The power of the science communication role model

Professor Azwinndini Muronga,  UJ. (Supplied)

Professor Azwinndini Muronga, UJ. (Supplied)

Herein lies the power of the science communicator as a role model and Azwinndini Muronga, associate professor of physics at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and director of the UJ Soweto Science Centre understands this personally.

He grew up in rural Venda and received his primary education under a tree. It was only at high school, where he encountered his principal who had a master’s in theoretical physics, that the world opened up to him. He went on to tertiary study, including the University of Minnesota in the United States, where he won an award for the best PhD.

After his post-doctoral research in Germany, it was time to come back to South Africa and pay it forward. “South Africa needs to become a knowledge-based economy. Part of the solution is science awareness and role modeling,” says Muronga.

The professor currently teaches at UJ up to postgraduate level, while doing research in theoretical physics. His other focus is outreach.

When starting out at the new UJ Science Centre, his vision was clear: solutions to the education crisis. Muronga says that this meant putting in learning and teaching programmes before going into the entertainment side of things. 

The Academy of Mathematics and Science programme provides extracurricular support. Learners are also introduced to the university setting as part of acclimatisation. The teachers’ development programmes upskill teachers and have attracted national attention.

There is a joint satellite project with the US manifesting in educational projects that provide learners with access to high-end quality data from large telescopes to mine for planets. The Centre is also collaborating with schools in Germany around energy projects, teaching the community how to save energy and using this as a vehicle to communicate science. 

Besides the learner and teacher programmes, the Centre hosts exhibitions, science shows and participates in science festivals across the country. 

There are workshops, public lectures and community outreach.

There has been measureable impact. “For example, Almont Tech–nical High School became the school with the most improved matric pass rate, from 42% in 2009 to 87% in 2010,” he explains.

Muronga is also vice-chairperson of Science-tuBE, a non-profit organisation that stages science shows across the country, particularly in rural areas. He actively participates through talks, career guidance, workshops and demonstrations.

“The Physics Undergraduate Research Programme is a new project at UJ, which exposes students to research as early as possible, leading to increased retention and follows through to postgraduate programmes,” says Muronga. 

Muronga is also involved with the National Institute for Theoretical Physics internship programme where students from mainly historically-disadvantaged universities are exposed to theoretical physics research. 

Through this, he has trained more than 20 interns in the past three years. 

Muronga has a strong media presence. Of note are his regular appearances on Phalaphala FM, which serves mostly rural people in Limpopo. Here he communicates science in his mother tongue.

The professor’s research field deals with a new state of matter. “I am interested in how the universe looked — its properties — just a microsecond after its birth.”  

He has published prolifically in international peer-reviewed journals, given seminars both here and abroad and supervised undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Since 2005, he has been actively involved in science communication awareness. Among other activities, he was a founding member of the Western Cape Theoretical Physics Symposium Series aimed at capacity building for theoretical physics at historically-disadvantaged institutions.

As testament to his outreach contributions, Muronga is a recipient of the 2013 Distinguished Leadership Award for Internationals from the University of Minnesota.

This supplement has been paid for by the Mail & Guardian’s advertisers. Contents and photographs were supplied and approved by the NSTF.