From Kalahari townships to MIT and NASA

| April 26, 2012

SUCCESS STORY: Dr Lerothodi Leeuw.

Professor at the College of Graduate Studies at the University of South Africa (UNISA). Previously an Astrophysicist with California based SETI Institute.

Albert Einstein once said: “I have no particular talent. I am merely inquisitive.” It was a natural interest in science plus parents who, as teachers, instilled in him the value of a good education, that Dr Lerothodi Leeuw attributes to his remarkable international career.

VIDEO: Inspired by Mr Leeuw’s remarkable journey to success, a leading South African business has produced a TV commercial based on his career:

PROFMED – PROF LEEUW from AK on Vimeo.

From milking cows in rural South Africa to collaborating with leading scientific institutions of the world, this astrophysicist has garnered a noteworthy list of academic and professional accomplishments that today has him researching the origin and prevalence of life in the universe.

A scholarship to the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in America followed by a post-doctoral fellowship in Space Science and Astrophysics at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley refined his special focus on the evolution of old galaxies.

We asked Dr Leeuw to share experiences and perspectives from his fascinating career.

You have had a remarkable journey from a village in Taung, the township life of South Africa, and then across the globe. What are some of the poignant moments that helped you embark on this adventure?  My parents sent me to primary and high school some 200km from home. It was very difficult being away from home, but the schools were very good with most teachers there allowing students the joy of taking initiative in learning and leadership.

After Mmabatho High School I attended the University of Witwatersrand during the height of the Apartheid clampdown on freedom of speech and association. That together with unattractive, racist career prospects in the country at the time motivated me to find a way to leave.

I was lucky to get a scholarship to Phillips Academy Andover and then the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both among the best education institutions in the world, where there was generous and well supported opportunity to take ones own initiative in learning and leadership. 

What personal traits do you believe you hold that have propelled you along this extraordinary journey? Having a curiosity and a reasonably open mind. 

What are your tips for the next generation of South Africans looking to venture out into global careers?  Know your stuff inside out. Be nice, fair and open to all.

Dr Leeuw (right) with his mentee student of AIMS (African Institute of Mathematical Sciences) and former AIMS director (left).

Today Dr Leeuw is a member of the University of Johannesburg Physics Department as well as a scientist with the California based SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). The mission of the SETI Institute is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe.

His current project with SETI garnered international press interest in 2010 for new discoveries. He uses optical, infrared, and radio data from telescopes around the world and in space like the Herschel Satellite.

Dr Leeuw has a deep interest in inspiring and training the next generation of scientists from Southern Africa as well as groups that are unrepresented in science and technology in the USA. He is actively addressing opportunities for astrophysics research activities between university groups in the USA and SA. if you have any interest in this endeavor please contact Dr Leeuw through SAABC by clicking here.

Why have you returned to South Africa now?  I returned to help grow the field of astrophysics in Africa, hopefully contribute something to society as a whole (to be the best it can be) and to enjoy the country and its people, including friends and family. I am also very interested in facilitating technology transfer and development to Southern Africa – particularly in the Renewable Energy field.

What is your perspective on succeeding despite all odds?  Being nice and finding joy in what you do, no matter the odds. Appreciating a break when it comes.

Who do you most admire in this world – living and past? Why?  Stephen Hawking is phenomenal, such intensity he has and lives with hardly a fraction of his muscles at his disposal.

What attitude or favorite “motto” do you follow in life?  Being nice, fair and open to all, no soul ignored or stone left unturned.


Background and Achievements by Dr Lerothodi Leeuw

Born in Taung, South Africa, Lerothodi grew up in the Kalahari townships of Pampierstad and Mmabatho. After matriculating from Mmabatho High School, he briefly attended the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, before moving to the USA, where he completed a post-graduate year at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. He holds a S.B. degree in Physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.F.A. degree in Creative Writing from Columbia University, an M.S. degree in Astronomy from the University of Cape Town, and a Ph.D. degree in Astrophysics from the University of Central Lancashire.

He has held astrophysics research positions at the University of Toledo, Ohio; the University of Chicago, Illinois; and Rhodes University, South Africa. His scientific work has been published in international journals such as Science Magazine. General science writing he has penned or in which he was profiled have appeared in several South African newspapers, including in the November 2010 issues of The Star and Diamond Field Advertiser and February 2011 issue of Motsosakgang.


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