Michael Hlabathe will graduate with his PhD in astrophysics on Friday, 21 July, from the University of Cape Town (UCT) for his investigation into active galactic nuclei. Throughout his academic journey, his passion for his chosen field has driven him to reach for the stars no matter his circumstances and has seen him named as one of 2023’s inspirational graduates.
Having grown up in the village of Tafelkop in Limpopo, Michael recalls that his family strongly believed in the power of education. The astrophysicist notes that he and his sister were always encouraged to pursue their academic dreams – something that he is extremely grateful for, considering the difficulties that many other students face during their scholastic journey.
“I’m fortunate to come from a family that believes in education. My favourite quote from my dad is, ‘As long as we don’t go to bed hungry, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t continue to study.’
“Whenever I was having a tough time, I would go back to that quote to motivate me because I know that many people haven’t had the opportunity to study all the way to PhD because of family responsibilities,” he said.
It is that conviction in the importance of cultivating knowledge ingrained that has driven him to reach great academic heights despite coming face to face with life-threatening obstacles.
Discovering the night sky
A top achiever in both maths and science, Michael’s tertiary education journey began with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Physics at the University of Venda (UNIVEN). As he neared the end of his undergraduate, the young scientist was uncertain of where his academic path would lead him.
One trajectory he certainly hadn’t considered – despite growing up beneath Limpopo’s star-strewn skies – was astronomy. However, this all changed when Professor Thebe Medupe from North-West University’s Department of Astronomy visited UNIVEN to give a talk on the topic.
It was during this guest lecture that Michael’s interest in the cosmos was ignited. The address revealed the awe-inspiring nature of astronomy, introducing him to the wonders of the universe – and the idea that one could make a living studying these captivating celestial objects.
“I had never even thought about our sun being a star; I’d just thought about it as ‘the sun’.”
“Unlike some of my colleagues, I didn’t know about astronomy at all. I never really thought to look up at the night sky with much curiosity until Professor Medupe came to the university to give a talk about astronomy. Up until that time, I had never even thought about our sun being a star; I’d just thought about it as ‘the sun’.
“But Professor Medupe spoke about all of the various aspects of astronomy, and it immediately piqued my interest; I wanted to know more. What really stood out to me was that you could make a living out of studying these incredible objects, so that – and my parents affirming that I didn’t need to rush to start working – made it easy for me to decide to pursue astronomy,” he explained.
Getting to know the cosmos
Soon after the guest lecture, Michael was on his way to Cape Town to attend UCT’s Winter School and dive deeper into the world of astrophysics.
During the programme, the budding astronomer and his classmates were taken to visit the Southern African Large Telescope in Sutherland. It was there that, despite the shock of freezing temperatures, his desire to pursue a star-studded academic career was solidified.
“We were flown down to Cape Town to attend the Winter School. There, we were introduced to the different topics within astronomy, told what it means to pursue astronomy as a career and were taken to Sutherland where the telescopes are to learn about them and do some stargazing.
“I remember it was freezing cold and I called my dad – I’m not sure what I was expecting him to do – and I said to him that I just wanted to get out of there because of how cold it was. But I was still interested, and I decided that this was what I wanted to do,” he recalled.
“The idea was to increase the population of galaxies whose black holes are known so that we can understand their coevolution with their host galaxy.”
Shortly after his stint at the Winter School, Michael applied and was accepted through the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme.
Following the two-year honours programme, he found that his passion for the cosmos had only grown, and he opted to pursue his master’s degree. During this phase of his studies, his research revolved around the search for binary systems that are precursors to planetary nebulae that are responsible for specific celestial phenomena.
Although time constraints unfortunately prevented him from publishing his findings, Michael’s passion for astronomical research continued to burn brightly. When it came time to make a decision about the next phase of his career, the stars aligned, and the postgraduate student was fortunate to find a PhD project through the South African Astronomical Observatory.
A stroke of ill luck
Entering the realm of doctoral studies, he focused his attention on reverberation mapping of active galactic nuclei (AGN), which are compact regions at the centre of galaxies that are powered by supermassive black holes.
“My job was to figure out how we could measure the mass of these very massive objects. Out of a sample of galaxies, I was tasked with measuring what their mass is. The idea was to increase the population of galaxies whose black holes are known so that we can understand their coevolution with their host galaxy, as an example,” he explained.
“The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital.”
During the course of his research, Michael began experiencing an excruciating headache that intensified over time and eventually led to hospitalisation. “One day, I was meant to have a meeting with my supervisor and I remember writing an email to confirm our appointment. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital,” he recalled.
After being discharged from the hospital with medication to treat the pain, the astronomer noticed his condition worsening. He began presenting with a heightened sense of smell and, later, loss of movement on his left side as well as other alarming symptoms.
Considering his new symptoms, doctors figured out that Michael had developed an abscess on his brain, an incredibly rare condition for someone of his age. He was quickly taken into surgery to have the mass removed and his parents were flown down from Limpopo to be by his side during his recovery.
Unfortunately, some of the abscess was left behind during the initial operation and Michael’s symptoms persisted, prompting a second surgery. Weeks of recovery time and many rounds of antibiotics later, the scientist was on the mend.
Despite this frightening medical ordeal, he managed to submit his PhD thesis. His research, combining data from telescopes in South Africa and around the world, resulted in a published paper that has contributed to the scientific community’s understanding of AGN.
Although his aptitude and passion for his chosen field have made him an excellent scholar, it’s his assiduity and affability in the face of adversity that make him a truly inspirational graduate.