Africa’s universities can shrug off history and stage science revolutions

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uwcSouth Africa’s University of the Western Cape (UWC) has been ranked number one for Physical Science in Africa by top journal Nature. Nico Orce, an associate professor with UWC’s nuclear physics and nuclear astrophysics group, tells The Conversation Africa what lessons there are for other universities on the continent – and why there’s more work to be done.
UWC still serves a historically disadvantaged community and is less well-funded than many previously white universities in South Africa. Against this backdrop, what did it take for you, your colleagues and your students to get this far?
Being ranked number one on the continent is strongly linked to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope being built in South Africa. A number of UWC’s scientists are very involved in this project.
Smart strategic planning and a real push for funding helped to stimulate the physical sciences at UWC. That energy attracted more and more talented researchers, including post-doctoral candidates. This is a crucial way to speed up transformation: bringing in highly skilled researchers from all over the country and the world to train a new generation of local scientists.
The sciences have had a good year at UWC. Your group is also about to become the first from an African institution to lead an experiment at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. How did that happen?
When I was finishing my degree in Fundamental Physics back in Spain I convinced some of my friends to attend a summer school at CERN. We asked the professor in charge of international exchange programmes to sign our applications. He told us with malicious pleasure that, “Only the crème de la crème goes to CERN – students from Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. You come from the University of Granada. I cannot believe you even thought of it.” He wouldn’t sign it, so there went our slight chance of working at CERN.
Since then, I promised myself that one day I would go to CERN through the big door and open it up to the ones behind me: young hopeful students.
That promise came to fruition in September 2013 when our group’s proposal to run an experiment at CERN was approved. Our work, which will finally be conducted in November 2016, involves measuring the nuclear shapes of very rare nuclei. Some of our postgraduates have already received training, and did so well that they were awarded a prestigious CERN fellowship.

Nico Orce is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nuclear Physics and Nuclear Astrophysics, University of the Western Cape.

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Posted by on November 16, 2016. Filed under Lead Stories, Regional. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.