College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

PhD graduate Dr Sphumelele Ndlovu poses with the book he wrote.

A Science Dream from the Stars

Dr Sphumelele Ndlovu graduated with a PhD in Engineering at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, an accolade he claimed was by no means a final destination on his trajectory.

The young graduate, who had his start in UKZN’s Science Foundation Programme (SFP), wrote a book called Aiming for the Stars about his upbringing, hardships and academic journey.

Ndlovu comes from the village of eMaswazini, where his mother sold chickens to provide for him and his brother. Ndlovu has called his mother the greatest person in his life, teaching her sons that education would be their future.

During his school years, a lack of resources meant sometimes three scholars sat at a desk made for one.

Early in his matric year 24 of the school’s 28 teachers walked out, leaving him and his peers to teach themselves. He passed Mathematics and Science, but just short of a matric exemption to enter university.

The SFP enabled him to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Applied Mathematics and Physics at UKZN, and Ndlovu excelled. He did even better in honours and masters, completing his masters in 11 months.

Ndlovu believes studying what he loves shaped him as a person. He was accepted into the Professional Development Programme for PhD studies under the Space Geodesy Programme at Hartebeesthoek Radio Astronomy Observatory (HartRAO), where he was part of the first African team working on measuring the growing distance between earth and the moon using lasers.

His PhD formed part of the important, ongoing development of the Lunar Laser Ranging (LLR) system at HartRAO. His work involved developing a mathematical tool to optimise efficiency and estimate signal path parameter of the LLR system.

Ndlovu explained how the team he was a part of is working toward understanding how the moon’s movement away from the earth could affect its systems.

He had the chance to attend the International Laser Ranging Workshop in Washington D C in 2014, where he presented part of his PhD work. He received a prize for the best PhD oral presentation at the Annual South African Institute of Physics 2015 conference, and in 2016 was selected to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany, as well as the BRICS Young Scientists Conclave in India.

Ndlovu says, even with a PhD, he has more mountains to climb. He wants his children to know him as someone who always aimed for the stars and never stopped pushing.

It motivated him to write his book, a difficult endeavour during his PhD studies, but often a welcome reminder along the way about his life and what led him to that point. ‘I wrote the book with only one purpose: to tell fellow young South Africans that anything is possible,’ said Ndlovu. ‘I wanted people to know about this village boy who plucked his science dream from the stars. I have travelled the world, seen places I have never imagined and met important people,’ he said.

Ndlovu says his book is aimed at everyone, reminding the privileged to work hard to maintain their standard, and telling the poor that it can be done.

He thanked his partner, Promise Shabangu, and their two sons Siyanda and Siyabulela for their encouragement and support, and acknowledged his brother Ntuthuko and twin sisters Nozipho and Nosipho Mahlase for their friendship.

He thanked both the Ndlovu and Khubone families, and Mr Morris Madlala for walking his journey with him. Ndlovu also gave special thanks to Professor Naven Chetty, his masters supervisor and PhD co-supervisor, for believing in him and making him a better scientist. He expressed gratitude to his PhD supervisor, Professor Ludwig Combrinck, saying it was an honour to work under his supervision.

Ndlovu is currently working with the South African Weather Service as a scientist in their Air Quality Services department.

Words: Christine Cuénod