Your background doesn’t prescribe what you end up doing in life. This is the message that Zama Thobeka Katamzi takes to the kids in townships and environments similar to the neighborhood she grew up in.
“I love being invited to motivational events to talk about my career and how I got to where I am. I hope that my ordinary story inspires the ordinary child to look beyond their current situation to see a bright future.”
Zama is a researcher at the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) and is involved in a research project that tries to understand thermospheric meridional winds using ionosonde data. It is the first time that a project of this nature is being conducted in South Africa.
Thermospheric winds have similar wind we feel everyday on the surface of earth, except they occur above an altitude of ~90 km, especially in the middle latitude regions (i.e. latitude range of 23-66˚ N and S), a region South Africa belongs to. They are not visible to the naked eye but are rather discerned via measurements taken of electron density, and concentrations and temperatures of nitrogen and oxygen gases. The measurements are plotted on a graph and taken over several hours.
These winds are a vehicle for transporting gases and plasma from one point to another, both horizontally and vertically. The importance of this is that they play an important role in the dynamics of the ionosphere. “The ionosphere affects instruments used for communicating using high-frequency radio signals and for studying the universe, as well as the Global Positioning System (GPS)” she explained.
Zama was raised by her grandparents because her mom worked far away. She was sent to a catholic boarding school, Montebello Combined Primary School, in the Wartburg area in KZN. She recalls times when the well that supplied water to the school ran dry and the children were sent home.
High school was spent at another boarding school, Sacred Heart Secondary School, which is in Oakford in Verulam, Durban North. Zama was happy to be a little bit closer to civilization. Although she did relatively well in school, Zama did not pay much attention to her studies until Grade 10.
“My mom and dad encouraged me to follow a maths and science stream of study from Grade 8 onwards but my maths marks were not good.”
Her principal called her in one day and advised her to drop maths as a subject. That was just the motivation Zama needed to apply herself. Not long after that she broke into the top ten in the standard in terms of her maths mark, where she remained until matric.
Zama decided to study astrophysics after school. She sent her application in but her marks fell short. She, however, insisted that she still wanted to do the course and was advised to enroll for the extended programme at the University of Cape Town (UCT). This meant that Zama had to complete her BSc over four years instead of three, which made things a little awkward.
“I could not get a bursary so my mom had to take out a loan for me to study. It was a lot of money and the thought of my mom’s sacrifice made me take my studies even more seriously.”
Zama’s new-found focus paid dividends though. At the end of her second year she made her way on to the Dean’s Merit list and was awarded a bursary which covered her fees.
Towards the end of the third year she found out that there was a newly formed programme hosted by UCT, the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP). She applied for the course and was overjoyed when she was accepted.
“It came with a full bursary too, both my tuition and living expenses were paid for.”
Zama did her Masters in the same programme. She applied to the National Research Foundation (NRF) for further funding which she received. Since her initial bursary covered her living costs and fees, she was able to use that money to pay off her student loan.
She managed to complete her MSc in 18 months. During this time she was exposed to space science and was hooked. She was stationed at the then Hermanus Magnetic Observatory (HMO), now SANSA, and had the privilege of using an advanced software programme developed in the United Kingdom (UK).
“Professor Cathryn Mitchell, who was the leader of the group who had developed that programme, the Multi-Instrument Data Analysis Software (MIDAS), came to the HMO to do a workshop with us. I mentioned to her that I was interested in doing my PhD. She said I should apply to the University of Bath and if accepted she would give me a scholarship.”
At the same time, Zama’s then-supervisor, Dr Lee-Anne McKinnell, asked her to stay and do a PhD. The allure of studying in England was too great though and Zama spent the next three and a half years at the University of Bath. Although she struggled with the cold she enjoyed being exposed to different environments and people from different walks of life.
Before Zama had left for England Lee-Anne had invited her to come back afterwards. So upon receiving her PhD, Zama paid her a visit in Hermanus where they discussed Zama joining her again, this time for a postdoc through SANSA.
They managed to secure funding from the NRF for a period of two years. At the end of the first year Zama applied for a permanent research position which SANSA were advertising. She was offered the position and has been there since then.
“I love my job and the fact that I am able to use my knowledge and position to help others, especially young people”
Zama uses every opportunity available to encourage learners and students to pursue a career in science. “The science industry is a good industry for young people to get involved in because there are many opportunities available. In space science, for example, there are so many bursaries available that most years many bursaries are left unused” she remarks.
But over and above offering career advice Zama loves to encourage young people to rise above their circumstances; “It doesn’t matter where you come from as long as you have set goals for yourself and are willing to work hard to attain those. You will reap the rewards!”