Dark-sky spaces and a bright future

Charles Takalana of the African Astronomical Society discusses the evolution of astronomy in Africa at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation
05 June 2024
Charles Takalana, head of secretariat at the African Astronomical Society (AfAS)

“My interest in astronomy and astrophysics began at a young age,” says Charles Takalana, head of secretariat at the African Astronomical Society (AfAS). “I was naturally curious about the Universe, the stars, and the origins of everything around us. Growing up, I loved watching television shows about space and astronomy, which fuelled my fascination. This curiosity turned into a passion as I pursued my studies, and I was determined to make astronomy my profession. The support from the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) and my academic experiences solidified my commitment to this field.”

What are some of your responsibilities at AfAS?
My primary responsibilities at AfAS include supporting the Executive Committee, as well as the other committees and Working Groups of AfAS. I manage the secretariat, ensuring that all administrative functions are executed efficiently. Additionally, I coordinate various projects and initiatives to ensure they achieve their objectives within the allocated timelines and funding. This involves strategic planning, stakeholder engagement, and overseeing communication efforts to promote AfAS activities and projects across the continent and globally.

I have been the Head of Secretariat at AfAS since April 2021 and am currently serving as the Interim Head of Secretariat until August 2024 as I transition into a new role at the International Astronomical Union Office of Astronomy for Development (IAU-OAD) as the deputy director of that office.

What were some of the challenges you faced as a student of astronomy? Do today’s students face similar challenges?
As a student of astronomy, some of the challenges I faced included limited access to resources and mentorship, the need for extensive self-study, and the complexity of the subject, particularly in the areas of mathematics and physics, where learners and students have negative perceptions of the subjects. Additionally, balancing academic commitments with practical research work was challenging.

Today's students face similar challenges, including the need for more resources, mentorship opportunities, and support systems to help them navigate the rigorous demands of the field. However, there are now more initiatives and programs aimed at providing support and resources to students, which is a positive development.

You are dedicated to astronomy outreach, particularly in terms of engaging young people. What are some of the ways you encourage students’ interest in astronomy? What can other institutions do?
My engagement with young people through astronomy involves several approaches. I participate in various outreach programmes, school visits, and public talks to share my passion for astronomy and inspire students. Through the AfAS and the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) where I am based, we also organize programs and hands-on activities to make learning about astronomy interactive and exciting.

Other institutions can support these efforts by investing in outreach programmes, providing access to telescopes and other material, and creating platforms for students to engage with professionals in the field. Collaborating with schools and communities to integrate astronomy into the curriculum can also spark interest and curiosity among students.

What do you see as the most important aspect of your work?
The most important aspect of my work at this time is contributing to the growth and development of the astronomy community in Africa. This includes promoting collaborative research, supporting the implementation of strategic initiatives like the South African Multi-wavelength Astronomy strategy, and ensuring that AfAS continues to be a platform for advancing astronomy on the continent.

Additionally, it is crucial to engage young people and cultivate the next generation of astronomers, as they will be the ones to carry forward the legacy and advancements we are making today. From the perspective of the IAU-OAD, the most important aspect of the work we do is leveraging astronomy to drive sustainable development and address global challenges. This involves utilizing the unique perspectives and methodologies of astronomy to foster education, promote STEM skills, and support capacity building.

What is most exciting or surprising about your work? What are some of the challenges?
The most exciting aspect of my work is witnessing the growth and impact of astronomy in Africa. The advancements in infrastructure, the increasing number of collaborative projects, and the enthusiasm of young people entering the field are incredibly motivating.

One surprising aspect is how astronomy can influence various sectors, from technology to tourism. However, challenges include securing sustained funding, addressing issues of transformation and inclusivity, and ensuring that the benefits of astronomy are widely recognised and leveraged for broader societal development.

What do you see as the future of astronomy in Africa? What would you like to see?
The future of astronomy in Africa is bright, with significant potential for further advancements and contributions to global astronomy. I envision a future where Africa is a hub for world-class astronomical research, with robust infrastructure, a vibrant community of astronomers, and strong international collaborations. I would like to see continued investment in human capital, infrastructure, and outreach programs to ensure that more young Africans are inspired to pursue careers in astronomy. Additionally, I hope to see more African-led research initiatives as well as increased participation in global astronomical projects.

What would you like attendees to learn from your talk at SPIE Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation?
I would like attendees to learn about the significant progress and achievements in African astronomy over the past two decades. I want to highlight the importance of Africa's dark skies and of taking advantage of this resource, the substantial investments in infrastructure and human capital, and the role of the African Astronomical Society in fostering a collaborative and competitive astronomy community. I hope to inspire attendees with the story of Africa's journey in astronomy, emphasising the potential for using astronomy as a tool to address developmental challenges using the example of the IAU-OAD and the exciting future that lies ahead for astronomy on the continent.

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