January 2015
Contents / home
Bloodhound's supersonic quest
Deputy Minister visits SAASTA
SAASTA Highlights Report
SAASTA takes science to Beijing
Natural Science Olympiad
Community media pilot project
Crystallography kits for schools
PUB celebrates 10 years of biotech
Reaching visually impaired learners
School debate finals
Science communication workshops
KAT-7 seen as design highlight
Meet Nithaya Chetty
Eskom Expo 2014
SKA SA exhibits at BRICS EXPO
Algoa Bay Hope Spot launched
Inspiring environmental scientists
In the news
Upcoming events
It's a fact!

Meet the scientist at the helm of astronomy in SA, Nithaya Chetty

  Prof. Nithaya Chetty – physicist, author and strong advocate for academic freedom
  The Astronomy sub-Agency oversees the management of the Astronomy national facilities in South Africa, including the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere
Youth Science Fortnight in London (1980)

Current position: Professor, Department of Physics, University of Pretoria

Fulbright Fellowship for graduate studies to the USA (1985-1986)

National Research Foundation (NRF) President's Award (1997-2000)

Fulbright Fellowship for sabbatical leave to the USA (2004)

NRF's Deputy CEO: Astronomy (current)

President South African Institute of Physics (2007-2009)
To understand the impact that Science has had on Nithaya Chetty's life, Professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Pretoria and the NRF's Deputy CEO: Astronomy, it is best to start at the beginning.

"The year I matriculated from Raisethorpe High School in Pietermaritzburg (1980), was turbulent. It was a year of school boycotts, police raids and my high school Science teacher was put in jail. Despite this, I decided I was going to study for my matric even though classes were closed. I studied from textbooks and I used past examination papers as a guide, but nothing was more helpful in my own learning than teaching to my peers.

I began to hold classes and teach Mathematics, Physics and Biology. I was rewarded at the end of the year by being placed first in the national matriculation examinations in my apartheid-defined racial category – an achievement that still remains bitter-sweet for me today."

Real rewards for hard work in Science

It was also the year Nithaya was selected to attend the International Youth Science Fortnight in London. "This was a turning point in my life, as I found out for the first time that there were real rewards for hard work in Science," he muses.

It was also the first time that he was exposed to a multi-racial group of students in his age group, all with a common interest in Science. That sense of camaraderie left an indelible mark on Nithaya: "There is no doubt that my visit to London was life-changing, and very influential in helping me choose a career in Science."

Nithaya considers himself lucky, as he was able to achieve his ambitions of becoming an academic and contributing to higher education in South Africa. "Throughout my life, I have had a deep yearning for scientific education as an instrument for development, and much of my professional life has been driven by this goal largely because I feel that I am an embodiment of this," he says. "For me, Science was instrumental in extricating myself from a life that was destined for mediocrity."

GetSETgo caught up with this top physicist to find out more about his current challenges and the things in life that excite him most:

Q: Tell us about your job as the NRF's Deputy CEO: Astronomy
I head up the Astronomy sub-Agency within the NRF, which oversees the management of the Astronomy national facilities in South Africa, as well as the Astronomy-related projects and programmes. This includes oversight of the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO), the Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.

We have an almost 200 year history of excellence in optical astronomy in South Africa; some of the historically most significant understandings of our universe have derived from observations made in South Africa over the past two centuries. Today that tradition continues, for example with the excellent science results from the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) located at Sutherland.

Today, radio astronomy is growing very rapidly with South Africa hosting the SKA in partnership with Australia. Our investments in MeerKAT, which will be South Africa's contribution to the SKA, will be in excess of R5b over the next five years.

As a pre-cursor to the SKA in Africa, South Africa is working closely with its African partner countries to develop the African VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) network (AVN). This will help nucleate important technical and radio astronomical research teams that will ensure that Africa participates maximally in the large-scale investments that are being made in this endeavour on the continent. South Africa is also in active support of the gamma ray astronomical developments in Namibia.

For more information on Nithaya's vision for astronomy in South Africa, take a look at his recent public address on this subject.

Q: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in rural KwaZulu-Natal, in the villages of Umlaas Road and Thornville in the midlands where I did my primary schooling – long-drop toilets, no electricity and puff adders to contend with. We moved to Pietermaritzburg where I went to high school.

Q: What did you do before joining the NRF?
I completed my BSc Hons degree at the University of Natal in 1984. I subsequently received a Fulbright Fellowship for studies in the USA where I completed my Masters and PhD degrees at the University of Illinois at Urban-Champaign. I subsequently held postdoctoral fellowships in Denmark and in New York before returning to South Africa after being away for a decade.

I spent a year at Unisa as a lecturer, and then proceeded to the University of Natal, which became the University of KwaZulu-Natal post-merger, and finally to the University of Pretoria in 2009 where I currently hold a full professorship.

I was seconded to the NRF on a temporary, part-time basis in 2011 as Group Executive Astronomy. During this time, the Minister of Science and Technology explored the possibility of setting up a separate agency to manage astronomy. As it turns out, after a long consultative process, the Minister's decision was to establish an intermediate entity – a so-called Astronomy sub-Agency located within the NRF – which I now head since 1 October 2014, and which has the potential to spin off into a separate agency in the coming years if and when this is deemed necessary.

Q: What are your future plans?
I have just signed a five-year contract as Deputy CEO: Astronomy at the NRF, and so I am committed to my new job here for the next five years. I continue with some research and with supervision of postdoctoral fellows at the University of Pretoria; it is my intention to remain strongly connected to the academic community should I decide to return to a university career eventually.

Q: What is your favourite dish?
I was a bachelor for many years, and during this time I learnt to cook a wide variety of dishes – Spanish paella, Thai, Chinese, Italian are some of my favourites. I even took lessons to bake bread at some stage. I quickly figured that cooking and entertaining was a great way to meet people during my extensive travels as a student and postdoctoral fellow in North America and Europe.

Since getting married eleven years ago, my wife Anashree has practically kicked me out of the kitchen. I have not protested too much since she is a lot more accomplished than me. Nowadays I get to do the braais, and I love doing an occasional potjie. My wife and I teamed up at a potjie cooking competition a couple of years ago at the Sparkling Waters Hotel in the Magaliesberg, and we won! However, I must admit it is easy to cook the best curry in Gauteng. I wouldn't think we could be this lucky in Durban.

Q: Your favourite holiday destination?
My wife and I love the outdoors, especially if it involves hiking and a picnic. Throw a bottle of wine in there, and you have all the ingredients for a great afternoon. Some of the exciting places that we have been to recently have been the Etosha National Park in Northern Namibia (my dream came true for my 50th birthday!), and Monks Cowl in the Drakensberg, where we had some of the most picturesque hiking trails amidst cascading waterfalls.

Q: What keeps you busy when you're not at work?
I recently co-authored a book with Christopher Merrett on 'The Struggle for the Soul of a South African University', which has been very well received, including internationally. I have given a number of public lectures on our book; I see myself as a strong advocate for academic freedom.

I enjoy keeping fit and going to the gym regularly. However, my job at the NRF and the extensive travel that this entails is impacting on my regular gym routine. I am tending now to take my running shoes on some of my overseas trips. I used to play an okay game of golf, and would occasionally immerse myself completely in my garage doing a bit of carpentry. However, my new job has put paid to this as it simply doesn't allow much free time.

Q: What excites you most about life?
Being South African and thinking deeply about our uniquely South African issues, and contributing – primarily through discourse on higher education and research – to helping address the many challenges in our society.

Q: Tell us about your family...
Just my wife and me. We are a team.

Q: Hobbies? Pets?
We have three Jack Russell terriers that are very much a part of our family ... and judging by their noisiness, probably very much a part of the neighbourhood families as well!