from left) Professor Maria Garcia Borge. Supplied

This experiment will open the doors of CERN to all African institutions. We walked through first. Now others will be able to follow.

Enrolling more women students, as well as those who are not white and those from poor backgrounds, is a huge imperative for South African universities. Are you getting that right in the Physics department?

One of the Physics and Astronomy Department’s highest priorities is to attract and enthuse South African students. We have strong outreach programmes to achieve this. One that I like very much is when we give talks to high school students; those in Grades 10, 11 and 12 who are close to finishing school. Our staff members and postgraduates present examples of the work we do.

It’s especially amazing when one of our postgraduates returns to their own school. You should have heard the eruption when one postgraduate, Sivuyile Xabanisa, told kids at his Khayelitsha high school that he was studying the oldest stars in the universe – and going to Oxford University as part of his training.

We also invite high school groups to events organised at the university. In 2013 Serge Haroche visited our Science Research Open Day. He was the 2012 Nobel Laureate in Physics. The auditorium practically shook with excitement when he handed over a new microscope to pupils from a high school in Wallacedene, a poor area quite close to UWC.

Nobel Laureate Serge Haroche visits the University of the Western Cape.

Another really valuable initiative has been the MaNus/MatSci programme for Nuclear Science and Material Science. In the same way that the SKA is driving strong growth in astronomy, this Honours and Masters programme is attracting growing numbers of future nuclear physicists. It trains about 25 South African students each year, most of them black and from poor backgrounds. These students are drawn from historically disadvantaged institutions like the universities of Fort Hare, Venda, Limpopo and the North West – and from UWC’s undergraduate programmes.

All of this work and outreach has produced impressive results. Today there are more than 100 postgraduate students in the Physics and Astronomy Department. Most of them are black South Africans from historically disadvantaged backgrounds.

What are the lessons other African institutions’ science faculties and individual departments can learn from UWC’s recent successes?

We need to break history to change things dramatically. And we must do it the South African, or African way – using our own strengths and methods, not adopting European approaches.

Universities need to work harder to make sure women and all races are equally represented in their science classrooms. At UWC we’ve got a number of postgraduate women students who are doing great science, winning awards and raising the bar for everyone. Having women there makes other women realise the door is open for them. In the same way, having postgraduates like Sivuyile Xabanisa visiting schools in poorer communities makes pupils realise they also have a place in science labs. Role models are so important.

UWC’s Dr Nico Orce with pupils from Khayelitsha’s Zola High School. Supplied

Ultimately, UWC wants to be number one for physical science not just in Africa but in the world. To do that, we cannot constantly fight among ourselves as individual researchers or with other institutions on the continent. The only competition we need is the healthy sort that improves everyone’s performance.

Collaboration is really crucial. UWC applied for about R30 million from country’s the National Research Foundation and its Department of Science and Technology to build a new detector system called GAMKA.

The construction will happen at iThemba LABS in Cape Town and involves a consortium of both wealthy and less well resourced universities. We’ll all have to work closely together, with the same aim, to be successful. That’s the key to making African science soar: knowing that if you try to do it alone, you won’t have all the skills or equipment. Together we can lead science worldwide through work done right here on the continent.

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