Podcaster: Brandon Engelbrecht ; Guest: Bret Yotti

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Title: Cosmic Savannah – Mini #005: From Hospitality to Aspiring Astronomer

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@cosmicsavannah (twitter, facebook & instagram)

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In this mini-episode, we talk with Bret Yotti a student and teaching assistant from the University of Cape Town (UCT) as well as a presenter at the Iziko Planetarium in Cape Town. We look at Bret’s journey in astronomy and why he chose this path. We also find out about his life as a teaching assistant whilst being a student as well at UCT and the work he is doing for the planetarium. Check out the full show notes at for more info, pictures, transcript and related links.

Bio: Dr Jacinta Delhaize and Dr Daniel Cunnama are astronomers based in Cape Town, South Africa. Jacinta is a Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town. She spends her time using huge radio telescopes to study gas and black holes in distant galaxies. Daniel is the Science Engagement Astronomer at the South African Astronomical Observatory. He likes to use large supercomputers to create simulations of galaxies. Both Jacinta and Daniel love to promote the incredible astronomy happening across the African continent.

Hosted by Brandon Engelbrecht (Centre for Radio Cosmology, University of the Western Cape

Guest: Bret Yotti a student and teaching assistant from the University of Cape Town (UCT) as well as a presenter at the Iziko Planetarium in Cape Town


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Brandon: [00:00:00] Hello there and welcome to a mini-episode of The Cosmic Savannah, with me Brandon Engelbrecht. I know this is a little strange to hear my voice, but I would first like to thank our returning listeners for coming back, as well as welcome our new listeners to the show and secondly, I’d like to introduce myself.

So, as I said, my name is Brandon. I am a first-year PhD student at the University of the Western Cape currently trying to understand the mysteries of the Universe. But for now, I’m also a podcast host trainee. And the reason behind this is actually a new passion that I’ve developed over the years in science and that is science communication.

I’m very big on the idea of outreach and being able to give back to the community in terms of either explaining scientific phenomena and encouraging students to actually take STEM at the university level, which is the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics programs.

However, the question I usually get is why did you do physics or why do you do astrophysics? And today on our show, we’ll actually have Mr Bret Yotti, currently, a teaching assistant at the University of Cape Town (UCT) explain to us his journey, as to why he did astrophysics at the University of Cape Town and what currently does his job entail? Also, we’ll ask him about his transition from being a student at the University of Cape Town to being a teaching assistant. As well as his job at the Iziko Planetarium where he does visual night tours of the night sky.

So sit back, relax and enjoy a mini episode of The Cosmic Savannah.

So hi, I’m with Bret Yotti and today we’ll be discussing a little bit about himself, what he does and why he’s chosen this path. Firstly, I would like to know from you Bret what do you do?

Bret: [00:01:52] So currently I’m finishing up an undergraduate degree at UCT. But my main job is working at UCT; with the teaching telescopes and the undergraduate students and I handle all of the undergraduate practicals involving the telescopes there and I maintain the teaching telescopes which I helped to install them. And then in my free time, I also work as an evening and weekend presenter at the Iziko Planetarium in Cape Town.

Brandon: [00:02:22] Oh, okay. That’s quite a bit. So you’re at the University of Cape Town and you’re a student, but you also, a technical assistant?

Bret: [00:02:33] Yeah, that’s right, I have several different ways of describing myself I guess. My payslips say a research assistant, I’m also called a head tutor for the observational techniques course, but yes, that’s right, I’m actually a student as well. I finished my astronomy undergraduate material last year. This year, I just have a few other credits to get before I graduate and because I’m working full time I decided to just do those on the side.

Brandon: [00:03:02] Oh okay so your studies have now taken a backseat to your paycheck?

Bret: [00:03:08] Exactly.

Brandon: [00:03:12] That’s what you said and of the two which one do you most prefer, being a student or being more of a research assistant slash head tutor?

Bret: [00:03:20] I definitely do not like being a student. I prefer the research assistants and the tutoring side of her time.

I enjoy teaching students. I enjoy working with them and seeing them discover new things. I love observing. Helping students to appreciate that the same way that I do makes me happy.

Brandon: [00:03:40] So in that sense, we share a similar trait there. I do like to see students, you know, when they smile, when they grasp some new knowledge and the light bulbs in their brain just start flickering and you know that you’ve got them.

Okay, I’ll come back to that. I’m also interested… you said you do some presentations at the Iziko Planetarium.

Bret: [00:04:01]. Yeah, that’s right. So the Planetarium was upgraded about four years ago where they made it into a digital Planetarium and shortly after that, I started working there as a presenter.

So that involves public groups coming in for entertainment and they see a short show 20 or 30 minutes and then I give them a tour of the night sky and I teach them some different things using the Planetarium software. They learn about galaxies, they learn about the Milky Way, they learn about constellations and the night sky from Cape Town.

And I’ve been doing that about three years.

Brandon: [00:04:37] That’s really cool. So you not only just like teach university students, you also try and take astro to a more broader audience. Cause I’m guessing, it’s not just students that go to the Planetarium. It’s also youngsters to the elderly folk as well.

Bret: [00:04:52] That’s right.

And there are different groups. So even with teaching first-year students astronomy, they at least have an interest in astronomy. So they know a lot of things already, what a star is, what a planet is. But at the Planetarium, you get all kinds of people and that’s one of the things I like about the Planetarium, is the questions they ask really gives you an insight to what the common person thinks about astronomy.

So they ask very interesting questions at the Planetarium.

Brandon: [00:05:22] I can imagine, okay so I got what you do, the why, so Bret why astros?

Bret: [00:05:28] Oh, well, I’ve done quite a bit in my life. So after high school, I worked in tourism and hospitality for three years, and then I worked in banking for six years and this is in the United States.

And then I went to Germany where I taught English as a foreign language for eight years and while I was there, I started not liking my job very much and wanted to do more.

So I started studying part-time remotely in Germany and got married while I was in Germany. My wife is from Cape Town, so we decided to move back and I transferred my credits to the University of Cape Town and started studying astronomy at UCT.

And when I looked at my life and tried to figure out what do I want to do? I looked at what interests me, what I do in my free time. And one of those things was reading about the Universe and stars and astronomy on the internet. So I wanted to pursue that further and now I’ve had the opportunity to do that.

Brandon: [00:06:23] Oh, you went very far hey, from tourism to a banker, to a teacher and then boom, you went into your passion. That’s cool and now you’re making your passion your literal job.

Bret: [00:06:32] Yeah, it’s nice to finally be able to get paid for doing something I enjoy, it’s an experience that I haven’t had until somewhat recently. That work could be something that you look forward to instead of something you do until the weekend comes.

Brandon: [00:06:48] And how was the transition from being, on one side? So as a teacher, you on one side of the classroom, and then as a student, you now on the completely other side of the classroom, how was that transition for you?

Bret: [00:07:02] That transition was a bit challenging but more challenging was the age difference, so going back and studying with 18-year-olds just coming out of matric to where I’m a peer with them, but I’m the same age as my lecturers.

So that was a big challenge to try and treat younger people as my peers and people of the same age as my superiors if that makes sense.

Brandon: [00:07:28] That makes sense. When I first met you too, I had to like take back. Cause it was like, oh, not a lecturer, a student.

Bret: [00:07:33] Yeah. And I think I was in my first year then, and I believe you were in honours or maybe third year at that time.

Brandon: [00:07:40] Yeah I was in honours for that one yeah.

Bret: [00:07:42] Yeah.

Brandon: [00:07:43] Alright, well, that is actually all the questions that I have at the moment. So thank you, Bret.

Bret: [00:07:48] Yeah. Thank you, Brandon, it’s been fun.

Brandon: [00:07:57] Well, that’s our interview with Bret from the University of Cape Town and the Iziko Planetarium. And hopefully, now we’ve explained why we do astronomy and astrophysics. And as Bret showed us in his journey, you’re never too late to start a new career or a new calling if you’re passionate about that.

And during the interview, something that really resonated with me was his passion for teaching and not just teaching to the classroom, but also teaching to the general audience. With his job at the Iziko Planetarium, Bret is able to explain the astrophysical phenomena and maybe even get people interested in doing astros or physics in the future.

So to me, that was really nice. I really enjoyed that and as you heard from Bret, it’s never too late to pursue your passion. So it is never too late to come into astros and on that note, I’d really like to thank Bret again for doing the interview and also would like to encourage our listeners for those in Cape Town and those planning on visiting Cape Town, post-Corona that is, to visit Bret at the Iziko Planetarium to watch one of the shows or to even meet Bret and ask him any questions you might have. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind answering them.

But on that note, I’d like to thank our listeners again for tuning in to this mini-episode of The Cosmic Savannah.

Goodbye for now.

End of podcast:

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