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First steps taken towards degree-level astrophysics programme in Mongolia

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I’ve always felt that a fulfilling academic career should involve more than just research and teaching within the proverbial ivory tower. I’ve therefore always made it a point to actively engage with the wider community, both with my colleagues and with members of the public.

Alongside my role as the IOP’s representative in China, I’m also the founding director of the East Asian Regional Office of Astronomy for Development (EA-ROAD), an office established in support of the decadal strategic plan of the International Astronomical Union. Both roles overlap – in fact, they mesh very well.

The main driver behind the International Astronomical Union’s strategic plan is that we should use our expert scientific knowledge and training as professional astrophysicists for the common good of our local communities. That plan foresaw in the establishment of a global Office of Astronomy for Development in support of its three development strands: universities and research, children and schools, and public outreach.

The global office, which has been based in Cape Town, South Africa since its inception, is currently supported by three task forces, each one focusing on one of those strands, as well as eight regional offices (ours was the first to be established in 2012) and three language-expertise centres, serving the Chinese-, Arabic- and Portuguese-speaking communities.

As well as my responsibilities for the EA-ROAD’s overall coordination, I specifically focus my own efforts on facilitating development in the context of universities and research. Our regional remit includes a strong mandate for engagement with our partners in Mongolia. The population of Mongolia is slightly below three million, almost half of whom live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. Astrophysics is currently taught at the National University of Mongolia (NUM)’s School of Physics and Electronics, and at the NUM-ITC-UNESCO Space Science and Remote Sensing International Laboratory in Ulaanbaatar, while astrophysics research is carried out at the Research Center for Astronomy and Geophysics at the Mongolian Academy of Science.

Our Mongolian counterparts are keen to further develop the astrophysics teaching and research infrastructure in the country. We therefore initiated an EA-ROAD-supported programme in the autumn of 2014 with a summer school on observational astrophysics. This was organized back-to-back with the largest-ever scientific conference held in the country – that is, it was the largest scientific meeting that was not specifically related to engineering or mining, but one that focused on fundamental science. With 75 participants hailing from all around the world, the meeting was a great success – and more importantly, it led to an exchange of master’s students from NUM to the institutions of a number of the conference participants, including my own.

So far, astrophysics courses have been taught at NUM as one-off lecture series, but the international exposure afforded by the conference, and the Mongolian scientists’ continued engagement with the International Astronomical Union through the EA-ROAD, has led to approval by the NUM leadership to establish an astrophysics minor degree programme – one substantially informed by the IOP’s expertise in course accreditation. The NUM astrophysics minor will closely follow the requirements outlined in the IOP publication The Physics Degree, as well as those contained in the benchmark statement for physics, astronomy and astrophysics, published by the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency. These are exciting developments, which could only have been achieved through seamless integration of both my IOP and EA-ROAD roles.

Although the first steps have been taken, we’re still far from having established a sustainable, degree-level astrophysics programme at NUM. Numerous challenges await – funding, expertise and the programme’s sustainability are just a few of the headaches we’ll have to deal with sooner or later– but the palpable excitement of the lecturing staff, and the enthusiastic support gratefully received from the university’s leadership, mean that the first main hurdle has been taken successfully.

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Richard de Grijs

Richard de Grijs

Richard is a professor of astrophysics at the Kavii Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Peking University, and represents the IOP in China.
Richard de Grijs
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