Closing the skills gap for young researchers

Young astronomy researchers have the opportunity to learn skills that will allow them to bridge the gap between academia and launching their careers in the workforce. SKIES (SKilled, Innovative and Entrepreneurial Scientists) is an ambitious project that offers training for astronomy researchers (PhD candidates and young postdoctoral researchers) in developing new skills, integrating Open Science, innovation and entrepreneurship. The training workshop will take place in Cape Town from 4-8 April 2022, hosted at the UCT GSB Conference Centre.

Only a fraction of astronomy doctoral graduates (about 10%) remain in academia, which means that the skills acquired in the course of their research need to be effectively transferable in order to achieve a smooth transition from academia to the private sector. Advanced degrees in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) subjects are widely accepted to be an excellent basis for careers in, among others, the tech industry, but most graduates find that they need to learn additional skills. An ability to confidently navigate the Open Science landscape combined with a capacity for innovative thinking can set astronomy graduates apart and allow them to fulfill their potential and develop into well-rounded scientists and professionals. 

Madagascar Astronomy Python Workshop 2017. Credit: IAU Office of Astronomy for Development archive
Madagascar Astronomy Python Workshop 2017. Credit: IAU Office of Astronomy for Development archive

The field of astronomy research is collaborative and international, and students are trained in diverse skills, ranging from theoretical approaches and big-data science to observations and laboratory work. Thus, there is a unique opportunity to integrate a modern skills course with the existing programme. 

SKIES will reach about 500 astronomy graduate students and young researchers in Europe (Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Portugal) and South Africa as it is implemented across various astronomy research organisations. Researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT) will be leading the project in South Africa, which includes PhD candidates from other organisations across the country. Dr Lucia Marchetti, from UCT’s Department of Astronomy, is the principal investigator for SKIES in South Africa. “I am thrilled to be able to offer this opportunity to our PhD candidates”, says Dr Marchetti. “Their astronomy training already provides them with many theoretical skills that they can apply to jobs outside academia. With this training, we will show them how they can best exploit and translate their knowledge into a job beyond astronomy, and ensure that all our astronomy students are fully equipped for whichever path they decide to take after their PhD.” 

The SKIES training workshop in South Africa consists of three modules co-created by academics and career development consultants: design thinking, open science and responsible research; innovation and entrepreneurship; and a career-oriented masterclass that includes mentoring. The week-long program includes speakers and guests from universities and industries and young researchers will have the opportunity to learn from and be inspired by experts and leaders, as well as learn best practices and techniques. 

From CV-writing and communication to business models and organisational theory, to design thinking and creativity, they will be introduced to a range of techniques that they can take with them going forward professionally. Participants will be given insight into what enterprise support is available, the role of a technology transfer office, how funding models operate, as well as how social entrepreneurship works and how to pitch an idea for commercial and academic purposes. Guests will give presentations that speak to individual experiences. These speakers include Simon Travers and Imogen Wright, founders of Hyrax Biosciences, Dries Cronje, CEO & founder of Deep Learning Café, and Tshegofatso Masenya, the 2021 winner of the EDHE (Entrepreneurial Development in Higher Education) Entrepreneurship Intervarsity National Winner.

The SKIES project will also deliver a mini online open course (MOOC), which will support partner organisations in running similar courses. This will remain available after the project has ended to ensure its impact and legacy. 

Head of eResearch Office and Astroinformatics Research Professor at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), Prof Mattia Vaccari echoes Dr Marchetti’s optimism, adding that “the bridging of this gap is particularly important for South Africa in the increasingly global talent search in the era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. UWC’s Technology Transfer Commercialization Specialist, Luan Africa, is also enthusiastic about the initiative, and how it will allow young researchers “to see the broader value, applicability, and transferability of their rigorous scientific training. We are hopeful that participants will exit with a more entrepreneurial mindset, underpinned by a constant need to upskill, learn from mistakes and take continuous action on ideas. We are thrilled to contribute to this wonderful programme.”

Dr Bonita de Swardt, head of Strategic Partnerships for Human Capacity Development at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO), expects that this exciting collaboration “will lead to increased employability of doctoral candidates, in industry or through entrepreneurship, who will be effectively working on high-impact areas to benefit broader society on the African continent”. 

For more information: 

Prof Mattia Vaccari 
Director, eResearch Office
University of the Western Cape
mvaccari@uwc.ac.za

Mr Luan Africa 
Technology Transfer Specialist: Commercialization
Technology Transfer Office
University of the Western Cape
lafrica@uwc.ac.za

Dr Lucia Marchetti 
Senior Lecturer in Astronomy
University of Cape Town
H2020 SKIES SA Lead 
lucia.marchetti@uct.ac.za 

Ms Michelle Willebrands 
H2020 SKIES Project Manager
Leiden University 
willebrands@strw.leidenuniv.nl

UWC eResearch Office partnering with FSNet-Africa project in interdisciplinary research on African food systems

Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) is a collaborative project between the University of Pretoria’s (UP) African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems, the University of Leeds (UoL) (United Kingdom), and the Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN).

FSNet-Africa is an ARUA – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Research Excellence Project funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF); its major contribution to addressing the SDG challenges will be the focus on developing a new understanding of the African food system. It will aim to develop the FSNet-Africa Food Systems Framework and utilising systems-based methodologies to conduct research that enhances understanding of the framework’s components, their interactions, and ultimately the leverage points for food system transformation.

The Fellowship

Dr Frederic Isingizwe from the eResearch Office is one of UWC’s two recipients of the FSNet-Africa fellowship, a two-year research fellowship (July 2021 to June 2023) for early career researchers who are supported in their research to identify and evaluate climate-smart, nutrition-sensitive, poverty-reducing interventions in African food systems.

In addition to research project funding, fellows are supported through participation in a series of structured activities in science, mentorship and leadership development, and by establishing long term research networks, which currently involve ten African Universities and the University of Leeds. This will ensure that the fellows are positioned in the necessary enabling environment and provided with the opportunity to develop the necessary skills to implement impact focused interdisciplinary research related to African food systems and significantly advance their academic careers.

During the fellowship, each fellow will be assigned at least two mentors, from both African and UK universities. These carefully matched research-triads will be interdisciplinary teams that enable the fellows to receive the support they need to develop and implement quality interdisciplinary research projects. This will also create opportunities for fellows and mentors to build meaningful relationships with researchers outside of their own organisations, which can lead to longer term collaborations.

The Research

Understanding African food systems and developing evidence-based interventions to address gaps and systems failures is fundamental to achieving four critical food systems outcomes – nutritious food (safe and high-quality); equitable inclusive systems (social aspects e.g. gender); sustainable environmental approaches and efficient systems (economic considerations e.g. poverty reduction).

The fellows’ research will focus on a systems approach (rather than a discipline-specific approach) to understanding African food systems, whereby the conceptualisation recognises:
– that gender and poverty are cross-cutting issues, influencing not only labour, inputs and types of farming systems (supply), but also diets and food cultures (demand);
– formal and informal supply chains through which food moves from farm to consumer and the different actors and regulations that govern those chains (and the interactions between them);
– key emerging actors within the food systems, such as “agripreneurs” setting up businesses in the agri-sector, and critical drivers of change (e.g. urbanisation and the growing African middle class).

Frederic’s research in the fellowship will focus on developing data-driven solutions for the food supply chain. Aspects such as quality monitoring of agri-food products along the food chain and optimisation of supply chain processes will be the main focus. The project will aim to develop solutions that help improve quality, safety and reduce loss of food along the food chain.

X-ray Observations Supporting MIGHTEE MeerKAT Science Project Unveiled

New X-ray map reveals the growing supermassive black holes in next-generation MeerKAT survey fields 

One of the largest X-ray surveys using the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton space observatory has mapped nearly 12,000 X-ray sources across three large, prime regions of the sky. The X-ray sources represent active galactic nuclei and galaxy clusters, and the survey captures the growth of the supermassive black holes at the cores of these galaxies. This X-ray survey complements previous X-ray surveys, allowing the researchers to map active galactic nuclei in a wide range of cosmic environments.

The XMM-SERVS survey lays key groundwork for studying the cosmic history and physical  properties of active galaxies 

Figure 1: XMM-Newton image of the 4.6-square-degree W-CDF-S field reveals the wide, sensitive view of the X-ray sky provided by XMM-SERVS. The detected sources, most of which are growing supermassive black holes, are color coded according to the energies of the X rays detected (with red having the lowest energies and blue the highest). The white outline indicates the area of the Chandra Deep Field-South, a well-known ultradeep pencil-beam X ray survey. The image highlights how XMM-SERVS has now provided sensitive panoramic X ray imaging around this survey. The XMM-Newton image covers an area about 20 times larger than the apparent size of the full moon, shown to scale at upper left.
Figure 2: XMM-Newton image of the 3.2-square-degree ELAIS-S1 field, which is about 15 times larger than the apparent size of the full moon (shown to scale at lower right). XMM SERVS provides a wide, sensitive X-ray view of this region.

These X-ray observations will be invaluable to study the active galactic nuclei (i.e. black holes) and galaxy clusters (the largest cosmic structures bound together by gravity) detected by the MIGHTEE MeerKAT Large Survey Project (led by UWC Visiting Professor Matt Jarvis and UWC Research Chair Russ Taylor) in its ongoing mission to study the faint radio sky.

Qingling Ni and W. Niel Brandt from Penn State presented the results of the XMM-Spitzer  Extragalactic Representative Volume Survey (XMM-SERVS) at a press briefing during the 238th meeting of the American Astronomical  Society on 7 June. A paper describing the survey, authored by an international team of astronomers including UWC’s eResearch Director Prof Mattia Vaccari, has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement. A pre-print is also available on arxiv.org.

“X-ray surveys are the best way to find growing supermassive black holes, which are located at  the cores of many large galaxies,” said Ni, a graduate student at Penn State and lead author of  the paper. “With this massive new survey, we can access population data about growing  supermassive black holes to better understand their physical properties and evolution over cosmic history.” 

“This survey represents key foundational work upon which, I suspect, hundreds of studies will  be built over the next decade or two,” said Brandt, Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy  and Astrophysics and professor of physics at Penn State, and one of the leaders of the study.  “XMM-Newton was the best mission to gather these data, and we needed to invest a lot of  observation time for this study—with a total combined exposure of nearly 60 days—because it  will be so important for active galaxy studies, galaxy cluster studies, and for understanding  large-scale structures in the universe. It required a multiyear, multinational effort and it’s  incredibly gratifying to get it done. We are most grateful to the European Space Agency and  NASA for their long-term support of this work.” 

Caption from featured image: XMM-Newton image of the 5.3-square-degree XMM-LSS field, which is about 25 times  larger than the apparent size of the full moon (shown to scale at lower right). XMM-LSS was the  first XMM-SERVS field to have been observed by XMM-Newton. Chien-Ting Chen, a former postdoctoral researcher at Penn State who is now an astronomer at USRA, led the work for this  field (see Chen et al. 2018, Mon. Not. Roy. Ast. Soc.). XMM-SERVS provides a wide, sensitive X ray view of this region

NITheCS Colloquium: Prof Mattia Vaccari, The Ilifu Cloud Computing Facility & X-Informatics Data Intensive Research

Monday, 7 June, 4pm.

NITheCS (National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences) is hosting a colloquium featuring UWC’s Director of the eResearch Office, Prof Mattia Vaccari.

Abstract

Over the past decade, the global science enterprise has been transformed by the data generating capabilities of our instruments. Distributed science collaborations creating datasets too large to manage for individual researchers are becoming the norm, and in response, X-Informatics, or the application of data science techniques to different science fields, has evolved into a new and exciting field of applied computer science. In this new big data era, institutions and national communities that have the capacity to design and implement the solutions to effectively extract knowledge from data will play a lead role in science. Those that do not, will not.

The Ilifu project was set up to address this challenge in Astroinformatics and Bioinformatics. Ilifu is building cross-disciplinary teams to undertake research and development in technologies and big data science to build capacity for South African researchers to be globally competitive in the era of big data.

In this presentation, Prof Vaccari will talk about Ilifu, its partnership model, goals and research programs, with a particular focus on multi-wavelength galaxy evolution studies, and outline a vision for a federated South African Data Intensive Research Cloud that empowers researchers to work with and collaborate on big data science projects.

Register for the event, or read more.

Meet Oko

Oko Lwana

Oko Lwana is the Administrative Officer at the eResearch Office. She works closely with the eResearch Director, Prof Mattia Vaccari, and is responsible for managing inventory, maintaining eResearch records, handling budget and office reporting, invoicing and providing customer service. Oko also assists with coordinating various activities, meetings, conferences and workshops.

Oko grew up in the Eastern Cape, and obtained her Project Management Degree at Cape Peninsula University  (CPUT).

She is currently busy with her MTech in Project Management and finds eResearch interesting because, as the importance of research capabilities grows, she learns something new every day.

She loves reading and socialising in her free time and going out to meet friends.

Meet the Director

Mattia Vaccari

Prof Mattia Vaccari was appointed UWC’s first Director of eResearch in April 2019. His role reports to the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation and is responsible for the leadership and development of an eResearch strategy at UWC in partnership with data intensive research teams across campus.

Born in Italy, Prof Vaccari studied at the University of Padova and completed a MSc in Physics and a PhD in Space Science and Technology. He has since been a Research Fellow at Imperial College London, the University of Padova and UWC, which he first joined in 2011 and where he was most recently a Research Scientist with the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA) and the Astrophysics Group. In his research, he uses ground-based as well as space-based telescopes to observe distant galaxies at all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum and thus study their formation and evolution over cosmic time. He is also interested in applying Artificial Intelligence techniques to longstanding problems in observational astrophysics such as source detection and classification.

Prof Vaccari has contributed to the design and developed data processing algorithms for several space satellite astrophysics missions by ESA (European Space Agency) and NASA. In particular, he contributed to the design of the GAIA space astrometry mission and to the development of the ground segment for the Herschel Space Observatory. At IDIA he leads the HELP-IDIA Panchromatic Project (HIPPO), whose aim is to create a cloud-based environment where astronomers can effectively exploit MeerKAT data in the context of multi-wavelength data.

Read more about Prof Vaccari on his web page!

Meet Sarah

Sarah Schäfer is a Research Data Specialist and Digital Curator, and began working at UWC in 2020. She is based with eResearch and works very closely with the Research Support and Scholarly Communications team at the Library. 

Her background is in digital cultural heritage, and her career in photography is what initially drew her to discover a research interest in digital cultural heritage. Her MPhil in Digital Curation focused on cultural heritage in the context of South African museums, and the digital transformation of museums and cultural heritage. She has an interest in digital archives, collections management and the intersection of the arts and computing.

Sarah loves that the realm of digital curation draws and benefits from knowledge in diverse areas, and involves more than cursory understandings of archiving and research data – it requires theoretical understanding and practical applications of various aspects, including Open Access, data repositories, data handling, media and formats, metadata and research data management. 

Sarah is a founding member of the Network for Digital Humanities in Africa, and is a certified Carpentries Instructor.

Welcome to Dr Frederic Isingizwe!

eResearch Scientist Frederic Isingizwe

My name is Frederic Isingizwe, I am a research scientist and science communicator, most specifically within the area of modern computational methods to enable carrying out data-driven research efficiently. I have a special interest in the application of data science methods and artificial intelligence in any way that helps improve the quality and sustainability of life in the world.

I was born and grew up in Rwanda, where I got my first degree in Physics. Being an avid learner and intrigued by computer technologies, I opted for a postgraduate program at AIMS south Africa which led to a degree in Mathematical Sciences and later on, an MScEng and PhD in Electronic Engineering from Stellenbosch University, South Africa. While a graduate candidate, I was involved in research on superconductor devices, applied spectroscopy and biosystems modelling, managing a postgraduate research laboratory for biological sensors and nanodevices development. Upon completion, I assumed a role for technical advisory and research support for postgraduate students in sensor-based research projects.

Since then, I was a postdoctoral research fellow under the South African research chair in postharvest technology at Stellenbosch University. While there, I applied machine learning methods on spatial and multi-wavelength spectral data to advance non-destructive techniques for quality testing and control in postharvest production environments.

I have now joined the eResearch Office at UWC as an eResearch Scientist, and my comprehensive role is to help bring its mission to a success.

Some of my work: Google Scholar | Science Communication | Github