Science TED Fellows

A ray of hope: Fellows Friday on Renée Hlozek’s new mentorship program for South African women scientists

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TED Fellow Renée Hlozek — currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Astrophysics at Princeton University — recently established a fund and mentoring program to bring young South African female science undergraduates to the US for summer research. The mentorship’s first recipient, Julia Healy, just completed four weeks working alongside Hlozek at Princeton. Here, the two tell us about the experience.

What is the Hope Network, and the Hope-Princeton Exchange?

Renée Hlozek: The Hope Network was started by me and some female friends a few years ago in South Africa as a way to encourage female students in the physical and natural sciences, engineering and medicine. We realized that by making a small contribution each, we could actually start a scholarship! The program assists female students in their fourth (and final) year of undergraduate studies. I realized that while I can help financially, I could also help in the mentoring aspect of the fellowship. So together with the Hope Network, I started the Hope-Princeton exchange, which funded Julia’s trip to the US to work with me for four weeks over the US summer — or South African winter — holiday. It is something I hope to be able to continue in years to come, and to expand to other institutions in the US. I’m lucky to have the support of my department in this, and my hope is that other institutions will also see this as a great opportunity to mentor students from South Africa.

Tell us about the student you brought over. What was the process, and how did you choose Julia?

RH: Once I realized that I could fund one trip, the next stage was putting out a call through my contacts in South African universities for students who wanted to work on astronomy projects over the summer. We put out the call to third and fourth year students, and got applications from such fields as engineering and mathematics. There was a requirement on the grades of the applicants, to make sure that the student could handle the mathematics and discussion required over the summer, but what was important for me was also the personal statement. Julia expressed her enthusiasm for learning and astronomy very well, and her initiative shone through too — she has worked on and led many projects both within and outside her academic environment.

What did you work on together?

RH: We decided to do a stacking analysis in the recent maps from the Planck satellite, to look for the signal from dusty galaxies detected in other wavelength bands. This project is important because it will teach us about the properties of these galaxies which live far away from us, through the light they give off in the microwave regime of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Julia came to work with me during the astrophysics department’s undergraduate summer research program, which I run with Dave Spiegel and Emily Rauscher, two other postdocs here in Princeton. So there was a group of 10 other students who were also doing research projects for the first time. I think this made a natural environment for her to fit into, and also meant that she made her first international colleagues — something I really appreciated when I was starting out my research career. My hope with this exchange is that South African students are reminded that the research world is international, and that they form an integral part of the global network.

Julia Healy, the Hope-Princeton Exchange’s first recipient.

Julia Healy, the Hope-Princeton Exchange’s first recipient.

Julia, tell us about your experience.

Julia Healy: The four weeks I spent at Princeton were a great learning experience. I am working on a project with Renée looking for dusty red galaxies in the cosmic microwave background. There were so many different opportunities for me to learn: listening to the discussions about the latest research papers over coffee, I was able to absorb a little bit about the content however it often went over my head. And I was able to pick up how to write a good research paper. The seminars held on Tuesdays at lunch exposed me to ongoing research in the Princeton astrophysics department as well as taught me some invaluable skills, such as how to present a research paper to a group of people.

I learnt a lot about conducting science research and the environment in which it is conducted — lots of the myths surrounding what the typical researcher is like have been broken. I had lots of fun learning new things every day, and am more certain now that I want to continue into postgraduate research. By the end of the four weeks, I did not want to leave — I was quite happy to continue working. I am continuing with the work now that I am back in Cape Town.

And Renée, how did this initial experience inform how you plan to run this exchange in the future?

RH: This pilot was super useful to me, and gave me a lot of insight into how to organize things. I was pleased that Julia had a group to work with, and I will continue to include the students in our summer program. The only challenge is that for Julia it is the South African winter holiday, and so she had to leave after four weeks, rather than experiencing the full nine weeks that the US students get in our program. We are continuing to work together now, though. Personally, I felt enriched by this experience and only hope we can bring more students over next summer!