When Riaan Steenkamp joined the faculty of the University of Namibia in 1994, the university was new and the country had only recently won its independence. Although Steenkamp started his scientific career with plans to have an active research program in space science, the confluence of new beginnings made it difficult to acquire the funding and computer power he needed. "It was very difficult for people to build prolific research careers, and some of the people that were recruited from abroad saw how difficult it was to do research and they then left," Steenkamp says.
Born and raised in Namibia, Steenkamp decided to dig in and focus on education, because "that's where the need was." Now a faculty member in the Department of Physics at the University Namibia, he spends most of his time teaching courses such as classical mechanics, plasma physics, and astrophysics. He also teaches research methodology and the philosophy of science.
"I like Namibia. The place is really in my blood." -- Riaan Steenkamp
"I like Namibia. The place is really in my blood," Steenkamp says. His family roots go back nearly a century, and he enjoys the spectacular views of the countryside. He also loves the upward view: The high plateau in southwest Namibia offers a clear, unobstructed view of the sky. In the late 1990s, when a German delegation came to Namibia to investigate possible sites to build an observatory, Steenkamp lobbied to have it placed on Namibian soil.
Namibia is now home to the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS). The telescope array, situated on a high plateau in southwest Namibia, is about 100 kilometers from the university. The HESS array is designed to detect very-high-energy gamma rays from space and collide with gases high in Earth's atmosphere to produce subatomic particles that radiate blue light, called Cherenkov radiation. HESS detects this blue light, and its intensity and direction reveal the energy and position of the gamma ray sources, which include some of the most powerful objects and violent events in the universe, including neutron stars, black holes, and cosmic rays.
Steenkamp is one of about 150 researchers connected to the HESS observatory, where he serves as head of the Namibian group. Through the years, he has studied cosmic-ray transport in the heliosphere. He is now working to develop a computational model to describe the acceleration of particles in supernova remnants.
Those studies are in an early stage. Steenkamp is still lobbying to get funds and more powerful computers on Namibian soil so that he can do his simulation work from his office.
"One of the biggest challenges in doing research in Namibia is that we do not yet have a national funding agency for research," he says. The government's national commission is currently working to create such an agency, and Steenkamp hopes that it will be created in the next year or two.
Looking ahead, Steenkamp plans to lobby to bring the next-generation telescope, called the Cherenkov Telescope Array, to Namibia. He hopes it will serve as a catalyst to start a small -- "or maybe not so small" -- astrophysics/astronomy group at the University of Namibia. "I see my contribution to science in Namibia as helping to establish Namibia as an astronomy destination," he says. "I'm working towards that."