Partnership Links Vanderbilt with South Africa for Research and Student Training in Astronomy

Friday, July 12, 2013

Astronomers at Vanderbilt University have partnered with colleagues in South Africa for a program of cutting edge research to discover planets around other stars, and training of post-graduate students in this research, with an emphasis on students from Historically Black Universities.

Astronomers at Vanderbilt University and the University of Cape Town have deployed a telescope called KELT at the site of the Southern Africa Large Telescope (SALT) with the goal of discovering planets orbiting other stars, especially very bright stars so that the atmospheres of the discovered planets can be examined using the SALT. KELT has so far discovered six unique planets, the importance of which has been featured in a recent article in the New York Times.

In both the United States and in South Africa, the number of Black/Colored individuals earning PhD degrees in astronomy is approximately 2-3 individuals per year. This severely limits the number of such individuals who can lead future astronomical programs for our nations. Vanderbilt has built a program together with Fisk University, a Historically Black University in Nashville, called the Fisk-Vanderbilt Masters-to-PhD Bridge Program. Since 2004, this program has admitted 61 students, 92% of whom have earned or are progressing toward completing the PhD. This program has made Fisk and Vanderbilt the top producers of African American PhDs in astronomy in the United States. In South Africa, the National Astrophysics and Space Science Program (NASSP) has been an important mechanism for recruiting, training, and supporting Black African students in their PhD training at UCT. Together, NASSP and the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program provide bursaries, access to research facilities, and faculty mentoring to ensure that these students are successful in our joint research projects.

To date this partnership, supported by a formal agreement signed by Vanderbilt and the University of Cape Town, has led to two PhDs earned by UCT students performing extended research at Vanderbilt and two PhDs earned by Vanderbilt students performing extended research in South Africa.

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