Lele Mathis

Departure Date:
Return Date:
Local Institution:
Oberlin College
Local Advisor:
Dan Stinebring
Foreign Institution:
Stellenbosch University/SKA South Africa
Foreign Advisor:
Jeandrew Brink
Student Status:
  • Q. What country were you staying in?
    • South Africa
  • Q. Where were you doing research?
    • SKA South Africa
  • Q. How long were you there?
    • 8 weeks total, 5 weeks at the SKA
  • Q. What sort of research were you doing?
    • I was involved in two different projects - one about general relativity and orbits around black holes and one about pulsar timing and fitting for glitches. For the first one, I learned about the equations that describe the curvature of spacetime due to black holes and made a simulation of how the spin axis of a pulsar orbiting a black hole would precess (change as it orbits). For the second project, I learned about new software used to process data from pulsars and how to use it to find models to account for glitches, when the spin rate of a pulsar appears to sharply increase.
  • Q. Did being abroad influence the kind of research you’re doing?
    • Being abroad allowed me to go to the IPTA 2016 conference, during which I learned a whole bunch about pulsars from people all around the world. Being in South Africa allowed me to work with Jeandrew, who taught me about general relativity and how it applies to pulsars, and Sarah, who taught us about the SKA being built whose offices we were working at, its precursor KAT7, and what sort of parameters you have to take into account when choosing a pulsar to observe.
  • Q. What’s the coolest thing about being abroad?
    • The coolest thing about being abroad is meeting really awesome people who grew up in a really different environment than I and most people I know did. Our advisor Jeandrew, who grew up on her parent’s farm and had guinea fowl follow her to school, said that her high school was one of the first to be integrated after the fall of apartheid. She and other South Africans told us about the vast multitudes of ways South Africa is different and strange compared to the U.S., from the economy (food is really cheap but internet is really expensive) and political culture (people don’t trust the government to do things and the government is often really inefficient) and the incredible history of the country. And then of course the country is extremely beautiful–the moutains are amazing, and you can see Table Mountain from nearly everywhere in Cape Town.
  • Q. What’s your favorite new phrase from the language?
    • When it rains while the sun is out, apparently they say “The jackal mates with the wolf’s wife” (which possibly sounds better in Afrikaans). People also ask “are you keen to” do something instead of saying “are you interested in” doing something.
  • Q. What’s the hardest thing about being abroad?
    • The hardest thing about living in South Africa was safety - not being able to walk anywhere alone or after dark. We had to be really careful using ATMS (we would guard each other) and we took an Uber to work every day because we were told not to walk to work with our laptops. Our house had a fence with a door with two locks, and our front door had a metal gate on it that locked and two other locks. So many places, even in the relatively safe and well-off suburb of Cape Town in which we were in, were surrounded by electric fences or fences topped with barbed wire or rusty, sharp pieces of metal. When we went into town at night, we would hear people yelling at each other on the street in languages we didn’t understand, and occasionally we saw people getting beaten up. Honorable mention for the hardest thing goes for it being super cold at night, since most South African houses don’t have central heating, and during our summer it is winter there.
  • Q. What did you do in your free time?
    • After work we mostly cooked dinner and attempted to stream TV shows. On the weekend, we would go hiking on Table Mountain or rock climbing.
  • Q. What’s the coolest thing you’ve done or seen while abroad?
    • We went to a place called Cheetah Experience where we saw a tiger, lions, wolves, various smaller African cats, and of course cheetahs. We saw a cheetah walk across our path and saw a small fluffy cheetah cub only 3 months old. Also in Addo Elephant Park, and elephant nearly walked into our car, passing so close by the person sitting in the right seat could’ve rolled down the window and touched it.
  • Q. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done or seen while abroad?
    • Once when we were walking home from the gym, we heard someone coughing loudly behind us, and didn’t even have time to turn around before a grown man in a blue onesie patterened with tiny pink hearts, complete with a hood and footies cradling a plastic bag ran past us. On the more serious side, it was really strange to see the different demographics in South Africa. There were no hispanic people and not many East Asians. Also many places had black women working as maids who cleaned, washed dishes, etc. who were generally ignored and who we were usually not introduced to. I just found it incredibly bizarre how invisible they seemed. The culture around paid help is really different outside the U.S. - indian postdoc told us that in India, there are many people who are poor, but there is always someone poorer than you, and so there is always someone you can pay to do things for you.
  • Q. What advice would you offer others thinking of going abroad?
    • I’m sure each country is very different, but for going to South Africa, I’d recommend bringing a lot of warm clothes to sleep in and books to read because you can’t really stream TV shows or movies, and our house didn’t have a TV. Also I didn’t do this but I should have: get a sim card from the country you’re going to so you can call/text/use data.
  • Q. What skills have you learned abroad?
    • I learned how to rock climb and belay at a rock climbing gym near our house thanks to Jeandrew, and also how to cook chicken and make double-decker tacos thanks to my housemates.
  • Q. Is there anything you’d do differently or anything you wish you’d have known?
    • I wish I had known that to go to Robben Island you need to make a reservation, so we could have done that before we left. I also wished I could’ve done the bungee jump (I think it’s the highest bungee jump off a bridge or something), which we encountered on our road trip but didn’t do because of confusion with scheduling. I also would have loved to ride horses at Jeandrew’s family’s farm.