We talk to Mpho Tshisaphungo about weathering challenges and how she made her way into space history.
Mpho Tshisaphungo is the first female to head the Space Weather Centre at the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) in Hermanus. She is responsible for coordinating and managing the Space Weather Centre, a place where she and her team monitors the space weather conditions in real-time. These documented conditions are then further analysed to prepare forecasts, warnings and alerts for government and private industry users.
Growing up in Limpopo, Tshisaphungo remembers loving school and says: “I never wanted to miss school. When I was sick, I would go to school. Even when it was raining and there were no taxis, I would be in my uniform, making my way to school”. Although Tshisaphungo didn’t have a favourite teacher, she had a fascination with numbers and was drawn to Mathematics, a passion her parents supported.
“My mother couldn’t complete her schooling, but she is very clever and she understood the importance of education.” Tshisaphungo’s parents always encouraged her to learn and although her mother never completed her education she was always there to ensure they had food to eat before school and that their uniforms were prepared the night before. “Although she wouldn’t be able to check our homework, my mother would always ask if we had done it. If you wanted to, you could cheat yourself by telling her you did your work and she wouldn’t know, but she always asked. And if we didn’t do our homework, she would sit with us late at night so we wouldn’t have to sit alone,” Tshisaphungo says. This was the kind of support Tshisaphungo’s mother gave her while growing up.
As a child, Tshisaphungo wanted to work in chemistry. “When I could, I would spend my time in the lab, mixing some medicine. That was my dream, ” she recalls.
After high school, she applied to as many universities as she could. “I applied to Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) even though I didn’t even know where it was located. I thought it was out of the country,” she laughs.
Although she was accepted at CPUT for a degree in Chemistry, she did not have the required funding. Tshisaphungo recalls being influenced by those around her and talks of earning lots of money when working in the world of Computer Science, saying: “When you are young, you are driven by earning lots of money”. She then applied for the Bachelor of Computer Science with Mathematics and Physics at the University of Venda in Limpopo.
Tshisaphungo scrunches her brows as she talks about the frustration of having to share a computer with two or three people while trying to complete a practical at university. “How was I going to solve problems if I couldn’t even sit at a computer by myself?”
She then decided that computer science was not for her and chose to follow her passion by completing her Bachelor of Sciences in Mathematics and Physics, despite not knowing what career prospects she would have.
After her third year, Tshisaphungo was looking for any opportunity to further her education, when she spotted a poster advertising the winter school in Hermanus. At that time, she had no idea what space weather was but she was intrigued and decided to apply. She was accepted into the programme and by June 2006, she was on her way to the Western Cape.
And although the winter school only lasted for one week, Tshisaphungo’s curiosity lingered. “Learning about space science and technology opened up a whole new world for me and I was fascinated! During the winter school, I spent a lot of time with the SANSA researchers who recognised my potential and offered me an opportunity to continue my studies,” she explains.
Determined to pursue her interest, Tshisaphungo accepted SANSA’S offer to intern at the centre for six months. By December of that year, Tshisaphungo applied for her honours degree in The National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP) at the Universe of Cape Town. She then completed her masters in December 2009 and was offered an opportunity to become a space weather assistant in January 2010.
For Tshisaphungo, education has always been an important part of her life. She enjoys organising space weather courses, as well as training programmes in space weather forecasting. “We are also developing the training material for users in the aviation sector, as this information has to be customised for their use”.
Tshisaphungo says she is most proud of completing her PhD. However, undertaking that while working has been one of her most challenging ventures thus far. When overcoming challenging moments, Tshisaphungo encourages that one should “step back and take a break because in those moments you will find yourself making mistakes.” She also advises prioritising things that are important to you and tackling one task at a time.
When asked what advice she would give young people, Tshisaphungo says: “Know that each and every person is unique – you have your own talent, everybody is good at something. You need to identify your strengths and focus on what you are good at. Don’t follow what your friend is doing, follow your own heart.”