Record crop of Astronomy PhDs reach for the stars

19 Jul 2019 - 11:30

Newly minted PhD's from left to right:  Dr's Sam Legodi, Marie Korsaga; Brenda Namumba and Elizabeth Naluminsa 

The Department of Astronomy at UCT had a record five PhD students graduating in April this year.  Among the group were the first female PhD Astrophysicist from Burkina Faso and the first female PhD in any area of Physics from Zambia.  These are stars to watch – some of whom are now doing postdocs and others are employed in Radio Astronomy and other exciting careers… Read these interviews below to discovery more about the new Astronomy PhD graduates, their motivation for studying in this field and their journey to gaining their PhD.

Dr Marie Korsaga – the first female PhD Astrophysicist from Burkina Faso, is officially a doctor of astrophysics in two different universities:  UCT and aix-Marseille University in France.

Why Astronomy?

Since my childhood I was always fascinated by the phenomena of the Universe such as eclipses, shooting stars, and the existence of other planets besides ours. I was also curious about the appearance of life on Earth, and how everything we see today came to be. So when I was given the opportunity during my undergraduate degree in Burkina Faso to study Astronomy, I did not hesitate to seize it. My interest in science courses made it easier for me to excel in the topic, and eventually pursue postgraduate studies in Astrophysics.

What were some of the challenges along the way to your PhD?

Doing a PhD in Astrophysics requires a solid background in mathematics and physics, and it tends to be complicated as a woman to show real interest in these fields. This is especially true in developing countries such as Burkina Faso, where the majority of the society thinks that the scientific fields are dedicated to men and not to women. This shook my motivation to pursue my studies in scientific fields a bit, but with time I understood that only I could decide what I wanted to do.

What kept you going through your PhD?

Fortunately, I had the support of my parents all along, especially my father who kept motivating me not to give up and dare to do what will make me happy in life. He believed that women may well excel in science and conduct high quality science research. His view about gender equality gave me confidence and optimism, which helped me face many setbacks during my PhD. For example, I had gotten to a point during my research where the results I had found did not concur with previous studies in the literature, and there was need to ensure the reliability of my results. It took me a long period of time, through rigorous work and thorough analyses, to understand the meaning and the implications of these results. This allowed us to discover that, for example, the relationship between the dark matter parameters and the brightness of the galaxies were not standard as previously thought, but depend on the structure of the said galaxies. I am very happy that I did not give up during these difficult times.

Your future career aspirations?

I would like to pursue a research career in the field of astrophysics and have the opportunity to train young astronomers by taking a lecturer position at my home university. I also aspire to promote science, particularly astronomy, in disadvantaged countries by giving public talks where access to science is limited.

You are the first female astrophysicist from Burkina Faso – what an ground-breaker -  Tell us about what this is like for you….

It's an honour and a privilege for me to be the first female astrophysicist in Burkina Faso. At the same time, this creates a platform for me where I can show to the public that, like men, women are able to do science and achieve great things. I want to be able to seize this opportunity and work towards a more equal gender representation in science. I realise that this means a lot of work, but it is achievable. I may be the first female astrophysicist, but I would not like to be the only one in the years to come.

Tell us about your upbringing and your aspirations while growing up

Astronomy has always been my dream field, but I did not imagine being an astronomer one day because the field was inexistent in Burkina Faso, and I had not met one single real-life astronomer before my undergraduate studies. So, growing up, I was aspiring to be a civil engineer.

 Burkina Faso has quite a strong astrophysics hub – why do you think this is so?

This is because, unlike many West African countries, Burkina has implemented astronomy as a course in the top university of the country since 2008. Ever since, the country has worked towards building a team of astronomers, and to date we count 3 PhDs in astronomy. Besides, Burkina Faso has a teaching optical telescope and has initiated a project to construct a research telescope. This is uncommon in the region, and makes the country a west African hub for astronomy.

Dr Elizabeth Naluminsa from Uganda, whose dissertation topic was "Star Formation and Disk Stability in Nearby Galaxies", which puts her at the forefront of galaxy evolution studies.

What made you decide to follow this path in Astronomy?

I had a deep-seated desire in my heart to pursue Astronomy from when I was in high school. The desire had been sparked especially by the story of the moon-landing of Apollo 11 which I read about when I was in Primary 5 (Grade 5). From there I had read books on Geophysics and a few stories on outer space. By the time I finished high school I felt strongly that I wanted to pursue Astronomy. I made the decision to pursue the field after my undergraduate studies when I found out that an opportunity to do so was available through the National Astrophysics and Space Science Program (NASSP).

You come from Uganda – tell us about your background…

Well I come from a formerly small calm and quiet village, which has now morphed into a busy small town less than an hour outside the capital city. My parents were both employed in educational fields:  My (late) mother was an editor (English, French and Rutooro) for the Ugandan National Curriculum Development Center, specialising in early childhood development (she loved books, and this caught on to myself and my siblings. I found myself reading storybooks, fairytales, readers' digests, magazines, novels, textbooks, newspapers: whatever interested me I read!). My dad was a Chemistry teacher who had switched from geology (which explains how I accessed Geophysics textbooks in a village!). Growing up was fun: we had a big family because my parents were raising several other kids besides me and my siblings. I particularly enjoyed story time at night wher we told each other stories around the fire. We did have electricity but preferred to do story time around a fire outside the house.  This family bonding time over stories was the one thing I sorely missed when I eventually went to boarding school. We were a typical 1990's Ugandan household. We grew most (if not all) of our food ourselves and fetched water from a village well. Fruit trees were plentiful everywhere. While my village had only one nursery school, one primary school and one high school, the current population has grown exponentially with many schools, businesses and recreational spots.

Tell us something about your undergraduate degree and journey as a student?

When I was in high school, I found out that there was no dedicated Astronomy course in Ugandan universities and was discouraged. I applied for random courses at the university but I also applied for a teaching degree because I enjoyed (and still do) teaching. I did not get accepted but applied again for a BSc. in Physics and Mathematics with Education and got a full government scholarship. First year was challenging but I enjoyed the Psychology courses which were part of the Education curriculum. I finally found my footing in Second year where a lovely surprise awaited me:  the faculty introduced some Astrophysics courses in the Physics curriculum.   I was absolutely thrilled and cherished those lecture sessions, but in my heart I had resigned myself to the fact that my dream was not going to happen and I had made peace with "the little" I had. My lecturers noticed my passion and started to give me duties such as peer taught lessons, public lectures etc. I majored in Physics in my 3rd year, and my lecturers told me about the NASSP, which I was encouraged about and I applied for the program right after my undergrad.  My lecturers wrote me letters of recommendation and I was accepted into the program, and came to UCT to start my Honours (under NASSP). I was so excited to finally have a chance to pursue my dream! After honours, I went on to do my Masters (also under NASSP), and then PhD (under NRF).

What were some of the challenges along the way to your PhD?

One challenge was to learn to own my work. When you go straight from undergrad to MSc to PhD, you look to your supervisors as the navigators, but they actually expect you to be the "direction maker" of the project. And that's hard because the toughness of the course makes you feel like an imposter and you doubt your capabilities and you need to confront your weaknesses and build your strengths. But that is a difficult thing to do when every single day you have jammed code to debug, failed algorithms to rewrite, incomprehensible scientific theories to comprehend, and glaring deadlines! And on top of that, the pace is frenetic:  there is hardly time to breathe, it keeps on happening right alongside the PhD! This takes a toll on one's mental health, because even when you sleep you are not really resting: you keep wishing someone would take the reins and tell you exactly what needs to be done, but that person is you! And you don't even know how to explain your confusion to your advisor but thank goodness for advisors who are understanding and patient! My second biggest challenge was overcoming the pain of losing my mom midway through my PhD. That year I felt like a zombie – as though I had lost not just one limb but all my limbs, and yet time was running out and I had to finish the thesis. I was used to talking to my mother regularly, gleaning strength through the phone calls we had.  Now I had to learn to do life on my own and to not let my pain sabotage me. But fortunately providence smiled on me and I had friends who literally carried me through to the end. Never underestimate the power of authentic friendships. That's one of the big life lessons I learned during my PhD.

What or who kept you going through your PhD?

The what:

Several things actually. And I'd be telling lies if I told you that it's my love for Astronomy which kept me going! Nope. The love goes cold at some point, and the dream you so dearly wanted to pursue turns into a nightmare that you want escape from! The main thing that kept me going was my faith in God which I drew strength from - without it, I would have quit and disappointed myself, my family and my friends who had sacrificed a lot to carry me through.  Secondly, and the memory of my mom, who I wanted to honour because she was not a quitter and she specifically asked me not to quit on my PhD before she passed on. The PhD journey is very lonely. Even when surrounded by so many people, there is always this glaring mountain, huge and menacing, with dark clouds lingering above it, and you're the only one who feels the weight of its mockery. Another thing many people don't talk about is the fear: the fear of failure: how will I face myself, my family, my friends, and worst of all, how will I face my critics?  Instinctive human feelings.

The Who:

Family and friends kept me going: my family was back home in Uganda and called me often to check on me and remind me that they love me no matter what happens and that they're proud of me, especially my two brothers. But so far away from home, I was blessed with many friends in Cape town who became like family to me - people whom I could count on any day and any time. True friends really are an extension of family. Some of these were colleagues who were also going through their PhDs and it made for great camaraderie.  I can't stress enough how important it is for a PhD student to NOT isolate themselves. The research itself isolates you mentally and socially, so it is important to draw on the people around you.

What are you doing now?  Your immediate plans?

I am currently writing a paper (more are planned) for publication with my supervisors, while hunting for jobs. We are excited about the amazing science that this body of work is applicable to. Can't wait to get these papers out! (I am also using this time to get in tune with my other interests that I have missed out on while doing my PhD and taking time to just enjoy life.

What are your future career aspirations?

1. I aspire to be one of the leading voices in Astronomy research on the continent. I know I have started small but I hope that one day, I will be able to contribute significantly to the body of research we have, to train young scientists and to inspire youngsters to pursue careers in science, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds (We are already working on this with my brothers and I'm so excited about this prospect).

2. I would like to one day lecture at a university – I really love teaching and treasured the time I spent tutoring students in my post graduate years. I can't compare that feeling to anything else. The growth you witness in a child from when they're bright-eyed 1st years right up to their final year, finally believing in their capacity and working hard to achieve their goals! That transformation is something I enjoy witnessing and being a part of.

Dr Brenda Namumba – the first female Physicist to attain a PhD in the entire field of physics and the first Zambian to hold a PhD in Astrophysics.

What made you decide to follow this path in Astronomy?

When I was at school we didn't study much astronomy but I was interested and did well in all kinds of science subjects. When I went to university I didn't know what I really wanted to do. I thought about becoming a pharmacist, doctor, or an engineer. I tried majoring in pharmacy but did not achieve as I wanted to. In my second year of undergraduate studies, I decided to do a degree in physics, but I didn't decide to become an astronomer until my final undergraduate year when I attended my first ever academic conference.  At the IHY-SCINDA workshop in Livingstone, Zambia I met astronomers and space scientist from all over the world and was amazed by how much we can actually know about our magnificent universe. It was there that I got to look through a telescope for the first time and see some planets and moon so close-up and clearly. It was an amazing experience and made me curious to know more. I decided that I was ready pursue my dreams even if it meant having to leave my family and country behind me – and I took the big step of coming to Cape Town and South Africa.

Tell us something about your undergraduate degree and journey as a student?

When I first arrived at University, I was completely overwhelmed by the number of assignments and the work load. It took me almost one academic year to hit my stride. My high school did not emphasize career choices and even knowing that I wanted to do something related to science, I still needed to work out what exactly it was that I was passionate about - I definitely I couldn't do all the sciences - I had to find one. After failed attempts in majoring in few science careers, I decided to choose something I felt I was good at and passionate about. The only problem was that I was choosing something society did not consider as an ideal career. At the time I was an undergraduate, majoring in physics, which raised a lot of question like, ‘what are you going to do with a physics degree? Are you sure you are even going to find a job with that degree?’ I was torn by what I was passionate about and what society considered to be an ideal career.

However, the moment I decided to follow my dreams and listen less to what society expected me to do, I started enjoying my journey as a student. I chose to write my own story. My dreams and ambitions super-ceded the negativity associated with having a physics degree at that time. I had challenges, but I considered them to be stepping stones to something better because I was doing what I wanted to do. I am happy I chose my path :).

What were some of the challenges along the way to your PhD?

During the second year of my PhD, the telescope I was using for my observations was shut down.  It was not operational as focus was placed on the new upcoming telescope, The MeerKAT. That was very difficult and I felt that my PhD was going to take forever. However, fortunately my advisor found other alternative that allowed me to finish my PhD on time. The constant questions from family and friends asking about when you will finish your studies were difficult.  Comments such as “You have been a student all your life, and when are you planning to settle down” were some of the most depressing questions and statements I had to listen to during my PhD and made me lose contact with some of the close friends/ family I had, so that I could concentrate on my work.

What or who kept you going through your PhD?

By the time I started my PhD, I decided that this is what I wanted to do and I was happy doing it. That in itself kept me going even when I faced challenges (which happened quite often). Personally I have a fighting spirit, If I choose to do something, I look at challenges as a stepping stone to something better. I was fortunate enough to have had a supportive supervisor who not only expected me to produce results but considered my whole well-being outside of my work space. He made sure I had funding (no one can concentrate if they are struggling with accommodation, food, etc), he encouraged me to take time away from my work and have a break. His constant reminder that it is normal to encounter challenges during research, made me feel relieved when I was struggling with something. I have a very supportive family that kept me going throughout my career path. My parents, even though they don't completely understand what I do have been my pillar. Their faith in my abilities is astonishing and that keeps me going. My brothers look at me as a role model, when I think of how much they believe in me, I get the motivation to work even harder.

You are now a postdoctoral fellow at the SA Radio Astronomy Observatory – what will you be doing there and what does that entail?

Firstly, this is one of the prestigious and competitive fellowships for young researchers in astronomy all over the world and I feel privileged to have been selected for this opportunity. I will dedicate my three years here to understanding the star formation in tiny small galaxies called dwarf galaxies. In astronomy, dwarf galaxies are the most straight forward objects in which to study star formation processes on a galactic scale, they have less complicated structures therefore their physics is easy to disentangle as compared to other complicated structures, therefore allowing us to answer different questions on galaxy evolutions. I will be fortunate to be one of the few young researchers to work on new data from our South African based interferometer, MeerKAT which is the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) pathfinder. The unique combination of sensitivity, angular resolution, and large field of view of MeerKAT will allow us for the first time, to study in detail galaxy formation and evolution. I am excited and I urge everyone to keep their ears open to new discoveries MeerKAT data will bring alone. It is indeed a great time to be an astronomer in Africa.

Your future career aspirations?

My future career aspiration is to be part of a leading team that will see Zambia participating in cutting-edge science research especially in astronomy. I love research and I hope to continue doing research for many years of my life. My other immediate long-term goal is to help motivate and encourage young girls not only in science but to help them realise that they are capable of being whoever they want to be. I believe the best gift you can give a child is to help them realise that they are capable and in their own way they are worthy. These two points are important to help anyone achieve greater heights in life.

You are the first female PhD in any area of Physics in Zambia –that is quite something – tell us a bit about that…

Yes, I am the first Zambian female to hold a PhD in any area of Physics and the first Zambian to hold a PhD in astronomy. I feel privileged to be in this position and it makes me appreciate my long years of studying. On the other hand, it makes me realise that I have a duty to remove the stigma that physics is a very hard course and therefore should be done mostly by men. If I can do it, I believe every woman out there can do it. You don't have to be a genius but most of all you should have curiosity and passion to pursue it.

Any other comments/ stories that you would like to share?

Oprah Winfrey says “there is no better gift you can give or receive than to honour your calling.  That’s why we were born”. It is our duty to realise what our passion is. If it means crossing oceans to get there, then go for it. 

Dr Samuel Legodi whose PhD thesis focused on 'Wideband Spectropolarimetry of Extragalactic Radio Sources with KAT-7 and Commission Phase of MeerKAT' now has a position as junior commissioning scientist at the South African Radio Astronomy in Observatory. 

What led to your decision to study Astronomy?

I love science and nature in general and I'm a huge sci-fi fan, especially when it comes to space/astronomy/future related media. I remember how intrigued I was the first time I found out what astronomy was. This was when I was in grade 6. We were asked to write an essay about different careers and what might interest us from a list of examples that the teacher gave. One of these examples was "astronomer" and I had no idea what it was. After finding a little bit about it, I just had to learn more. My interest grew even more when I found books in our little library, and my city (Polokwane) library, detailing the solar system, aliens, the vastness of the cosmos and similar concepts. My favourite movie was “Contact” starring Jodie Foster and more recently “Interstellar” and “Arrival”.

Tell us about your undergraduate journey: 

I first majored in Physics and Astrophysics in my BSc. I then continued with a BSc Honours and MSc in astrophysics and space science through the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP). All my studies were done at UCT, which was quite the shift from my small rural high school. I was very happy to start my career journey at UCT given the reputation it holds. Also, an undergraduate major in astrophysics was only offered at UCT at the time so it was my best option all round.

My first year was very challenging. The first thing I learned was failure, which was a shock with me coming from a school where I was a top student in many subjects and had shining matric results. Over time though and with many others in the same boat, I learned to "roll with the punches" as they say. I think working with others, both in helping them and also seeking help myself, was a huge plus in this regard. My days were always packed with lectures from till late afternoon, and then tutorial and practical sessions and so nights at the library were a very important tool for catching up and whatever else needed to be done. This is where I met motivating and like-minded students, which was a huge help. Involvement in student organisations like SHAWCO was also great when I had the time.

Some of the challenges along the way to his PhD?

I think the biggest challenge I've faced was an impostor syndrome of sorts. Where it felt like I'm not doing enough or lack the ability to progress at the same pace or to the same level as someone else. It's quite difficult to spot as it can serve to motivate one to work harder and reach further but it can also be debilitating.

What or who kept you going through your PhD?

The end of the journey kept me motivated. It was never in my thoughts to even quit as I believe in seeing things through. It also helped that this was the path to my dream career. Small regular victories towards the main goal were also great motivators as it feels like you're doing something, however small. I think that a group of supportive and understanding people is also a big plus especially if those people are also a similar journey, a shared struggle can be very effective in building or partaking in community. I'm also a creature of habit so I never worked sporadically like working through the night or anything similar during times of tight deadlines, rather a regular schedule with times blocked for off for intensive work was vital for my progress. But at the same time, some of my colleagues had the opposite rhythm.

You are now a commissioning scientist at the SA Radio Astronomy Observatory – what does that entail?

I'm part of a team that is working hard to get the new MeerKAT telescope ready for use by the astronomy community. This generally entails the running of various technical tests on existing facilities, troubleshooting and developing solutions to optimise the use of the telescope as a science instrument. I'm also part of research groups that are in line to do groundbreaking science with the telescope.

What are your future career aspirations?

I would like to remain in astrophysics, doing research and mentoring younger researchers. I would also love to do more outreach about astronomy and physics, the universe is too big for us (astronomers) to keep it to ourselves.

Any other comments/stories that you would like to share?

I come from very humble beginnings: from a very small village where I went to small village schools with very little in the way of resources, but I've always focused on what is possible. I believe that all of us have so much potential and through an enduring focus on our goals, we can achieve so much.

Kerry Paterson now a postdoc at Northwestern University, Chicago, USA

Living on the edge of a smaller town, I have always had a dark view of the night sky. The beauty and wonder of space has always fascinated me, and as I grew older and I discovered it was possible to study astronomy at university, I knew want I would be doing as a career.

As UCT was the only university at the time to offer astronomy as a major in an undergraduate degree, and with the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) being run from UCT, I decided to apply to UCT. My undergrad at UCT further proved that astronomy was the career for me. I greatly enjoyed my astronomy courses and absolutely loved staying up all night observing.

What were some of the challenges of your PhD?

Doing a PhD has defiantly been a challenge. It required a lot of dedication, hard work, and time. Although it was hard at times, I greatly enjoyed the experience.

What kept you going through your PhD?

My family has always been my biggest support and they have always encouraged me. Having friends doing PhDs in previous science fields has also been a great support. Being able to talk to someone going through the same situation is a vital support structure everyone should have.

Your others interests and hobbies?
I really like being outdoors in nature, so I really enjoyed staying in Cape Town while attending UCT. While relaxing at home, I enjoy drawing/painting, baking and playing PC games.

I am currently in the USA doing a postdoc at Northwestern University. I am continuing my work on astrophysical transients, focusing on short Gamma-ray Bursts (sGRBs; extremely energetic events thought to be produced by merging neutron stars) and the electromagnetic follow up of gravitational waves (GWs). This is a very exciting field. I have had many opportunities to use large telescope facilities and collaborate with many people across the world. Things have been very busy with the start of LIGO O3 and the announcement of the second binary neutron star detected through GWs, along with the possible detection of a black hole-neutron star merger.

Congratulations to this record group of Astronomy PhD - we wish them well in pursuing their dreams.