Stellenbosch University
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From Madagascar to the world with a PhD in physics
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson (Media: Faculty of Science)
Published: 26/03/2024

​​​Hailing from a rural village in Madagascar, Dr Dina Miora's academic journey has taken her to South Africa and Germany and today she is employed as a postdoctoral scientist and image analyst at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, England.

When she walks over the stage to be capped with a PhD in Physics from Stellenbosch University (SU) and the Friedrich-Schiller University Jena during SU's March graduation ceremony, she has literally and figuratively navigated a long journey marked by overcoming more than one cultural and language barrier, as well as the occasional bouts of home sickness.

But despite these challenges, during her postgraduate studies she also established a non-profit organisation called Itatra with the aim of providing “a better and equal education for all" in Madagascar. According to recent surveys, the number of high school learners majoring in physics, chemistry, and mathematics in Madagascar have dropped from 11% to only 5% between 2007 and 2017. Moreover, the field of optics, her speciality, is not offered at higher education institutions or only offered as a minor subject. 'Itatra' is the Malagasy word for expansion.

In 2022 she organised a two-week outreach initiative called “Vision" to three high schools in rural Madagascar with the goal of helping learners to see and understand the world through a lens. Supported by funding from SPIE (the international society for optics and photonics) learners also received diffraction glasses, as well as fun activities with modular optics educational kits from OpenUC2. In 2023 she again reached out to the same schools with a photo contest to celebrate the International Day of Light.

From Madagascar to South Africa and the world

Dina grew up in the rural village Fenoarivo-Be, about 180km from the capital Antananarivo, from where she went on to study mathematics at the University of Antananarivo.

A lecturer introduced her to the opportunities offered by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Muizenberg, South Africa. AIMS is a pan-African network of Centres of Excellence for postgraduate training in the mathematical sciences.

Participating in AIMS' structured master's programme in 2016, she was introduced to laser physics when she chose to pursue a physics-related project to localise single fluorescent molecules moving in time in noisy images. remove noise from microscopic images. Under the guidance of her study leaders, emeritus professor Erich Rohwer and Dr Gurthwin Bosman at SU's Department of Physics, she then obtained an AIMS/DAAD bursary to pursue an MSc in laser physics. Her project focused on the development of microscopical techniques to determine the 3D position and orientation of single molecules. 

During this time, she met Prof. Rainer Heintzman, head of the Department of Microscopy at the Leibnitz Institute of Photonic Technology in Germany, during a workshop of the African Laser Centre. According to Dr Bosman, he was so impressed with her work that they started talking about a possible cotutelle for her PhD – this is when a student is jointly enrolled at two universities and spends time at each university.

At the time, Dina says, the exposure was intense: “Prof. Heintzman was so knowledgeable, and I felt as if I knew nothing. At the same time the meeting made me gain a totally new perspective of the importance of my research."

For her PhD research, Dina developed new techniques to optimise the modelling of optical systems in order to improve the quality of microscopic images. To achieve that, one requires simulation techniques that are sensitive to images that may be distorted.

Dr Bosman explains: “An image is like a painting, and if one can determine well enough the width and thickness of the paint brush, then you can mathematically eliminate the impact of finite width and thickness and thereby retrieve a high quality and more accurate painting."

For her work at the MRC's Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, she is involved with both research and hands-on projects: “We are currently working with a research group at the University of Cambridge that has developed a software code for tracking single molecules. My task now is to test the efficiency and accuracy of their software," she explains.

As image analyst, she also handles requests from biologists about image processing and analysis: “They take images of their samples with microscopes, and our task is to help them extract the information that they need from these images."

For overcoming the language barrier in her field of research, Dina says it helped to avoid Google translate as much as possible: “With research and studies, the language is quite standardised. I found it more effective in the long run to look for the definition of a difficult word in the same language, rather than falling back on Google translate."

Verbal communication in social situations was, however, a different matter: “I had to learn to be more observant and to understand the context and the culture. It really helped being in a community of people with similar interests and values because it provided a safe zone to practice the new language and immerse yourself in another culture."

She plans to continue her outreach activities to promote physics, chemistry, and optics at high schools in Madagascar: “I believe that education plays an important role in the development of my country. I will continue my outreach activities wherever in the world I find myself. If I happen to stay outside of Africa, I will like it if I can come back from time to time to give training on image processing and analysis," she concludes.

On the photo above: Dr Dina Miora at the custom-built microscope set-up in the Department of Physics at Stellenbosch University. Photo: Stefan Els