South Africa: The Sky Is No Limit for Young Limpopo Astrophysicist

Photo: Supplied
Isabella Rammala.
13 December 2018

Growing up in a village in Limpopo, Isabella Rammala's dream of emulating entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth - the first South African to travel to space - was questioned by those who surrounded her.

Rammala, who comes from Ga-Molepo near Polokwane - where residents are dependent on subsistence farming to make a living - rose above the environment she came from, and her questions while gazing at the beautiful stars in the sky grew into a passion for astronomical research.

When she was in grade 11, and her teacher had asked her what she wants to do when she completed matric.

"I thought, I am tired of saying the same thing over and over again. I wanted to say something fancy and I remember at some point I read about Mark Shuttleworth being the first person to go to space and I was like 'okay, now I know what I want to do'.

"I said to my teacher 'when I grow up, I want to become an astronaut' and everybody started laughing at me at first. They said you are coming from an environment like this, what is an astronaut and where are you going to do it?"

Rammala on Thursday made a presentation about her journey from passing in a grade 12 class that only had 13 students, to meeting Nobel Prize winners and today, preparing to study towards a PhD in Astrophysics.

She was one of the guest speakers at the opening plenary of the three-day 2018 Science Forum, which concludes on Friday.

Despite being discouraged to imagine a career that's arguably out of this world, she decided to pursue her dream.

"When you are in an environment like that [Ga-Molepo] at night, the sky is beautiful and I always wondered what these stars mean. What exactly are they? Why do they behave the way they do. I noticed that they move and why do they move that way," she said.

Now 25 years old and a Junior Commissioning Scientist, Rammala joined the South African Radio Astronomy Organisation (SARAO) under the Young Professional Development Programme.

The programme recruits bright, young and enthusiastic graduates to hone their skills in scientific research work in the astronomy fields.

She said the Young Professional Development Programme allowed her an opportunity to have work experience for the past three years while studying towards her Masters research part-time.

This enabled her an opportunity to work on preparing the recently-launched 64 dish MeerKAT radio telescope, the precursor to the construction of the Square Kilometre Array, which will be upon its completion the world's biggest telescope.

While doing her undergraduate degree in Astrophysics, she applied for a bursary from the SKA South Africa and was awarded the bursary during her second year.

"From my second year, they funded me and after my honours, that's when I applied for the Young Professional Development Programme and got in and my career just sky-rocketed, literally. It has been an amazing experience. I have met some amazing people, I have worked with some amazing teams. I met the woman who discovered the first pulsar, I have met some Nobel Prize winners. It has just been amazing.

"For my research, I am interested in finding out where the pulsars are in the galactic centre. We haven't seen many of them so I want to find more of those and also, we don't understand how they emit [beams]," said Rammala.

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