In July 2022, science communicators from around the globe came together both in-person and online for the Public Awareness of Research Infrastructures (PARI) conference, hosted by the SKAO. Among them was Simphiwe Madlanga from South Africa, Coordinator for Science Engagement at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO).
Selected as one of the “Top 200 Young South Africans” in 2018 by the Mail & Guardian newspaper, Simphiwe has devoted his career to explaining astronomy and its benefits to communities across his home country. Currently in London on a prestigious UK government Chevening Scholarship, researching the societal impact of the SKA project in South Africa, Simphiwe spoke to us about lifelong learning, inspiring young people through science, and the value he finds in taking long walks.
Congratulations on your Chevening Scholarship, Simphiwe! What made you want to apply for it?
In the midst of the COVID-19 hard lockdown in my home country, South Africa, while unable to even be outdoors except to buy groceries at certain nationally designated hours, I developed this burning urge to travel the world and elevate my learning and overall value proposition. I was completely unaccustomed to being stuck in one place for that long, because my job entails travelling all across South Africa regularly being in schools, universities and other places of public engagement around science.
Something stirred within me and asked the question; “What can you do that will change everything and surpass all the circumstances you now find yourself in?” I applied to three universities in the United Kingdom and simultaneously applied to the Chevening Award. I had no idea when lockdown would end or if travel to another country would even be possible, but as part of my life goal I had no doubt that this was the best next step in my life. Lo and behold, I was awarded the scholarship; only 1,633 were awarded from more than 64,000 applicants, and I was one of the 50 from South Africa.
Your postgraduate studies are focused on the impact of the SKA project – tell us more.
I want to explore in very specific ways what the SKA project means for South Africa in the context of the many other country-wide facets that are prevalent. The relevant modules in my postgraduate programme include Innovation and the Knowledge Economy and Management of Emerging Technologies. I hope that through this academic journey I may be an active participant in unlocking the added meaning and value of the SKA to my home country.
Rewinding to your early life, what was your childhood like?
I was born in a small town called Mount Frere, in one of the rural provinces in South Africa. The village where my parents grew up and which I call home is eNjijini location. I was fortunate that my father’s family valued education and the opportunities it brought in life; this was in no small part due to my grandfather who was a school teacher and relatively well accomplished in the community. Once I reached school age, I was taken under the wing of and raised by a well-educated uncle of mine in a nearby small city called Umtata. I spent much of my formative years there and just when I was about to be a teenager, I relocated to be under my biological father’s care in a different town (the active role both these men played in my upbringing means they are both deemed my fathers). The different experiences and exposure to many role models helped me to be where I am today.
Growing up in different households, different towns and cities enhanced my social awareness and I learned much from these exemplary men, in terms of education, discipline, ambition and being an upstanding citizen, among many other things.
I grew up reading many different books in both English and my home language isiXhosa. I was an inquisitive, boisterous and daring young person so I got to experience many things and learn through first-hand experience. My life growing up is aptly summed up by the words of Albert Einstein when he said “Play is the highest form of research,” and O. Fred Donaldson, a specialist in this area, who is credited with the words “Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.” I would dare say that I am living proof that what these two gentlemen said is indeed true.
Did you love science as a youngster?
The simplest definition of science that I know is that it is the study of the world around us (the Universe in our context, of course). I have always been drawn to the outside world, and going to the countryside every holiday break meant we could play in open fields to our hearts’ content.
I developed a fascination with how things work, why they are the way they are and that led to my love of geography in school. Natural processes were my favourite aspect about geography; the cycles, interplays and interconnectedness of natural phenomena. I enjoyed it so much that I would read my school textbook ahead of the class; even going into material that was not yet taught in the year I was studying. So yes, I have loved science ever since I can remember, and perhaps even before I “knew” that it was science.
That enjoyment of the outdoors led you to study geology at university. When did you decide that science communication and engagement was the route you wanted to take for a career?
After I finished my bachelor degree I happened to find contract employment at the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) wherein we worked with schools to support chemistry and physics education and practical demonstrations. This is where my science communication journey began, through the learner and teacher workshops that we ran. It only became a conscious career path when I realised that geological fieldwork or oil and gas exploration were not really for me in the long-term. I thereafter applied for a position at Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) as a Science Communicator.
Your academic achievements are extensive! Could you give us an overview and tell us what drives you to keep learning?
I am formally qualified as a geologist, and registered as a Professional Natural Scientist (Earth Science) under the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP).
I possess other qualifications in science communication, management development and project management. It was not part of my original plan to study as much as I have done and indeed continue to do. After I completed my undergraduate studies I thought I was done with school. It took only a few years in the workplace for me to realise that the essence of life is to grow and to become better; and in my opinion continuous learning is the best tool for that. I now identify as a lifelong learner. The philosopher Mortimer Adler captured this eloquently with the words: “The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as long as we live.”
MY GREATEST JOY IS WHEN I AM ABLE TO HELP THE PUBLIC UNDERSTAND THAT ASTRONOMY IS THE OLDEST SCIENCE AND THAT ALL OF US ARE PARTICIPANTS IN IT.
Let’s focus on the SKA project now – what interests you about it and how did you become involved?
I am intrigued by the ambitiousness of the entire project! The whole process from ideation; conceptual framework and real-world implementation in such a phased way over such a long time period yet still keeping true to the overarching goal. This fascinates me and resonates with me.
It seems I became a part of the SKA project by default; I spent six years at HartRAO and then migrated to SKA South Africa around the time when both entities coalesced to become SARAO around four years ago.
Working in outreach, are there moments when it is really brought home to you how important science communication and engagement is for a big project like the SKA?
Every time I go to under-resourced, under-served schools and participate in the demystification of science and astronomy in particular. Every time I witness the “penny-drop” moments wherein both learners and teachers truly realise how astronomy infrastructure actually works and the phenomenal discoveries that have been made including the technological advancements that have come from such research at varying scales.
My greatest joy is when I am able to help the public understand that astronomy is the oldest science and that all of us are participants in it, in some way. Sharing with them the concept that what they see with their own eyes on a dark starry night or feel on their skin on a lovely sunny day is just some of the types of light or radiation that exist out there; and that radio astronomy instruments detect the type/s that our bodies are not designed to detect. The “aha moments” that follow such a revelation are priceless for me.
Science and engineering are often seen as not very diverse or inclusive. What is your experience of this, and how do you feel it could be improved?
The work I have been doing for the past 10 years in science communication and engagement has brought about a heightened sense of awareness of diversity and inclusion. I work in communities where there is an absence of role models, among many other scarcities. When one enters school classrooms, there are usually good levels of enthusiasm from most of the learners toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. During lessons and practical activities, all genders seem to either be fascinated by the concepts or show a general keenness to learn more.
I believe that something happens through secondary schooling and tertiary education levels that either especially alienates or discourages girls and young women leading to less of them following these streams further, which is really unfortunate. What is seen in the workplaces is an outcome of a pipeline that may have not served all people the same way. I am uncertain how much of it can be attributed to adverse socialisation and how much to systematic inadequacies.
This of course then extends to aspects of valid representation of different population groups at various levels in the field of practice and in the leadership of organisations. I am aware that there are initiatives that are being advanced but much still definitely needs to be done to improve the situation.
Impact beyond science is a key driver for the SKAO, through human capacity development for example. How do you see the SKA project contributing to this?
Great work is being done on different fronts, including encouraging young students to embrace STEM studies, hiring science teachers, equipping local school classrooms with computers or other material, and providing artisan training, among several other initiatives. I can give a snapshot from my time within Research Capacity Development (RCD) at SARAO, which provides support and help to develop university students, from undergraduate study right to post-doctoral level. Further support is given through various workshops to help students understand SARAO and the SKA better while getting the opportunity to visit the research sites and interface with the experts in person and within context.
Another significant role that RCD plays is funding of research groups in universities so that researchers may work with bright students, to develop a new cadre of postgraduate students toward strengthening the overall research fraternity in radio astronomy prospectively.
Moving away from work, what do you like to do in your free time to unwind after all that studying and working?
I love to walk, I average 40 kilometres a week. I get to reflect and think about my life, taking lessons from past experiences and treating any event or situation as a case-study to draw value from even in retrospect. I also use that time to do scenario planning though some people may say I tend to overthink things. On the lighter side though, I like to take in the sights as I walk and I enjoy taking pictures of buildings, nature and in particular clouds. I prefer walking in the countryside as a first prize, but I am happy to walk in the city too wherever walkways are available. In my time in the UK I have already hiked up to Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland, and have also walked the Seven Sisters trail between Seaford and Eastbourne on England’s south coast, all 22 kilometres of it on a nice sunny day.
Has there been a highlight of your time in the UK so far?
I have had the privilege of experiencing a number of momentous occasions, but the one that stands out is attending Evensong’s service at Westminster Abbey by invitation of the office of the South African High Commissioner to the UK, Her Excellency O. Tambo. On 28 April 2022, a day after South Africa’s Freedom Day celebrations, a service was held with special mention of our country and the people of South Africa. The High Commissioner was also given a chance to deliver a reading and it was altogether a very touching moment.
In 10 years’ time where do you see yourself? Do you like to set such plans, or just see where life takes you?
I would say that I am a person who believes in life goals and mine are quite overarching; to study until my last day, teach in whatever capacity I am able to and to lead in pioneering projects – which of course by nature transcend the five or 10 year plan conversation. I see myself attaining a Doctorate qualification, supervising postgraduate students, serving in advisory boards and executive roles, and being a true global citizen among many other roles in the future.
I firmly believe that I am a multipotentialite and am equal to the challenges that come with various inclinations and ambitious pursuits. It is not easy and it may not be for everyone, but those who firmly believe it will achieve it. The broadcaster and author Earl Nightingale captured it best, in my opinion, when he said: “Success is defined as the progressive realisation of a worthy goal.”