Mechanical engineer Nathaneal Morgan joined the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) straight out of university. Having been part of the SKA’s Infrastructure South Africa design consortium, where he worked on the heating and cooling requirements for the sensitive equipment on site, Nathaneal is now based in Cape Town and part of the SARAO-led National Ventilator Project.
We spoke to him about his route into engineering, what the SKA means for South Africa, and how he was inspired by the classic movie Back to the Future.
Let’s begin with your childhood, Nathaneal – was anyone in your family involved in science or engineering?
I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and was the first one in my family to be able to attend university. Growing up I don’t even think I knew anyone else who had attended university, never mind being involved in science or engineering. Although, my dad was always tinkering with old computers – picking them apart and building them up again. I guess that must have been my first real exposure to anything engineering related. I didn’t have much interest in that at the time but was exposed to the processes and curiosity of understanding how things work.
So when did you start to take an interest in STEM?
I don’t recall one particular event, but perhaps a collection of reinforcing events throughout my life. I remember watching Back to the Future and thinking that Marty McFly’s hoverboard was the coolest thing I had ever seen and I desperately wanted one. My parents obviously couldn’t get me one so I decided that I would become a scientist/inventor when I grew up, so that I could make one for myself (I haven’t quite cracked it yet).
When I was 13 years old, I was asked to give a farewell speech to my classmates as we all prepared to move on to High School. My dad helped me write it and the overarching idea was something like: “I hope that this group will produce future doctors, lawyers, artists… and engineers.” I remember not wanting to add that last part into the speech because I didn’t actually know what an engineer did. I did some research and found the engineering-related processes of design, manufacturing, and innovation are applied across a wide range of industries and was intrigued by the possibilities. I began watching a lot of shows like How It’s Made and MythBusters, which enhanced that scientific curiosity in me – naturally I gravitated towards STEM.
“The SKA is a ground-breaking build, the products of which could fundamentally change our understanding of the Universe, who wouldn’t want to be part of something that monumental?”
You joined SARAO through the young professionals programme they run – why did you choose to apply?
I had just completed my Bachelor’s degree and was applying for every vacancy I could find, but remember being particularly interested in this opportunity. It was a collaborative Young Professionals Development Programme between the SKA’s Infrastructure South Africa design consortium (INSA) and an external engineering institute. Experienced engineers were available to offer valuable consulting services, while graduates were incorporated into the programme to gain industry experience and facilitate knowledge transfer – this appealed to me. I spent my first year at SARAO under secondment, and was offered a permanent contract thereafter.
What’s your specialism at SARAO now and how does it relate to the SKA?
I am a Mechanical Engineer working primarily on the African Very Large Baseline Interferometry Network (AVN). The AVN programme helps to develop the skills and capacity needed in SKA African partner countries to encourage and optimise African participation in related development and science.
Currently, I am part of a fantastic team working on a conversion project, where an existing antenna in Ghana – previously used for telecommunications services – has been designated for conversion into a radio telescope. The change in functionality imposes a new set of requirements on the structure and control system, and I am responsible for the design, assembly, and subsequent utilisation of a Qualification Test Rig. The rig has been built at the SARAO offices in Cape Town and is being used to test the mechanical installation and integration of major components relating to the conversion, in particular to improve the positional accuracy of the antenna, which is crucial to track celestial objects.
When did you first hear about the SKA, and what made you want to be part of it?
Probably when I was applying for the graduate programme. I was amazed by the scale, technical requirements and potential impact that a project of this magnitude could have, and wanted to be part of the team that delivered it. I mean it’s a ground-breaking build, the products of which could fundamentally change our understanding of the Universe, who wouldn’t want to be part of something that monumental? I also felt that the international collaboration would offer unique opportunities for networking and professional exposure. I was able to meet some international colleagues from the central office as part of the Critical Design Review (CDR) visit, and I hope to be able to take advantage of similar opportunities in the future.
“I feel like I am genuinely contributing towards something that will have a lasting impact on the global scientific community.”
What does the SKA mean for you as a young South African, and for the country as a whole in your opinion?
I’m proud to be part of the project and feel like I am genuinely contributing towards something that will have a lasting impact on the global scientific community. I am part of a vastly knowledgeable and capable team, which allows me to enhance and diversify my own skills as an engineer. I think that this increased exposure to STEM and the subsequent development of human capital are critically important factors in determining the overall success of the SKA.
From an African perspective, it’s important to showcase our talent and resourcefulness in being able to deliver these instruments, thereby increasing further investment opportunities in our country. The scale of this project is immense and the close collaboration between partner countries provides a perfect opportunity to highlight our capability to a global audience. The progress that we have made thus far provides concrete evidence of the quality that can be produced in Africa when we work towards a common goal. As a key stakeholder in the SKA, I think the entire country is invested in the success of this project.
Sometimes science and engineering are seen as not very diverse or inclusive. What has been your experience of this, and how do you feel it could be improved?
Although these are global issues, we as South Africans perhaps have a unique perspective on the effects of discrimination and inequality on a society. Building an inclusive industry (and society as a whole) requires purposeful commitment to transformation and diversity management, and the perseverance that comes with it; because real change can’t happen overnight. Additionally, genuine diversity and inclusiveness is not a superficial tick-box exercise, but a migration towards all people respecting and valuing the inputs and perspectives of those from different backgrounds. I think the industry still needs more of this, but I have been greatly encouraged by the approach and attitude of my team at SARAO.
How would you sell engineering as a career? What’s the best thing about it?
At its core, engineering is all about the systemic approach to solving problems. While the foundations are built upon theoretical principles that can sometimes seem daunting or abstract, engineering processes are practical in nature and can be applied to almost any situation. I am always amazed at how principles like Requirements Evaluation, Qualification Testing, and Failure Analysis are just as applicable to everyday tasks as they are to a complex technical build. So many of the skills enhanced through engineering experience are transferable, affording engineers plenty of options for personal development.Is there a piece of advice you would give to young people who might want to follow your lead?
Be curious and stay humble. Curiosity will make it easier to find things that interest you; this is important because you will likely put more effort into something that you find appealing, and produce better results. Actively try to identify interesting aspects in every project you do and learn something new about it. There will be times (plenty of times!) when you need help, ask unashamedly and accept assistance humbly.
Let’s talk about outside of the office – how do you take your mind off work?
I’m an avid sports fan and enjoy watching and playing often. I have a particular fondness for football and I spend a lot of time reading, analysing, and discussing tactics and performances particularly those related to my favourite team Manchester United. We have access to a sports field close to the SARAO offices in Cape Town where we play weekly matches after work – it’s a great way to keep fit and socialise with colleagues outside of the office environment. Unfortunately, these activities have been curtailed due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures.
I also enjoy cooking and recreating dishes I see online. Actually, I probably just like eating delicious food and cooking is simply a means to an end!
Read more about Nathaneal’s work on the SKA on our dedicated engineering design website.
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