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Astronomist opening up new horizons with her research

Dr Michelle Lochner sets her eyes on the far skies to discover more information about the universe. Picture: Supplied.

Dr Michelle Lochner sets her eyes on the far skies to discover more information about the universe. Picture: Supplied.

Published Dec 18, 2021

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Cape Town - With the next set of telescopes on the horizon, Dr Michelle Lochner is setting her eyes on the far skies after being named one of South Africa’s most promising young researchers.

The senior lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) received a NRF P-rating, which is a prestigious award for young researchers who are recognised as having the potential to become leaders in their field. She is one of only 10 scientists honoured in this manner each year.

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“My love for science started when I was about six years old and my father showed me the Pleiades and explained that they were an open cluster of stars, each shining dot similar to our sun,” said Lochner. “It was an important moment for me because not only could I appreciate something so beautiful, I could also understand it, which made it more beautiful to me. Ever since then, that’s when my passion for astronomy grew.”

Her work focuses on cosmology and getting the best out of combining optical and radio telescopes by developing new machine learning techniques to automatically analyse data and make new scientific discoveries among datasets of a million astrophysical objects.

These datasets provide her with gigantic eyes in the far skies coming from telescopes like MeerKAT, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (LSST) which are both still under construction, one in South Africa and one in Chile.

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“South Africa is uniquely placed. We have an astonishing geographical advantage when it comes to astronomy, having some of the darkest and quietest radio skies in the world. We already have world-class optical telescopes in Sutherland and the radio telescope MeerKAT near Carnarvon, which is so sensitive it seems to make a new scientific discovery every week.

“With the optical telescope being so sensitive, it will detect 10 million things changing in the sky every night, and my work centres around how to handle these enormous volumes of data and make new scientific discoveries from them. I develop artificial intelligence algorithms to help automate the search for unusual and rare objects in big datasets - the ultimate needle in a haystack problem. I’ve also been leading work on developing an observing strategy for the Rubin Observatory to make sure it takes its observations in the best possible way so we can extract the maximum amount of information about the universe.

“Our most important challenge is that we make maximum use of our own resources and leverage the interest from the international community to help grow the country’s knowledge economy,” said Lochner.

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With data analysis skills being a critical skill set for studying astronomy, South African Young Academy of Science Co-chairperson, Dr Tozama Qwebani-Ogunleye, said what stood out for her about Lochner’s research was her ability to seek knowledge and expand on what is available with the new telescopes.

“Astrophysicists seek to explore the fundamental understanding of how the universe operates through data sets. In the era of data, this is a needed skill set. We need empowered and equipped scientists to learn of the opportunities, great threats, basic knowledge in our solar system, our galaxy and the universe beyond.”

“Dr Lochner’s research was able to expand on the knowledge that is available because with new telescopes, there is a great need for new techniques. The application has become an important aspect of our daily lives because it is used for telecommunication, monitoring, security and weather etc,” said Ogunleye.

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