Skip to main content


Nighttime sky with Milky Way stars visible


In July 2017, a UW–Madison science writer, a photographer and a video producer — Kelly Tyrrell, Jeff Miller and Justin Bomberg — traveled nearly 9,000 miles, from Madison, Wisconsin, to Johannesburg, South Africa. As a small team, we endeavored to tell the stories of the science, and the scientists, that unite our two nations.

Astronomers use the Southern African Large Telescope to peer into the vast expanses of the universe. Geoscientists explore the ancient, well-preserved rock record unique to South Africa. Anthropologists toil in dark caves, in search of our earliest ancestors.

For two weeks, we spent time with these scientists, their students, and their partners in South Africa. We learned much about a nation that has with pride embraced the sciences, staking its future on the rich contributions it has made and continues to make.

We also learned much about the toll decades of apartheid took on the nation and its people. From 1948 until the early 1990s, the government of South Africa systematically oppressed its black and “coloured” people, who make up more than 90 percent of its population. Apartheid’s effects continue to touch the science done there today and influence the parts our researchers play.

We met scientists like Kathy Kuman and her husband, Ron Clarke, two world-renowned researchers who chose to sacrifice their careers and leave South Africa in the 1980s so their daughter would not be born under apartheid.

We met Nic Beukes, who is helping to train South Africa’s next generation of geoscientists at the University of Johannesburg, a school that once taught only white students.

We talked to Ramotholo Sefako, one of South Africa’s few black astrophysicists, who trained at UW–Madison.

And we met students like Recognise Sambo, poised to become one of South Africa’s first black female archaeologists.

This is a story about science. But it’s also a story about the people who do it. We thank the many scientists and students, in Madison as well as South Africa, who generously shared their time, knowledge and enthusiasm for this project. And we thank you, the reader, for following our stories.

Origins was produced by University Communications and University Marketing at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Design and graphics

Kate Price

Web development

Sean Hulse and Nick Weaver

Editing and production

Terry Devitt, Bill Graf, Linda Kietzer, Hyunsoo Léo Kim, Peter Kleppin, Meredith McGlone, Libby Peterek, Craig Wild

Social media

Nate Moll

Executive Producer

John Lucas