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Nairobi, Nairobi County, Kenya
Geoffrey O Okeng’o is a South African- trained Kenyan physicist with a Ph.D. in Physics (Theoretical Cosmology). He was born on 17th April 1984 in Kisii, Nyanza Province, Western Kenya, and his love for Physics and Maths began at a nascent age when he took interest in solving Maths and Science problems for other kids while in primary school. He passed to join secondary school where he studied Maths and all sciences: Biology, Chemistry and Physics, topping in class. In 2003, he got admitted to pursue a 4-year BSc Physics degree at University of Nairobi-Kenya, graduating in September 2007 with Honors majoring in Theoretical Physics. In 2008, he won a scholarship to join the National Astrophysics and Space Science Honors Program (NASSP) at the University of Capetown (UCT), South Africa. While at UCT, he won a Square Kilometer Array Africa scholarship for MSc at University of Western Cape (UWC) graduating Cum Laude March 2011. He then proceeded to pursue a Ph.D. at UWC, completing in 2015. He loves reading articles, deriving equations, writing codes, taking walks, cycling, jogging and writing science articles, traveling, socializing and gardening.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

An Elephant in the Room: Eastern-Africa emerging as a Hub of Astronomy in the Region

G. O. Okeng'o

© Copyright by Okeng'o Geoffrey Onchong'a, July 2014

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not whatsoever reflect the official position of any affiliated institution(s) or employer(s), and while the author has put much effort to ensure that the information contained therein is highly accurate; any errors, inadequacies and biased views are highly regretted. Any corrections, concerns, suggestions and complements can be emailed to: geffok@gmail.com

The week: 30th – 4th July 2014, witnessed happening of the “4th Eastern-Africa Astronomy Workshop 2014” held at the Le Palessa Hotel in Kigali-Rwanda. This year's workshop- the fourth among a series of similar such annual meetings conceived as an extension to the legacy of the highly successful International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009)-, brought together Eastern Africa scholars, academics and graduate students to showcase their ongoing research in their institutions under the theme of “astronomy for socio-economic & technological development” . The keynote address was delivered by the Director General in the Department of Science and Technology Rwandan Government Dr Marie Christine Gasingirwa, who reiterated among other things that its time for countries in the East African region to embrace teaching and research in basic applied sciences such as astronomy for the benefit of mankind. This statement was also echoed by scientists from the region led by the current president of the East African Astronomical Society (EAAS)-Prof Paul Baki- of the Technical University of Kenya. The universities from the region represented in this year's meeting included: The University of Nairobi (Kenya), The University of Rwanda (Rwanda), Mbarara University of Science and Technology (Uganda), Kenyatta University (Kenya), Busitema University (Uganda), The University of Burundi (Burundi), University of Dodoma (Tanzania), The Open University of Tanzania (Tanzania), Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia), Kotebe University (Ethiopia) and Dire-Dawa University (Ethiopia). The Entoto Astronomy Observatory and Research Center (Ethiopia)-the first optical observatory in the region launched this year- was also represented by its current director; Dr Solomon Belay. Other key ongoing astronomy projects in the region were also highlighted. These included: the African VLBI Network node at Mt. Longonot (Kenya) and the East African Astronomy Research Network (EAARN).

Kigali Astronomy Fireworks

Known for the moderate high-altitude tropical climate bathed by sunny days all the year round, the city of Kigali- the famed capital city of the “green” East-African state of Rwanda that began as a small colonial outpost in 1907-, was during the period between 30th - 4th July 2014 playing host to the “Fourth Eastern-Africa Regional Workshop in Astronomy” held at the College of Education University of Rwanda. Among the notable guests who attended this year's workshop were: Prof Edward Guinnan from the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Dr David Buckley from the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), Prof Ernst Van Groningen from the International Science Program (ISP) at Uppsala University, Prof Neil Gehrels from NASA, Dr Takalani Nemaungani from the Department of Science & Technology and SKA-South Africa, Prof Derck Smits from the University of South Africa (UNISA) and Prof Paul Baki the president of the East-African Astronomical Society, among other invited delegates and a Rwandan government delegation.

Astronomy and Space Sciences; the fields of science that lie at the heart of mankind's exploration and understanding of our Cosmos, have since the aeons of ancient Greek ages of magic and mythology fascinated and excited all humanity in equal measure-both young and old. Armed with a burning desire to seek answers to some of the grandest questions that perturb the human mind today such as: How did the Universe begin? How and when did the stars and galaxies form? How will the Universe cease to exist? Could there be other intelligent civilizations out there hidden in the expanse of space and time? Does dark energy-the mysterious anti-gravity force tearing our Universe today really exist? If yes, what could be its nature? Astronomers and cosmologists are today, more than ever before, equipped with unprecedented theoretical and technological tools necessary to study the universe with such high precision and accuracy so as to shed some light on these questions and many more with a pregnant possibility of generating new exciting discoveries.

Not to be left behind, the richly resource-endowed continent of Africa, led by the Southern-tip of Africa “Rainbow” nation- the Republic of South Africa- has over the last decade displayed remarkable progress not only in her quest to increase contribution to the world of science especially in the field of astronomy, but also in laying ground to become the next destination of choice, attracting and retaining world-leading scientists and engineers, as well as offering world-class training. These efforts, as evidenced in the ongoing astronomy mega-projects in Africa such as the multi-million dollar SKA project, have began to bear fruits by attracting some of the world's top scientists to live and work in Africa. It is indeed a signal to the start of a dream coming true.

Towards Centers of Excellence in Eastern Africa

In an effort to establish an astronomy teaching and research hub within the Eastern Africa (EA) region, a number of universities in the region are already offering Bsc astronomy and space science programmes and most of them are at various stages of preparation to offer astronomy and space science at postgraduate level. On this note, Mbarara University of Science and Technology (MUST)-Uganda is, in the next few months, launching the first postgraduate training program that will see joint teaching and co-supervision of Msc and PhD students within the EA region. This initiative, a brainchild of the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme's (NASSP) pioneering Ugandan PhD student- Dr Edward Jurua and Dr Simon Anguma of MUST, is a commendable effort that will enable sharing of the limited human resource within the region and is bound to boost human capacity development in astronomy within EA. This program will complement other postgraduate programs offered at universities in the region as well as help in harmonizing the astronomy teaching and training curriculum in the region.

Apart from the undergraduate and postgraduate training programs, EA will this year see the launch of the East African Astronomy Research Network (EAARN) whose mandate will be to promote the mobility of scientists and lecturers within the region in order to boost collaboration, joint research and teaching by covering their travel costs. The EAARN has already secured initial funding and has just recruited a full-time administrator whose responsibility will be to facilitate the day to day running of both the postgraduate training programme at MUST and the activities of EAARN.

PhDs Increase in the Region

The last 10 years have witnessed a steady increase of the number of PhDs within EA with the NASSP program at the University of Capetown (UCT) playing a central role in training most of the East African students. This, compounded by the increasing number of PhD holders trained outside the region returning home to introduce and teach astronomy programs at their home universities, will undoubtedly position the EA region as a future regional hub in research and teaching of astronomy and space sciences. With more PhD's expected to return home and more programs being launched in EA, the next few years will definitely witness a sharp increase in the number of skilled human capital that will go a long way in helping to bridge the existing astronomy skills gap in the region, and hence provide the necessary manpower needed during the construction, maintenance and utilization of major upcoming projects such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the African Very Long Interferometry Network (AVLBI).

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