Young Scientists

Salma Sylla: "I want to teach astrophysics in Senegal"

Who are you?

I am Salma Sylla Mbaye. I am a PhD candidate in astrophysics. Currently I am at the University of Antwerp for the first year of my doctorate. My background is atomic and nuclear physics, where I obtained a diploma of advanced studies, at the Institute of Applied Nuclear Technology, at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. For my PhD, I'm working on collisions on Jupiter. The purpose of this study is to estimate the age of the external solar system. This PhD is a collaboration between Senegal, the University of Antwerp in Belgium, the Cadi Ayyad University in Morocco and the University of Toulouse in France. I have a scholarship from the Father Louis Bruyns Foundation in Belgium and also a scholarship from the Organization for Women in Science for the Developping World.

How did you become an astrophysicist?

I am very passionate about science. Since my secondary school years, I was very interested in astrophysics. But there was no astrophysics in our university. I chose to study physics and chemistry. After my master's degree, I was able to study atomic and nuclear physics. During my studies in atomic and nuclear physics, I had the opportunity to attend an international conference. At the end of this conference, there were several astrophysicists, including Professor Katrien Kolenberg, who is currently my supervisor at the University of Antwerp. The same year, I also had the opportunity to attend another meeting in Ouagadougou, where there were several astrophysicists as well, because it was a meeting related to astronomy. And there, I was able to witness the founding of the African Astronomical Society. And I also had the opportunity to apply for a scholarship to go to France for an internship at the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique in Saclay. After that, I returned to Senegal, with the aim of doing research in science, but the path was not always easy.

What difficulties did you meet?

I graduated in 2011, and it was only in 2017 that I was able to begin my PhD. So the path was not really obvious. In the meantime, since I also had a degree in computer engineering, I was able to work in computers. As I went on attending conferences in the field of science, in 2016 I attended a conference in astronomy, which was organized by the Senegalese Association for the Promotion of Astronomy, and by a French scientist working at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement in Senegal. During this meeting, I learned that there was a possibility to apply for a PhD, and I discussed it with my local mentor, Ababacar Sadikh Ndao, who supported the idea. And now I'm in science forever.

What do you plan to do after your PhD?

My aims after my PhD are mainly to introduce astronomy in Senegal. To teach astrophysics at university. Set up cooperations with Belgium, France and around the world to bring astrophysics to Senegal. I would also like to work with the Development Office for Astronomy, and also with the African Initiative for Planetary Sciences, that motivates African countries to collaborate to bring astronomy to Africa. I would like to popularize astronomy, by going to schools to introduce astronomy so that children, starting in primary school, know that this science exists that it is really important that Senegal be involved in this research.

Why is the development of astronomy important for Senegal?

Senegal must have its word in astrophysics science. Currently, there is a strong NASA team, the team that supervised the probe around the former planet Pluto. And why is this team currently in Senegal? Because there is a very important event in astronomy, an occultation called the MU69 ocultation, which will be visible during the night of 3rd to 4th August, and this event will only be visible in two countries in the world, including Senegal. So Senegal has every need to get involved in astronomy science in order to be able to bring its touch, in a global way.

Interview by Jean-Bruno Tagne

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