Africa is investing in a future for astronomy research, but it requires a fresh cohort of enthusiastic people to make it happen. Gina Maffey talks to one dedicated scientist.
“I want to see Africa lit up.” Naomi Asabre Frimpong says with a laugh, “I want to show how Africa can be forward thinking. I want to make sure that we are not left behind.”
Asabre Frimpong is a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Manchester, in the UK, and her enthusiasm — for both astronomy and science in general — is infectious.
She says she was attracted to science through chemistry, and studied for a BSc and MPhil in Ghana. A post at the Ghana Space Science and Technology Centre introduced her to astronomy and shortly afterwards, on an astronomy and astrophysics training scheme in India, her worlds collided as she discovered astro-chemistry – the study of chemical reactions in space
“We try to find out what is happening to molecules in the space environment they are formed in,” she explains.
Asabre Frimpong’s PhD proposal came about through the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) project. The project focuses on training and skills development for radio astronomy, but Asabre Frimpong has a much bigger goal in sight.
“I want to make sure our science is reaching young people, especially girls. Girls are not really pursuing the higher sciences, and I dream of encouraging them to understand what interesting and cool science is happening in Ghana.”
Asabre Frimpong believes that some of the biggest challenges facing the development of radio astronomy in Africa is the requirement for trained scientists and engineers to operate and maintain the envisaged telescope network. This is a problem that she feels can be tackled through outreach.
“I believe that to address the challenge of not having enough human resources, investment is needed in the education of the public and school children about the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths.”
Asabre Frimpong believes that exposure to simple science experiments, books, talks and excursions are effective ways to foster an interest in STEM subjects. Most importantly though, scientists and engineers must be available “to act as positive role models for young children, especially girls, to encourage them to consider a STEM career.”
During her PhD, Asabre Frimpong has worked to ensure that children in Ghana have better access to astronomy resources. With funding support from an international radio astronomy project, EC Horizon 2020: JUMPING JIVE (led by JIVE, the organization where I am based as Science Communication Officer), Asabre Frimpong returned to Ghana with Prof. Melvin Hoare, leader of the DARA project, from the University of Leeds, UK, to deliver an astronomy outreach programme in universities.
“The students who took part were so eager. It was great to show them what they need to do to navigate the science funnel.”
She intends to return to Ghana on completion of her PhD to work as a research scientist on the recently converted radio telescope at the Kuntunse Earth Station. In addition, Asabre Frimpong will also be working with the Ghana Radio Astronomy Club (GRAC), which is the outreach leg of the Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics Center of the Ghana Space and Technology Institute. It is here that she will continue to develop not only her own career, but also stimulate others to join the African pursuit in radio astronomy research.
“I really want Ghana, and Africa as a whole, to play a big part in the new projects happening,” she says, citing the example of the SKA (an international project to build the world’s largest radio telescope). Asabre Frimpong says she is disappointed by what she sees as a lack of attention to her continent’s astronomy research. On a map, “Africa always looks so dark and I find this very sad. I want to see Africa ‘lit up’ as part of the next big surveys and research that will be done in astronomy.”
Gina Maffey is the Science Communication Office for the Joint Institute for VLBI ERIC (JIVE). An organization based in the Netherlands that supports the international community conducting radio astronomy research with an array of telescopes, collectively known as the European VLBI network.