Kenda Knowles

National Science Week is a countrywide initiative that promotes careers in Science, Engineering and Technology for South African students while National Women’s Day commemorates the 1956 march of 20 000 women protesting against the country’s pass laws.

Both events shed light on important issues, including a skills shortage in Science, Engineering and Technology and the limited presence of women in these fields.

UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science showcased its support for these causes in a series of articles acknowledging its own Wonder Women in Science – all passionate, pioneering and persistent heroines who are “kicking ass” in Science and stand as shining examples for all women.

Hands up if your teacher ever caught you daydreaming during a boring lesson and told you to come back to earth. Okay, put your hands down! Dr Kenda Knowles turned her day dreaming into reality by making space and all its wonders the centre of her career. As a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at UKZN’s Astrophysics and Cosmology Research Unit (ACRU), Knowles is a star on the rise in the field of radio astronomy.

Her fascination with the night sky started when she was just 10-years-old. While on a Brownies (girl scouts) excursion, the constellation of Orion was pointed out to her and she learned about the clusters of stars close to it known as the Pleiades. ‘I remember feeling a sense of awe and amazement which got me hooked,’ said Knowles.

This interest coupled with an aptitude for Maths and Science led to her receiving her PhD earlier this year with her doctoral research resulting in the discovery of a new radio halo — large space regions which emit radio waves – in a low-mass galaxy cluster.

Knowles explained that our solar system contains a set of planets orbiting around the sun – which is a star. However, the universe is made up of many stars each probably with its own set of planets. A large group of stars makes up a galaxy, and a large group of galaxies is known as a galaxy cluster. Knowles’ work focuses on understanding the merging of these clusters by studying the radio emissions which appear bright during energetic mergers and then fade with time.

She was selected to attend the 2015 Nobel Laureate Meeting as a Young Scientist and won a Doctoral Fellowship at the 2015 DST Women in Science awards. Despite her exceptional achievements, Kenda says she has struggled with ‘imposter syndrome’. ‘This is when everyone thinks you’re great but you think you’re not good enough and feel like you are faking it. But you just have to fake it – your confidence – until you make it,’ she explains.

Knowles says more women are needed in science to show the world they are just as good as their male counterparts. ‘Science was believed to be a man’s field because women were considered to be less capable. We’re just as capable, so it’s high time the balance is corrected.’

To help restore this balance she is involved in astronomy outreach for ACRU, giving talks to the public and to high school students. Her advice for budding scientists is: ‘Dig in and go for it. The only thing holding you back is yourself. Science can be challenging but it can also be really rewarding and provide a great sense of achievement.’

Knowles says the next generation of scientists has a lot to overcome, including a lack of qualified high school science teachers and a curriculum that does not adequately prepare students for university. However, she feels the government’s investment in Science and Technology education/careers is a move in the right direction.

For Knowles inspiring greatness means practicing what you preach by inspiring others to do better and be confident of their abilities. She respects her supervisor, Professor Kavilan Moodley, describing him as an excellent researcher who takes time to mentor his students.

Her immediate plans include staying in academia and working towards a post-doctoral fellowship at the Square Kilometre Array – the large multi radio telescope project involving South Africa and Australia. But not knowing what’s written in the stars, she leaves a window of possibility open. ‘I’m open to new experiences so who knows what I’ll be doing in 10 years!’

We asked Knowles to create a “super hero profile” for herself through answers to our questions:

Q. What would your super power be and why?
A. Invisibility because anonymity can be bliss – I realise how ironic that is given this is an interview! Also teleportation to eliminate 17-hour flights!

Q. What would be your theme song?
A. Hells Bells by AC/DC, because as with most of their songs it makes me feel powerful and like I can take on anything.

Q. Who would be your sidekicks and why?
A. My best friend Susan Wilson – together we can always find an adventure and really have some fun.

Q. Where would your secret lair/ hide-out be?
A. If I told you then it wouldn’t be a secret, now would it?

Q. Describe your happy place.
A. Any place where I could have a Great Dane…or two…or three!


Words and Photography: Sashlin Girraj