WAISSYA Is Equipping West African Students For A Future In Astronomy- Jielai Zhang

The West African International Summer School for Young Astronomers (WAISSYA) programme held in Abuja, Nigeria, in October 2019, has come and gone, but the impact on participants will endure for a lifetime. The school, which is organised to contribute to building a critical mass of astronomers to build a community of future scientific leaders in West Africa, and to exchange ideas about teaching and learning across continents, had instructors from Africa and beyond, experts in astronomy and related fields. The programme included lessons scientific thinking via innovative teaching methods, derived from principles of education research, especially “inquiry”, and projects, in which students designed and conducted a scientific investigation about the distance to an astronomical object, amongst others.

Space in Africa chatted with one of the instructors, Dr Jielai Zhang, who talked extensively about the recently concluded programme, amongst other things.

Dr Jielai Zhang has been a part of the WAISSYA team since the start of preparations for the inaugural summer school held in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2013. She hopes to help WAISSYA build up a community of astronomers and STEM leaders in West Africa, and to create long-lasting collaborations with her WAISSYA colleagues for education and research. She has a PhD in astronomy from the University of Toronto. She was part of a team that built a better type of telescope that detects faint galaxies. Her research interests include time-domain and multi-messenger astronomy, and interdisciplinary collaboration, with medical imaging and machine learning fields. She is currently a Schmidt Science Fellow at the University of Oxford.

Jielai Zhang
Dr Jielai Zhang

Give us a little background to yourself and your work.

My name is Jielai Zhang. I am an astronomer who also does medical imaging. I have BSc and BEng(Hons) honours from the University of Sydney, a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering from the Imperial College London, and a PhD in Astronomy and Astrophysics from the University of Toronto. My first postdoc was at Oxford University as a Schmidt Science Fellow, in partnership with the Rhodes Trust. During that time, I researched fetal ultrasounds, but recently, I started as an OzGrav Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Swinburne University of Technology. My research is all about seeing the Universe and our world in ways we’ve never seen before. I develop instrumentation, software and observing techniques to study galaxies, the changing Universe and now, also some medical imaging.

How did you get involved in WAISSYA?

Dr Linda Strubbe and Dr Bonaventure Okere co-founded WAISSYA in 2013. I was involved from the beginning. I just started my PhD at the time, and was attracted to WAISSYA because of its goal of building a community of astronomers in West Africa. I thought if I could contribute to astronomy, not just by research, but also by getting more talented minds into astronomy, it would be really rewarding. I was right!

What role(s) do you play in the project?

I was part of the team of four that developed the WAISSYA undergraduate stream curriculum. I remained as an instructor and helped with the training of new instructors from then onwards. After I graduated from my PhD programme in 2018, I became a co-director of WAISSYA, and help manage the team and set the long term goals for the school.

How would you describe the last summer school in Abuja? What was the experience like?

The energy and desire of the students to learn was astounding; African students have always impressed me. WAISSYA teaches undergraduate students and school teachers, who are interested in astronomy, and postgraduate students currently doing astronomy-related work. We have two separate streams for undergraduate students and postgraduate students. The curricula we designed for both the undergraduate and postgraduate streams, are challenging, with a full schedule. Even after a long day of learning, students still get together, late into the night, to discuss what they learned, and prepare for the next day without being asked. I will paraphrase my colleague from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Mr Esaenwi Sudum: “The energy of the students keeps us (the instructors) going, and our efforts are rewarded”.

What are the major achievements of the training?

One of the achievements for us is that four members of the instructor team are WAISSYA alumni. Having alumni as instructors is important: they serve as great role models for students, they understand, particularly, students’ backgrounds and how to support them, and they can shape the future of the team. This year, we discussed with women participants about their experiences, challenges, successes and strategies as women in science. We followed this with an all-gender discussion about women’s experiences, and helped men recognise that gender equity in science, is everybody’s problem to solve, and to see ways they can contribute to making the field more equitable. These genders-in-science discussions were led by WAISSYA alumni who are now instructors. I would like to highlight that in the postgraduate stream this year, students had the opportunity to use the Las Cumbres Observatory Telescope Network for the first time. They observed variable stars and then determined the type of variable star it was by analysing the captured images, using programming tools such as Python. The students learnt how to observe variable star using a visible wavelength telescope remotely, obtain data, analyse it and determine the nature of the variable star, all within one week. They asked in-depth questions that showed real understanding. Usually, understanding that would take weeks to gain.

The undergraduate stream this year was a huge success as usual. Students learnt astronomical content and practical science at the same time. They did this by carrying out investigations the same way a scientist would during research, and the investigation results are important astronomical concepts such as how to measure distances in the Universe. The undergraduate stream included science teachers; outreach to schools in the hosting country is also included in the programme.

What do you think about astronomy in West Africa, particularly, in Nigeria and from what you saw the students do?

West African students are very talented and energetic. We have seen that WAISSYA students work, incredibly, in teams, and this is going to make them go further in future than working alone as scientists. The growth of interest in astronomy in West Africa is tremendous, especially in Nigeria, where astronomy courses are offered up to the PhD level. I am excited that these minds to put efforts into understanding our Universe. I am sure I will learn about their discoveries soon.

Are you involved in any other STEAM-related projects in Africa? 

For my research, I have just started a project where we collaborate with astronomers in South Africa, who operate the MeerKAT telescope, a radio telescope in South Africa. It is a precursor to the Square Kilometre Array telescope, co-located in South Africa and Australia.

What is the future for WAISSYA?

WAISSYA started with only students from West Africa; however, this year, we had students from other places such as Ethiopia, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Altogether, for WAISSYA 2019, students came from 16 different countries, including French-speaking ones. We are delighted to have these emerging astronomers join the WAISSYA community. We are looking to run future editions of the school for students from across all of Africa.

WAISSYA instructors don’t just teach once; they make multi-year commitments. We will continue to work in between our schools to improve our curriculum using educational research principles. The postgraduate stream of WAISSYA will expand its reach, and progress into mentoring students beyond the school to do long-term research projects. WAISSYA students and instructors will move towards becoming a vibrant community of research collaborators and advisors. That one way we will reach our goal of building a critical mass of astronomers in West Africa that will join astronomers around Africa and beyond.