Africa is investing in a future of astronomy research, but students need access to inspirational lecturers, says Gina Maffey.
What do you do when the degree you want to study is not offered by your university?
You study it anyway.
“I did a lot of personal research online, looking for answers” says Isaac Mumo Mutie, an astronomy student who studied at the Technical University of Kenya. While studying for a Bachelor of Technology in Technical and Applied Physics, Professor Paul Baki introduced Mutie to astronomy, and Mutie would consult with him in his spare time.
“He would ask me ‘why are you interested? This is not part of the curriculum.’ But I insisted.”
While Prof. Baki mentored and guided Mutie in his extracurricular interests at university, Mutie’s curiosity for the subject began much earlier in a village more than 200km to the east of Nairobi.
“There was no electricity and being a semi-arid area where most people farm livestock, the sky was (and is) almost always clear most nights of the year. This made the stars and constellations appear so distinctly, and as a curious kid I always bombarded my father with a lot of questions, but he could not answer. Most nights I walked out to watch the skies and by the time I was ten years old I could figure out and name as many constellations as were visible. I lacked guidance but I kept dreaming.”
Mutie’s dreams have certainly grown since his early astronomical pursuits. Mutie wants to see Africa investing more in radio astronomy research, and believes that — due to very little radio interference, a clear climate and suitable geography — Kenya is perfectly placed to be a key player. He sees the consequences of such an investment as far reaching.
“Radio astronomy involves science, engineering, mathematics and computing. Its success in Kenya will improve STEM skills, bring about research collaborations among nations in Africa and the globe, and transfer skills to many sectors that will help the Kenyan economy grow as a whole.”
However, to get suitable training in radio astronomy Mutie has had to seek expertise elsewhere. With support from the EC Horizon 2020 JUMPING JIVE project (led by JIVE, the organization where I am based as Science Communication Officer), and the Newton Fund DARA project Mutie has travelled to Europe, Ghana, Mauritius and South Africa to receive additional training. This is something that he wishes to change for future students.
“Radio astronomy is a new field in Africa and therefore there are not many professionals present,” he says. “Frequently, students take an interest in specific subjects and lack the right people to guide them.”
Mutie believes that this problem can be solved by hosting more expertise in major universities and research institutes. This could be through supporting visits from foreign academics, but would ideally come through the creation of positions to train and develop Kenyan astronomy professionals.
“Having a sufficient number of lecturers specialized in astronomy will make the dreams of many students valid,” he says. “It will also be a cheaper and better way of developing human capital in radio astronomy in Africa; since it is more affordable to study from within the country than abroad.”
Mutie hopes to be a part of this solution.
He says that two projects — The African Very Long Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN), a network of radio telescopes under development in Africa and the Square Kilometre Array, an international project to build the world’s largest radio telescope — are his future.
“I want to partake in developing the AVN, but we have to address the insufficient number of qualified lecturers in Kenya to train students. I also want to help and offer advice on developing radio astronomy projects.”
Mutie certainly does not show any sign of giving up, and following the award of a Newton Fund DARA project scholarship he will continue to try to answer the seemingly endless list of questions he has about space on an MSc in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Manchester.
He sees steps in the right direction. The Technical University of Kenya, where his studies began, now offers a major 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.