The annual theoretical physics internship develops key 4IR skills, builds capacity for South African-based international science programmes such as the SKA and SA-CERN science, and boosts South Africa’s physics brains trust.

“The internship is all about preparing final year BSc, Honours and Master’s students from all South African universities to be high-level problem solvers. It equips them to be in demand in a wide range of employment sectors or to pursue further research,” says the Executive Dean of Science at Nelson Mandela University, Professor Azwinndini Muronga.

Over the past ten years, Muronga has generously given of his time to host and facilitate a group of students attending this internship organised by the National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITheP), recently reconfigured into the National Institute for Theoretical and Computational Sciences (NITheCS) by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI).

Top maths and science students from across South African higher education institutions are selected to attend the internship to boost their mathematical, computational and theoretical physics knowledge. A handful of South African universities each host several interns each year, with Muronga as the longest serving member who annually attracts the largest number, and who has trained over 100 interns over the past ten years, most of them from historically black universities.

The latest internship saw Muronga’s group increasing from 10 students physically attending the summer internship at Nelson Mandela University to 30 attending online throughout South Africa. “We have the necessary expertise and tools to re-invent ourselves as an online community in the spirit of the Fourth Industrial Revolution by moving swiftly and adopting new ways of connecting and sharing,” says NITheCS Director, Professor Franceso Petruccione.

The internship takes place during the December/January vacation, followed by high-level research projects, which they submitted in May. Selected projects will be presented by the interns at the upcoming South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) conference in July (SAIP2021).

“Physics is the basic science underpinning all sciences, engineering and technology and during the internship they study the properties of matter that make up the universe – from the smallest to the largest – from quarks to the cosmos – and how to connect physics knowledge between the two extremes,” says Muronga who is assisted by tutors  – mainly postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows, the majority of whom are internship alumni.

Each year the internship addresses the theme Connecting Quarks to the Cosmos – nuclear matter under extreme conditions in terrestrial laboratories (such as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, NY, and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, Geneva) and in astrophysical processes (such as in the interior of compact stars, neutron star mergers/collisions, supernova explosions, and the early universe from the Big Bang).

In order to study this, the interns were grouped into seven groups with topics spanning relativistic heavy ion collisions and compact stars, thermal and statistical models, hydrodynamics, and kinetic theory and transport equation.

“Because we are working in COVID-19 times we had one of the groups working on the modelling of COVID-19 using South African data,” says Muronga. All the groups worked via  Zoom and with interns based all over the country they regularly experienced connectivity issues, particularly for the students in the rural areas. But they battled through and got the job done.

“The internship has a significant impact on students’ career paths,” says NITheCS’ communications officer, René Kotzé, who has been with the institute for many years and shown extraordinary commitment to the growth of young scientists in Africa, including young women scientists.

Thuthikile Khumalo was a NITheP intern in 2018 and a tutor for the first time this year. She is a Wits University doctoral research candidate in experimental nuclear physics at iThemba LABS – the largest multidisciplinary national research facility in South Africa and the largest accelerator facility in the southern hemisphere. “In 2018 I physically attended the internship at Nelson Mandela University with Prof Muronga,” she explains. “It influenced the course of my research as I understood the necessity of studying the largest to the smallest properties of the universe and it sparked my interest in nuclear astrophysics.”

Magdeline Seabi, one of this year’s interns who is currently doing her MSc in nanoscience at the University of the Western Cape, says that as a result of the internship, she would like to do her PhD in theoretical or nuclear physics. “I found the whole area of high-energy nuclear collision fascinating and we will be presenting our internship project on this subject at SAIP21.”

Seabi did her BSc and Honours degree at the University of Limpopo. She grew up in the village of Ga-Mamabolo in Limpopo where she now helps learners, including her younger siblings, with their mathematics, physics and chemistry. “I’m fortunate to have role models in my Mom who has two Honours degrees, and my late grand uncle, who raised my mother. They played a huge role in instilling the importance of education and the love of studying and reading. He always told my Mom that education is the only route out of poverty and to achieve a better future. My Mom supported our educational journey by taking us to Saturday school when I was in high school from grade 10 to 12 to help us to better understand maths and science concepts.

 Seabi explains that given the complexity of the internship theme and projects she suggested that they should be extended over six months: “In effect this is what has happened as our groups have continued to share knowledge and give virtual presentations of our projects to make sure they are fine-tuned for SAIP2021.”

At SAIP2021, tutor Dr Dephney Mathebula’s group will present their project on mathematical modelling of COVID-19 using South African data. She is a lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at the University of Venda (UNIVEN) where she did her BSc in mathematics and statistics, followed by an Honours and Master’s at Stellenbosch University in mathematical modelling, specialising in biomathematics. “It’s about mathematically modelling real life systems such as infectious diseases like COVID-19,” Mathebula explains.

“Infectious disease modelling assists countries in anticipating the disease vectors and empowers them to curb the spread of diseases as well as to understand why there are more cases in certain areas.” She adds that mathematical modelling and programming languages are key skills for the 4IR. “Big data and Artificial Intelligence all require modelling and programming skills.”

Mathebula returned to UNIVEN to do her PhD and then to lecture there to transfer the skills she has learnt with her students, many of whom come from rural areas like she does where they had to fetch water and wood and tend to the goats after school. “I’m from rural Giyani in Limpopo and I was blessed to have an older sister, Constance Mathebula, who loved mathematics. I saw the joy she experienced when she got it right and I wanted to experience this. At school we were also blessed with brilliant teachers, my physics and biology and maths teachers respectively were from India, Mr and Mrs Abraham. They played such an important role and as a result we have academics, pharmacists, engineers and doctors from our class.”

Many of the interns are from historically black universities and were educated at rural schools. As part of the internship they learn the requisite programming languages (Python, Mathematica and Matlab) as several come from universities where they have not learnt these or not at the level required for completing high level science research projects. “Once we evaluate the interns’ skills level in these languages we soon find out how much they understand and the level of input required,” says Mathebula. “As the internship progresses they become far more open if there is something they don’t understand.”

“Without the requisite computer and programming language skills the students waste so much time learning these during their postgraduate studies,” says Muronga. “When I was doing my MSc at the University of Cape Town, I had to spend a year teaching myself computer skills and literature reviews. Having since worked as an academic in maths and science advancement for many years, I know where many of our students, postgraduates and researchers are coming from. I know the difficulties they face, and I am motivated by their potential and what we can achieve through internships like this.

Intern Vhuthu Tshilengo who is doing her Honours at UNIVEN says she significantly added to her skills on the internship and is inspired to be a world class physicist like Nobel prize winner Marie Curie. “I stay in rural Tshilamba in Limpopo, about an hour from the university and I’m the first person in my family to get to university,” she explains.

“I couldn’t see myself hanging around the villages and towns and I was fortunately steered towards physics through career guidance at my school, Thengwe Secondary School, where we had university students coming to talk to us. We also had wonderful educators at my school who inspired us as young women to pursue maths and physics, and I am now doing my Honours in physics, in optical astronomy. Our galaxy and universe fascinates me and I want to go on to do my Master’s and PhD so that I can become a physics academic.”

Intern Bhuti Nkosi is doing his Master’s in astrophysics at Wits university. “In Grade 4 at school in Rustenburg I learnt about the earth and the planets, and that people were able to go to the moon,” he explains. “It intrigued me and from then on I wanted to be a scientist. Fortunately I was always good at maths – as was my Mom – and in high school I started looking into Einstein’s theories about the origins of the universe. I then applied to go to Wits to do my undergraduate degree and got in. My ambition is to be a physicist or astrophysicist.”

Nkosi says he learnt a considerable amount about neutron stars and their properties during the internship – he was in the group that used Python to model the EOS of neutron stars. “I also really enjoyed the interaction with students from other universities and I made some good academic and social connections. We continue to share knowledge and I am so appreciative of the time and effort that Prof Muronga puts in as he continues to assist us as we build up to the SAIP2021 conference.”

Muronga says that beyond COVID-19 they plan to move towards a blended model of the internship programme. “The interns could meet in physical venues for about a week and the rest of the time would be spent on virtual sessions. The beauty of theoretical and computational sciences is you can do your studies or research anytime anywhere since all you need is paper, pens, a decent high-speed computer and connectivity – which is the oil of the digital world. When Eskom is off then students can revert to pen and paper to continue with their calculations, and use the daylight hours and candles. I survived using candles and daylight to study in the villages without power.

“Having said this, today we urgently need good digital infrastructure in rural schools and historically black universities. This would also capacitate us to scale up the internship as it is far more cost effective to have 30 students virtually than 10 contact students per year. My hope is that network and data providers will see fit to contribute to the education of rural communities by expanding connectivity and partnering with this programme.”