A 15-year-old Gugulethu science boffin has landed the opportunity of a lifetime after she took a top slot in an international science essay competition.
Nomathemba Kontyo, a Grade 11 student at Fezeka Senior Secondary School in Gugulethu, and her mom, Angelina Kontyo, will travel in February to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (Nasa’s) Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasedena, California, where the pupil will be inducted as a junior astronaut.
The teenager will spend two weeks with a team of specialist scientists of Nasa who will monitor the Rover exploratory probes of Mars. Nasa’s Spirit probe is expected to land this weekend, followed by Opportunity on January 24.
Nomathemba said she “could not believe her good fortune” when she received the news informing her that she was one of 16 students from five continents that had been chosen to monitor the Rover missions to Mars.
She was selected to represent the African continent from a pool of 500 entrants in an international science essay competition run by Nasa, working in collaboration with the Planetary Society.
The objective of the competition, for teens aged 13 to 17, was to get the most insightful and innovative, science-based creative writing about life and water sources on Mars.
The youngster said she had become serious about astronomy when she entered high school in 2001.
“My teacher, Brent Johnson, who headed our astronomy club at school, encouraged me and nurtured my interest,” she said.
She had written an essay about the possibility of life and the existence of water on Mars and entered the international competition, but did not expect anything to come of it.
She also noted that she would have been unable to take on the gruelling 90-day preparatory programme, if it had not been for the hands-on intervention of two caring scientists from Los Angeles.
Professor Hal Walker and Dr Bettye Davis Walker run A-MAN Inc, an international science discovery and learning centre, specifically focused on disadvantaged youth. The Walkers are working on behalf of Nasa, in association with the MTN Science Centre at Century City, to ensure that the Fezeka pupil is up to the task.
“Our job with this exceptionally gifted student,” said Bettye Davis Walker, “is to ensure that Nomathemba is fully computer literate, au fait with all the current scientific jargon and that she completes intensive weekly assignments that are a requirement for induction to mission work at Nasa.”
Asked what he thought of the Gugulethu teen’s prospects, Hal Walker said: “All we are doing is providing this young person with the models and methods that will bring her into a global scientific and technological environment.
“Beyond that, she has the capability of excelling beyond her imagination.”