Episode 72: Exploring New Horizons in Astronomy

with Dr. Zara Randriamanakoto

In this episode of The Cosmic Savannah, our hosts chat with Dr. Rojovola Zara-Nomena Randriamanakoto from the South African Astronomical Observatory about her transformative journey from Madagascar to becoming an instrumental figure in astronomy, advocating for women in STEM, and her research on star clusters and colliding galaxies.

Dr. Zara Randriamanakoto is an influential astronomer from Madagascar working at the South African Astronomical Observatory. She moved to South Africa in 2008, overcoming language barriers and limited initial exposure to computers and programming. Her journey into astronomy was driven by an opportunity linked to the Square Kilometre Array project. Zara studies massive star clusters, particularly in collisional ring galaxies, utilizing data from the Hubble Space Telescope. She has played a pivotal role in developing the astronomy community in Madagascar, focusing on education, outreach, and increasing female participation in STEM fields. Zara has received several prestigious awards, including the L’Oreal UNESCO Young Talent Program and the Mail and Guardian 200 Young South Africans. She is committed to mentoring and inspiring the next generation of scientists and is actively involved in promoting astronomy both in Madagascar and South Africa.

Join us for another exciting episode of The Cosmic Savannah!

This Week’s Guest:


Podcast Manager and Show Notes: Francois Campher

Social Media Manager: Sumari Hatting

Transcripts: Abigail Thambiran

Audio Editing: Jacob Fine

And all of our volunteers!


Dan: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama

Jacinta: Dr. Tshiamiso Makwela and Dr. Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode we’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at world class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.

Dan: Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.

Tshia: Sit back, and relax as we take on a safari through the skies.

Dan: Welcome.

Jacinta: Hello. Hi everyone.

Dan: Are we all doing?

Tshia: We good. But you sound refreshed.

Dan: Do I? Yeah.

Jacinta: Ah. You better be.

Dan: I was refreshed and then, you know, reality and life sort of ties you up pretty quickly again. Yes. I had a wonderful holiday. I had a wonderful break.

Went to South America for the first time.

Jacinta: Wow.

Dan: Saw cool things.

Jacinta: Hola. Hola.

Dan: Yeah. Better. Yeah.

Jacinta: Sorry.

Dan: [00:01:00] Spoke Spanish. Yeah, it was really good. How are you guys doing?

Jacinta: Yeah, good. I’ve just come back from holidays. Also, I went on a rafting trip down the Orange River on the border of South Africa and Namibia. So that was about four days.

Yeah, paddling down the river. Turns out I probably should have trained before I went, like with a rowing machine or something. My arms were so sore. But it was awesome.

Tshia: Have you recovered now?

Jacinta: Yeah, I’ve recovered. Now. I won’t tell you the other problems that probably came about from getting like river water in my mouth, but.

Dan: Well, too late now..

Sorry, listeners.

Jacinta: Anyway. No, it was it was really awesome and the skies out there, the stars were beautiful. Oh, and guess what? I tried. Oros.

Dan: OROS.

Jacinta: OROS. Oh God. A

Tshia: Oh, what is that?

Jacinta: Sorry.

Dan: Maybe. Maybe that’s, what got in your stomach.

Jacinta: It could have been. I was, I was like, oh, this is really good.

What [00:02:00] is it? And they said, “Oros” I was like, Hey,

Dan: we’ve arrived.

Jacinta: Sorry. If you dunno what I’m talking about, listen to our previous episode where I was mocked for not knowing about this, orange cordial, kind of South African drink.

Dan: And yourself, Tshia?

Tshia: I’m good. I was nowhere. Yeah, I’m good. I think the last two weeks until last night when I sent the final email for something I’ve been working on once it went through, I felt so much better. So I’m good. I’m really feeling so good. So refreshed and yeah.

Jacinta: Cool, Oh, look at us.

So anyway, today’s guest on this episode is Dr. Zara Randriamanakoto, who works at the South African astronomyical Observatory, and the three of us tried to squish into a very well… the three of us hosts and Zara tried to squish into our very, very small studio.

It didn’t go so well.

Tshia: We almost suffocated her.

Jacinta: Dan didn’t get a microphone.

Dan: I didn’t get it. Which is probably a, a [00:03:00] blessing. But yeah, I think it was a great interview, which we’ll play for you now and great to hear about Zara’s journey into astronomy as a Madagascan student.

Jacinta: Yeah. And all the work that she’s put in since then into building the astronomy community, the astronomy research community and students and university courses in Madagascar, which is like no mean feat.

And Zara has been absolutely instrumental in the whole thing and just driving it and she’s won all of these awards for it and it was a real pleasure to have her with us in the studio.

Tshia: Yeah, I think I quite enjoyed the interview and I’m not gonna tell the listeners about until they can actually listen to it.

But I think one of the things that we take for granted is how much people have to learn in order to get into astronomy. We are thinking that we just have to learn the science, but there’s so much that Zara also describes that she had to learn the language, the culture, and just being around people she doesn’t know.

Jacinta: It blows my mind. How anyone can just [00:04:00] completely change culture, change language, and then write about astrophysics eloquently in that. It’s just, I don’t, I can’t understand that at all. That’s amazing.

Dan: Yeah. As you said, I mean, we’ve wanted to chat to Zara for a very long time. I don’t think we’ve chatted to somebody from Madagascar before.

And an amazing story. So.

Jacinta: Yeah. And she also tells us a little bit about the star clusters that she researches, which are, as the name suggests, clusters of stars, but not in the Milky Way. It’s not a pun, Dan. He’s shaking his head at me in disapproval. It’s not a pun, it’s just a statement. But anyway, if you’ve used a telescope, you might have actually seen a star cluster with your eyes, one that you can look through.

But these are not star clusters in the Milky Way. They’re in other galaxies and in other galaxies that are smashing together. Head on so that they create like this bullseye ring around them.

Tshia: Yeah.

Dan: Very cool stuff.

Jacinta: Yeah. Yeah.

Tshia: Like when she was describing it, I could just,

Dan: I think we should

Jacinta: you’re [00:05:00] actually speechless with how bad that was.

Dan: Alright. Without further ado.

Tshia: Today on the Cosmic Savannah, we have Dr. Zara Randriamanakoto from the South African astronomyical Observatory. Welcome to the Cosmic Savannah, Zara.

Zara: Thank you, Tshia it is a pleasure to be here today.

Tshia: Today we’re gonna hear so much about you. We’ve been looking forward to having you in the podcast and hosting you in a small studio.

But you know, I hope you can get comfortable.

Zara: I’m already comfortable.

Jacinta: I’m glad you are. ’cause Dan and I are squeezed in the corner here. Dan’s sitting on some boxes

Dan: and I don’t even have my own mic.

Jacinta: Hang on, lemme just turn the microphone to him

Dan: and I don’t even have my own mic!

Tshia: So yes, today we’re gonna hear so much from Dr. Zara. She’s gonna tell us about her journey, which I’m looking forward to hearing. And also tell us about being a woman in science. Tell us about her research with galaxies [00:06:00] and so much more. Right. And just to start off the interview, can you just please tell us about yourself? Tell us where you’re from, where you grew up.

We wanna know you.

Zara: Yeah, so my name is not just, Zara Randriamanakoto, it’s r and I’m originally from Madagascar, but I’ve been in South Africa since 2008, and I’m a staff astronomer at the South African astronomyical Observatory, but also visiting lecturer at the University of Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar.

Tshia: That was a lot. I mean, just trying to say your name and I think that is very important.

Our names tell us so much about who we are, our history, our heritage, and especially when you’re doing astronomy. I mean, what brought you into the stars?

Zara: Well, my story is not the usual one that you will hear that when I was a little girl, I look at the sky, et cetera. It’s more [00:07:00] like out of coincidence and I will say opportunity because of the big sSquare Kilometre Array project.

Madagascar then decided to be part of the South African team as its African partner countries, so it needed students to convert into astronomy and become professional in the field. I used to have this dream of becoming (an) electrician or someone working in the renewable energy because we have a lot of load shedding in Madagascar.

So I thought I’m going to contribute by seeing how to use the wind or stuff like that to create electricity. But when I was in my fourth year degree, that’s when the opportunity came, that if you are keen enough, then we have scholarship for you to continue study in astronomy. Something that I’ve never heard about before, but I [00:08:00] just took the, the chance and came to South Africa in 2008.

Tshia: Oh wow.

Zara: That’s how I ended up doing astronomy and working as an astronomer. Yeah,

Tshia: I mean, that must have been a big time because we know that, you know, in Madagascar, English is not one of the languages there. Just tell us a little bit about what language is spoken in Madagascar and that transition then into South Africa?

Zara: Yeah, so we have our own home language, which is Malagasy. It’s mostly close to Malaysian language, so in Indonesia, Malaysia, but we mainly speak French. That’s our official language. So yes, coming to South Africa means you need to speak English, which was quite a huge challenge for me back then because once you do physics at the university, then they don’t teach you English anymore.

Honestly, back then [00:09:00] I barely spoke. But you know, sometimes you say “Opportunity comes once so grab it. Otherwise you may miss it”. So I just came. But right when going to South Africa on the plane, the challenge started right there. You know, when they ask what you want to drink.

I didn’t understand anything.

Yeah, so the first two months it was quite challenging, but I think after all, if you are really perseverant and really want to, to go through something that you are believing in, then at the end of the day, you get in there.

Jacinta: Wow. So you only started speaking English in 2008?

Zara: No, we had English course in high school, but it’s two hours per week, so I, I used that English to come to South Africa and you have to survive, so you just speak.

Jacinta: Wow. I had no idea, I thought that you had been speaking English [00:10:00] forever actually,

Zara: of course, you can have the opportunity if you have enough means to go for schools. Like some of my other colleague who came here, they, they had that opportunity. But myself, we come from a family that, that is from background that can’t afford such extracurricular activities.

So I just have to, to bring what I got from high school, middle school.

Tshia: That is quite interesting and I think we are getting a different perspective into what some difficulties might be coming into South Africa and just before you even start doing astronomy itself.

Zara: Definitely. And that was just the language, but there was also programming.

I. So

Jacinta: like computer programming,

Zara: which is another language. Not necessarily the computer programming, I would say them, but getting used to use a computer because at the university it’s one computer for five students. And [00:11:00] you know, there are always those bright ones who want to be in front of the keyboard and you just take note of everything. So it was also the, my first time to really get used to a computer and let alone Linux and stuff like that, LaTeX when I came to South Africa.

Jacinta: Wow.

And yet now you are writing advanced astrophysics papers?

Zara: Yeah. How things can change.

Jacinta: Yeah. Speaking of which, can you tell us a little bit about your research?

What do you study?

Zara: Yeah, so I’m mostly studying the most massive star clusters in the universe. You know, when stars are born, usually they comes in group, not just as a single individual star and like (a) human being, they are born, they evolve, then they also die. And we try to understand how does the environment affect their evolution and also how do they disrupt the, the group of [00:12:00] stars.

So that’s my lead question that would like to address so that we can understand better the whole formation process. In the universe.

Dan: Zara, you mentioned that you hadn’t been exposed to astronomy before you came to South Africa and had this opportunity and also that the Madagascar was a partner country for the Square Kilometer Array Africa project.

What is the current state of astronomy in Madagascar? Has it grown as part of this project? Are there university departments working in astronomy these days?

Zara: Yeah, so there has definitely been a change thanks to, to the involvement of Madagascar to the SKA Project. Yes, in the 19th century, astronomy was there.

When we were colonised by France, there were some people that came to Madagascar, but then once we caught our independence, they left and there was no continuity. But then since 2006, things have I would say really [00:13:00] exponentially evolved. And in 2014, we now have the opportunity to do a master’s degree in astrophysics, under the physics department.

Dan: And in terms of promotion, are the public aware of astronomy now or Madagascar’s role in astronomy?

Zara: Yeah, so before even the curriculum at the university, that was one of the main initiative that has been promoted since the international year of astronomy in 2009. So me and my colleague, we did a lot of outreach, but unfortunately it’s mainly concentrated in the capital, not all around the country.

So right now we are doing our best to implement astronomy clubs or association that are scattered all over the country.

Tshia: Since while you’re mentioning that astronomy is now done at master’s level, and you’ve also mentioned that you are one of the lecturers there. First thing, what [00:14:00] course do you teach?

And the second thing, how, how do you do it? Do you travel to Madagascar? Do you teach in French or in English?

Zara: Yeah. Yeah. So as a visiting lecturer, my main duty involves supervision, not lecturing, but occasionally I do teach programming. I know that the lecturer that are based in Madagascar, they try to use English because if the student then now want to go farther to do a PhD, it would be a smooth transition for them to start to get used to English, and unlike our case back then.

So yes, we use English as a means of communication. But the coursework, I think it’s not yet the most adequate contents.

So we are really trying to do our best to see how we can then have a standard that is more or less the same as what you would see in the other part of the [00:15:00] world.

Jacinta: If I may ask some ignorant questions for a minute.

I’ve never been to Madagascar, even though I would absolutely love to.

Zara: You should come as soon as possible.

Jacinta: Good. I’m gonna take that as an invitation.

Zara: You’re more than welcome.

Jacinta: Yay. And literally all I know about it is what you’ve told me and the movie Madagascar. And I presume it’s true that there are lemurs in Madagascar.

Zara: That’s the only truth in this movie,

We don’t have lion. We don’t have zebras. But you know that crown they use on lemurs? That’s also an endemic plant that you see in Madagascar. It’s called Ravenala or “the trees of the voyager.” So those are the only things that really come from Madagascar in that movie.

Jacinta: And I’ve seen a presentation that you’ve given before and you showed some photos of the nature in Madagascar.

It looks unbelievable.

Zara: Yeah, so tourism is one of the source of economy in the country [00:16:00] because, you know, we are an island. Fun fact, most of us don’t know how to swim yet. We are in an island, including myself. But yeah, we have. Beautiful beaches and the landscape is so different if you go to the east, then going back to the west, we have the desert, but you also have this tropical forest.

So yeah, it’s really worth to be put on a bucket list.

Jacinta: Mm, wow. It’s a huge variety. Yeah. Yeah. And what’s the culture like and the, the way of life, and then how does that lead into preparing people for university and future studies, or are there some difficulties there?

Zara: Yeah, so I think one of the particular like in terms of cultural background, we like to be together. I dunno if you notice here at UCT, you see a lot of student always working together as if they are scared. What happen if I’m just going by myself? Because [00:17:00] there is this word called fear. It’s like when I came here, I really had the trouble how the lifestyle in South Africa is because it’s like people like to be by themselves. Like now I don’t even know who stays downstairs but in my country, like the whole, not just in your building, but you are like becoming a family. So you have that spirit and the community. Yes.

Jacinta: Community spirit. So it’s kind of like a fear of isolation here, is it? Or like a -people are more isolated here.

Zara: Yeah. The individualist. Would you say that?

Jacinta: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Zara: Like for instance, if someone is at the hospital, you will all rush to visit at the hospital. So when you come here and you just say you fill a cart or you send the flowers.

Then I found it very odd. Because if it’s just like an acquaintance, it’s really not a duty, but it’s natural for [00:18:00] you to go pay visit, to that person at their place. So those were things I had to adjust. Realizing that it doesn’t work the same way as it used to be in

Tshia: Madagascar, I must say that that is very Cape Towny. Joburg is different.

Zara: Yeah. But I think that really then helps you already to have this sense of belonging to a community so you can easily be part of a community, but then at all your disadvantage, if such a thing is not there, then you have trouble to fit in and to get used to the lifestyle of being by yourself most of the time.

Jacinta: Yeah. That must have been quite an adjustment when you first arrived. Yeah. And there are several other students here now studying higher degrees in astronomy. How many students are there from Madagascar?

Zara: So I think so far maybe 12 of us graduated with a PhD. And currently maybe [00:19:00] there are four or five in South Africa, but thanks to other initiatives as well, like the data project students now also go to the UK and then from there they go to Europe for their PhD. One student recently finished her PhD degree, so that’s the first PhD outside South Africa. For a Malagasy student.. Wow. – in Sweden, Uppsala.

Jacinta: Oh, yes. Yeah. Yeah. Wow, that’s awesome. Were you the first to get a PhD?

Zara: No. I think I’m the third or the fourth. I think it was Angie Radwell Manana in 2012.

Jacinta: Okay. Yeah. Wow. And since then, you’ve been really pivotal in growing the astronomy community in Madagascar and almost single-handedly pushing for this amazing, strong development.

So. First of all, congratulations on all of that, and it’s really impressive the amount of dedication and effort that you’ve put in towards this [00:20:00] sort of, where do you see this going in the future? Where would you like it to go?

Zara: Yeah, so I can’t take the credit by myself because even if I had the initiative, but my colleague and friends didn’t support, then it was not going to go anywhere. For me, it was natural to promote astronomy because really if you are given that opportunity to explore and you found out that it’s so nice and it’s so life changing, then I would think it’s really normal then that you would want many people to be involved and to be aware how much astronomy can bring change to you as a researcher, but your community too.

Dan: And then the, the current state of, we talked a little bit about it earlier, but the current state of astronomy in Madagascar. I know you recently had a, a conference in Madagascar. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Zara: Yeah, so. We held our very first national astronomy meeting in [00:21:00] Madagascar back in December, 2023.

So it was the first time where we really tried to gather all the key players in astronomy, the amateurs, the professionals, all the supporters in the country, just to sit down together and see how should we move forward. Because the big obstacle in Madagascar, like most of developing countries-any development is tightly related with the political situation in the country.

So back in 2018, things got really nice. Like we got the old telecommunication to be converted into a telescope. Tests were already being done, but then once the government change, things just are like slowed down and as we speak, it just like vanished. Wow. So it’s that much influence. It’s really that influence because it depends who is the minister of higher education and science.

If that [00:22:00] person is convinced it’s really useful, even if it’s on a longer term, then they will really try to push that agenda to the government. But if they don’t believe it’s a priority, then things kind of just stagger somewhere. So yeah, the, the meeting was really like an opportunity to reflect how far have we come what’s happening now, especially in preparation of the General Assembly 2024, and what should we do then to really make things happen?

Because it’s not all about outreach or providing masters’ degree. You really want people to then say, I want to stay in the country. Still being involved in astronomy, what are the opportunities there?

Dan: Yeah, it’s a real challenge and incredible what you have managed to achieve and hopefully you do get the support you need.

And great that you mentioned. The General Assembly, I think that’s a, as you say, it’s a huge opportunity not just for Madagascar, but for all of Africa to [00:23:00] try and raise the profile of astronomy in their countries. So we are really looking forward to that.

Jacinta: So Zara we’ve Googled you and we happen to know now that you have received quite a lot of awards.

Recently you were in 2020, you were a laureate of the L’Oreal UNESCO Young Talent Program, and in 2021 you were named one of the Mail and Guardian 200 Young South Africans for your civic engagement work. Can you tell us a little bit more about that, and in particular, your work with women in astronomy?

Zara: Yeah, so for me, astronomy has become a passion. It start with something very peculiar. Things I didn’t know, but then later on, it’s not just my work, but it’s also a passion and also a tool that I use to inspire women, but youth as well. To do science, not necessarily astronomy or just to to discover their potential.

I’m also really devoted to [00:24:00] women in science. Because I realized I didn’t have any role motel than my mom.

But not a woman scientist. And I think that that’s very important because especially in country like Madagascar, by the age of 20, some of your parents want you to start to work or even to get married. So if you show them that you can still do those while excelling in your academic journey, then it’s really a good example. And sometimes when it’s a role model that they can really associate to themselves, it’s really more inspiring than seeing someone in the book. You know?

So we’ve been running mentoring program providing small grants running regular workshops, motivational talks.

So all of this, it is with the help of an association that they created in 2016 that is called, [00:25:00] or that’s a, for she in my home language. And STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But we really want to work together, all of us who are living abroad to then pay it forward by providing those opportunities to the women that are still in Madagascar.

Tshia: Wow. That’s quite inspiring. So I didn’t know that KDA stood for Women in Science or She Science and I think, wow. Yeah, women, that’s quite important.

Jacinta: And then you also won the 2023 Grant for Research from the National Geographic Society. What is that about and what’s your research on?

Zara: Yeah, so like I said at the beginning of the podcast, I’m interested on star clusters, but those were mostly clusters that were hosted by luminous infrared galaxies. Those galaxies are quite having an [00:26:00] intense star formation. That’s their particularity. So now I wanted to broaden my research area by looking at other type of host galaxies, so that’s why I chose collisional ring galaxies because they are still in the group of merging but the way they collide, having this head on collisions, it’s quite particular that it even create this wave of ring after the collision has happened.

Jacinta: So you’ve got two galaxies, right? And then they’re colliding towards each other. That, sorry, that bang was me like banging my fist together as two galaxies and then they go, “CRASH” backwards.

I don’t know, like, how do I describe this?

Dan: So that was Jacinta making a noise with her mouth.

Jacinta: Okay. Yeah. Well, I’m just imagining like, you know. Two things. Have a head on collision, like a bullseye. Yes. And then it makes like a bullseye like pattern, like a ring around it, right? Yeah. And it’s a ring of stars.

Zara: Yes. So the main galaxy, he’s been [00:27:00] distorted by the companion galaxy or the intruder.

Jacinta: Okay. So there’s like a little one that’s intruding in on the big one. Hits head-on…

Zara: Intruding the spiral disk of the main spiral galaxy. And as a result of the head-on collision, the main galaxy now has produced this wave of ring that is mainly made up of star clusters.

So now we want to see them that, does it change the whole history of the star clusters, properties of that main galaxies? And if there were new generation of star clusters as a result of the collision, do they have more or less the same evolutionary scenario, or is it (a) totally different one.

Jacinta: Why do we care about star clusters?

Zara: Well, we do care about star cluster because they are among the building blocks of star formation in galaxies. When star formation process happen in a galaxy, then there has those [00:28:00] star clusters. So if you really want to understand the whole information about the host galaxy, studying those star clusters can be a key to provide your answer.

Jacinta: So it’s a bunch of stars that were basically formed all together at the same time. It’s like, it’s like a family of stars.

Zara: Yeah, it’s a family of star and they are gravitationally bound so really so tight that even if as they evolve with them, yes, some stars may become runaway stars like they will detach from the group, but they are the ones by the way, that evolve to become the globular clusters, which are the star clusters that have a similar age as our universe, first in giga year old. So again, if they are then the progenitors of those globular clusters, then it’s also another way then for us to better understand what happens back then by using the present day star clusters.

I mean studying them.

Jacinta: So awesome.

Tshia: So how do you actually [00:29:00] study those galaxies? So what instruments are being used to study those galaxies?

Zara: Yeah, so right now I’m using the Hubble Space Telescope to study the those galaxies, because you know, the image from the HST, it’s so beautiful. And some of those galaxies, they were just used for educational purposes.

If you look at Arp 147 and nobody cared about studying the star clusters in that galaxy. So that’s then one of the motivation to that you use those archival data from HST that were mainly imaged for educational purpose, but then you also use them for research to study the star clusters. But as part of a side project too with our colleague here at the SAAO we use in as well, the MeerKAT telescope to study the H1 distribution in those galaxies is beyond the scope of my research work.[00:30:00]

But when you combine both radio and the optical observations, you then really get the better glimpse on how everything is coming together to better understand that star formation process in the galaxy.

Jacinta: So you’re looking at the gas with the radio telescope and you’re looking at the stars with the optical Hubble telescope, and then you’re combining it together to try and understand the whole picture.

Zara: Yes, definitely. That’s correct.

Tshia: Jacinta likes calling herself the galaxy astronomer so

Jacinta: Do I?

I’m an extra-galactic astronomer.

Tshia: Oh, okay. So see, she even corrected me.

Jacinta: So is Zara.

Zara: Yeah.

Jacinta: Sorry. Was that what you were gonna say?

Tshia: Yeah, I was gonna say, you know, what kind of astronomer do you mostly identify with?

Like, you know.

Zara: Yes, so I’m, I mostly identify as an extra-galactic astronomer because I’ve also started to extend my work on [00:31:00] radio galaxies. So that’s why I think that’s the best description. But again, in astronomy, I think you really need to leverage all wavelength, not just the becoming an expert in one wavelength, because if you want to get the clearer picture, the best way to go is to combine all the information you get in the different wavelength(s).

Jacinta: Definitely you have to be kind of flexible and you have to adjust and you know, things change so quickly with technology and telescopes and programs and software, and you have to really stay on top of it and be flexible yourself.

Zara: Yeah.

That’s the way to go. But sometimes it’s not that easy.

Jacinta: No. That’s why you have students to do it.

Tshia: Just coming back to a little bit of your life and experiences, what challenges do you face now?

Jacinta: Can you be more specific? Gee!

Zara: Yeah, I think you should be more specific [00:32:00] because challenges are everywhere, you know, but to just say, which one really affect my academic or my research career. So I think as a junior researcher, it’s grants.

I’m sure many can associate with me if, if you really want to start from scratch your small group, that means that you have to have funds. And taking them to even apply for those grant. You don’t do your research, but sometimes it’s successful. It’s not successful, but you should just keep going.

So I think that’s one of the main challenge, if it’s research-wise, trying to secure grants so that you can really hire as much student as possible so that you can really work on the things that you would like to do, not work on things because that’s where the money is.



Jacinta: We’re all like “Uh-huh” [00:33:00] yeah. Yeah. I’m currently spending all my time applying for grants, so I understand the feeling

Tshia: And coming back to, again, the science. Papers. What are some of challenges with regards to then like producing and writing your papers? Like for me, I sometimes just struggle with getting through what I’m trying to say.

Jacinta: Mm.

Like expressing yourself?

Tshia: Yeah, just expressing yourself and you know, you’ve come very long way since 2008. I just wanna know is has it already come as second nature to you communicating science with scientists and then communicating science with non-scientists?

Zara: I think, regarding to writing peer-reviewed journal article, again, it’s the time that is one of the most important challenge is because the more we evolve in our careers, the more duty you have to to face in one day. So even if sometimes you say, I have my paper day today. [00:34:00] It doesn’t really work. But yeah, as long as you keep up with literature, then I think that’s one way to go. The challenge would be to implement new method that you are not yet used to. And if you are not expert in that field, then sometimes even to identify the person that can help you.

May take some time, but the part I really like the most when writing paper is the analysis.

Jacinta: Yeah.

Zara: Where I can just to switch on my music and really go deep through in the, the analysis, but yeah,

Jacinta: and then you know the answer and then you don’t wanna write it up because you already know the answer.

So yeah, that’s what I do.

Zara: Yeah. But I think writing an article, it’s really about priority too, because sometimes you really want to focus on it. But then there are overworks that come. So it’s really all about prioritising that article because with [00:35:00] time it’s just getting stretched and,

Jacinta: Yeah. ’cause there’s no actual deadline and so you just keep putting it off. Putting it off, putting it off for like years.

Zara: Yes. And yet as, but there is the saying of, publish or perish. If you are in academia. So it’s something you really have to do, be it your second nature or not.

Jacinta: Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

It’s a struggle that we all face, I think.

Zara: Yeah.

Tshia: I feel like we can really go on talking to Zara forever.

Jacinta: We really could. Yes. You’re very relatable and easy to talk to, Zara.

Zara: Ah, thank you.

Tshia: Yeah, I, I really appreciate that you made the time to come and talk to us. I’m in this room and I’m just like, wow. It really feels like sitting in the future.

And people are talking about Zara and I’m just like, I’m with her in the studio.

Jacinta: I knew her before she was so famous.

Tshia: No, she, she is still so very famous, very influential, inspiring, and I think the amount of work that you continue to do, not only in [00:36:00] Madagascar, but we see it in South Africa as well, is very important.

And I think some of the things that you’ve mentioned today, keep on going, is some of the things that I hear you iterate the most that the challenges are there, but keep on going.

Zara: Yeah, definitely.


Tshia: And so we truly appreciate that even for our young listeners there, that you know, you should just keep on going.

Challenges will be there. You will not always know everything and that’s why you need to learn. So any final message? From you, Dr. Zara, to our listeners?

Zara: Well, I first want to thank you for inviting me. I know it’s been quite some time. This podcast has been running, and finally we are here today. So thank you.

Jacinta: Yeah, we’ve been trying to get you for ages.

Zara: Yeah, thank you. And for all the listeners, I would say, if you have something to share, then make sure you contact the lovely organizers, the host, because it’s three, [00:37:00] also shows you how you can communicate your science better. And yeah, challenges are there.

Just keep pushing and you can always start small, but have a big ambition. Yeah, I think that’s all.

Jacinta: Awesome.

Tshia: Thank you so much. We hope to have you again here when you have the result of your study.

Zara: You are welcome. And thank you to both of you for hosting me. And Daniel. Yeah,

Jacinta: Daniel without a microphone who actually had to leave the room a few minutes ago, but we’ll fill him in on the end of this chat.

Again, thank you Zara, and we’ll speak to you again soon.

Zara: Thank you.

Jacinta: I’m so glad we got to finally talk to Zara. It’s been, ugh, it’s been nearly a year. Oh wait, it’s been more than, it’s been nearly two years that we’ve been asking her to try and find time to come on the podcast. So she finally made time and we’re very thankful. So yeah, you seem to really enjoy that.

Tshia: I really enjoyed myself, but also I just wanna say maybe, [00:38:00] you know, it was a good thing to wait for her to come now because now she just won like this amazing award.

Yeah. And she can tell us about it, you know? And I think just having her in the room was quite an experience. With the interviews I’ve done with Dan, you know, it was over Zoom, but just having someone here and just seeing how they express themselves. And you see the joy they have and the passion. And the passion they have for the things that they’re doing.

So that was quite cool.

Dan: Even in our small little room.

Tshia: Even in our small little room,

Jacinta: Sorry Dan actually had to leave eventually for some other meeting, but then also he didn’t have a microphone anyway or headphones, so,

Dan: so nobody noticed. But now I’m back.

Tshia: Glad to have you back.

Dan: Enough about me. Yeah, it was great to chat to Zara.

Really inspirational and to see where she’s come from and the fact that she’s so determined and passionate about giving back, getting more women into astronomy and into STEM and really trying to get astronomy in in Madagascar off the [00:39:00] ground.

Jacinta: Yeah, exactly. I know we’ve already spoken at the start a little bit about what’s been going on with us, but how are you guys, how are you doing and how’s your research and all your work and yeah life.

Dan: I don’t do any research

Tshia: lucky you.

Dan: I don’t know. But yeah, we’re, explain. Okay. Coming back from, from break is always a little bit hard, I think, you know, trying to hit the ground again and, but otherwise, I’m good.

Tshia: Good, and I’m good. I’ve just been selected to be in the program for the AstroExcel, which is astronomy Excel early career research cohort, which is focusing on trying to bring, you know, young, early career researchers from different parts of the world to come and work on their research globally, but also bringing research into the people.

So how can this astronomy that I’m communicating with people who are in the field be communicated better as well? So. I’m gonna write one of my research papers, but also write that research paper in a way that people in communities can read the papers well. Oh, [00:40:00] awesome. Yeah. So yeah, it’s gonna be a two year journey.

I’m gonna go to two International symposium and whatnot. Wow.

Dan: Wanna hear all about it.

Tshia: Yeah. Also disappointed when I heard the first one’s gonna be the GA. So people that are not from South Africa excited to be coming to the GA,

Jacinta: but it’s right here in Cape Town,

Dan: but you can host them.

Jacinta: Coming from you. Aren’t you an ambassador for the GA? You’re supposed to be very excited.

Dan: It’s, it’s work.

Tshia: I was gonna be there anyway!

Dan: It’s work. It’s work. It’s different.

Jacinta: So Fair enough, fair enough.

Dan: And yourself Jacinta? Your hair’s done something amazing in the meantime.

Jacinta: Oh God. What’s happening?

Take a picture telling me at the end. Oh, oh my god.

Dan: Anyway, go on. How are you?

Jacinta: Gross. Okay, well it’s sticking up all above my headphones anyway. Other than my haircut, I’m great. Actually, I recently won a grant [00:41:00] from the African Oxford society to take many of the students in my research group to Oxford for a week. Oh, nice. To do some research there.


So that’s exciting.

So that’ll happen in the middle of July. Hmm. And, and other than that, I’ve adopted a little dog.

Tshia: I’ve seen pictures, Dan..

Dan: I don’t think I have. Maybe I have.

Jacinta: Yes, you have. I sent them to you.

Dan: Oh, I think I’ve just deleted those.

Jacinta: Dan’s not much of a dog person, but I’m an obsessive dog person. And

I finally decided to foster a dog from a, an adoption shelter called Oscar’s Ark.

And they sent me this gorgeous little guy who used to be a street dog, and then he was adopted, and then he was surrendered again for some reason. And he’s been in the shelter for six months and nobody wanted him. And most dogs get adopted after about. Two to four weeks and he was still there. So then they gave him to me to foster, and like 20 minutes after I met him, I was like, I’m gonna foster fail and I’m gonna adopt him.

So I drove. I just foster fail. I didn’t even take him home. I just drove.

Dan: I like so much lingo I’m just learning right now. [00:42:00]

Jacinta: You, you gotta be in the, know, Dan, I just drove straight past my building and went to a pet store and bought him like a new little collar and harness and everything. ’cause the one he had said, “adopt me” and I didn’t want anybody else to adopt him.

And now he’s mine, his name is Sam.

Dan: And now who is the adopt me collar?

Jacinta: Next question.

Dan: Alright, I think that’s it for today. Thanks again very much for listening, and we hope you’ll join us again on the next episode of the Cosmic Savannah.

Tshia: You can visit our website, the Cosmic Savannah. We’ll have the transcript, links, pictures, and other stuff related to today’s episode.

Jacinta: You can follow us on Twitter or X, Facebook and Instagram @ Cosmic Savannah.

That’s savannah spelled S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H.

Dan: You can also find us on YouTube where audio only episodes will be uploaded with closed captions, which can be auto translated into many different languages, including Afrikaans, isiXhosa and isiZulu.

Jacinta: Special thanks to today’s guest, Dr. Zara Randriamanakoto for [00:43:00] speaking with us. Thanks to our new podcast manager, Francois Campher our social media manager, Sumari Hattingh, and our audio editor Jacob Fine.

Tshia: Also to Mark Wahlnut, for music production, Michael Wojcik for photography. Carl Jones for Astro-Photography, Suzie Carys for graphic design. And thanks to Emil Meintjies for video creation. And to Moses Makungo and Abigail Thambiran for transcription.

Dan: We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the Square Kilometer Array Observatory, the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement, the South African Astronomical Observatory, and the University of Cape Town astronomy department.

Jacinta: You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, and we’d really appreciate it if you could rate and review us and recommend us to a friend. We’ll speak to you next time on the Cosmic Savannah.

Tshia: The US. So I, I’m one.

Jacinta: What? Congratulations. What is it? Tell us more about it.

Tshia: So it’s called Axo. [00:44:00] Axo, like really combining words. And this always happens. Sorry, Jacob, but like I just have to tell you guys this. Yesterday, I was trying to say bald and I literally say blonde. I was, I was like, I was just like, I want the L to go on the other side.

Dan: Okay.

Tshia: So even now, that’s what happened. I said,

Dan: your auto, your auto correct isn’t working.

Jacinta: What were you trying to say?

Tshia: I was trying to say as Astro Excel.

Jacinta: Oh, okay.

Yeah. It didn’t come out like that at all.