School of Chemistry & Physics

UKZN student, Ms Denisha Pillay.

Germany Bound Graduate has Stars in her Eyes

A postgraduate student in UKZN’s Astrophysics Research Centre, Ms Denisha Pillay, has been accepted to read for a PhD degree at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany.

The selection process, which took place over a few months, included a panel interview and a presentation in which Pillay highlighted her skills, achievements and her master’s degree research project.

She will work on pulsar searching and timing projects using the MeerKAT telescope, under the supervision of renowned radio astronomer and MPI director Professor Michael Kramer, who is also the principal investigator of the MeerKAT key science project, TRAPUM.

Pillay completed her MSc in Applied Mathematics cum laude this month under the supervision of Professor Kavilan Moodley, Professor Matt Hilton of the Astrophysics Research Centre (ARC), and Dr Kenda Knowles of Rhodes University.

Her MSc research was titled: A Statistical Pilot Study for MERGHERS, in which she focused on analysing and interpreting diffuse radio emission in MeerKAT observations.

The MERGHERS (MeerKAT Exploration of Relics, Giant Halos, and Extragalactic Radio Sources) survey led by Knowles, one of Pillay’s supervisors, will study a large statistical sample of galaxy clusters with the MeerKAT observatory searching for diffuse radio emission. Such studies have been used to further the understanding of galaxy cluster dynamics, cosmic magnetism and the underlying composition of the intracluster medium.

Co-supervisor Knowles said: ‘Denisha has grown a lot in her time at ARC and is well-prepared for her new position overseas. I look forward to seeing where her academic journey takes her.’

Pillay is very passionate about her studies, which has motivated her to work diligently, resulting in her receiving numerous accolades during her academic career at UKZN, including graduating with a BSc cum laude , a BSc Honours summa cum laude, and receiving the Hanno Rund Applied Mathematics Honours Award.

After matriculating at Crossmoor Secondary School in Chatsworth, she was awarded the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) bursary through the Astrophysics Research Centre to pursue her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES).

Pillay’s interest in Astronomy was piqued at a young age after she started collecting astronomy trivia printed on the boxes of Astros sweets. ‘I hope to one day make a lasting impact in the astronomy community, educating the younger generation of explorers, shedding light on some of the most intriguing questions, and paving the way for future astronomers.’

Said her supervisor Professor Kavilan Moodley: ‘Denisha has performed exceptionally well in her master’s research, having taken on a challenging project. Her examiners praised her work, commenting that it produced novel and advanced knowledge in the field. It’s great that she will continue to work on MeerKAT during her PhD, switching her interest from galaxy clusters to pulsars.’

‘The skills I learned,’ said Pillay, ‘during my masters have helped me grow into a well-rounded researcher with interdisciplinary expertise from writing papers to reducing and working on radio, X-ray and optical data. The skills I acquired during my masters are invaluable and largely benefitted me during my applications and interviews.’

She acknowledged her supervisors and SARAO for their valuable guidance and mentoring. ‘My supervisors and group members in the ARC community have been motivating, supportive and inspiring throughout my entire academic career. I am also grateful for the funding from SARAO, without which I would not have been able to pursue my passion.’

Professor Matt Hilton, who also supervised Pillay’s work, said: ‘Denisha went above and beyond what we normally expect from a master’s student, making a major contribution to one paper in a top journal, and being the lead author of another paper based on her master’s study. She also contributed code to an open-source package that makes maps of galaxy density around clusters, which gives us another way to spot potential cluster mergers.’

Pillay will continue her dream of becoming a renowned astrophysicist when she starts her study towards a PhD degree at the Max Planck Institute in Germany later this year. ‘I am so grateful to have worked with everyone at UKZN’s Astrophysics Research Centre. I have learned so much over the past six years and am excited to apply all my skills at MPI.’

Words: Malishca Perumal and Veruschka Simes

Photograph: Supplied