Pioneer in field of laser spectroscopy at Stellenbosch University

Dr Christine Steenkamp

In the late 1990s, when Dr Christine Steenkamp enrolled to study physics at Stellenbosch University (SU), she had no idea that just a decade later she would be hailed as a pioneer in the field of laser spectroscopy. Based in the Department of Physics, Steenkamp is an award-winning researcher and leads the activities of the innovative Laser Research Institute. As part of Women’s Month celebrations at SU,

Corporate Communication spoke to
Dr Steenkamp about her research.

You are one of a few women involved in the field of laser spectroscopy. Can you tell us more about this field of research?

I use lasers to learn about different forms of material – atoms, molecules and solid material. My favourite is to investigate atoms and small molecules, invisible to the eye, in gas phase, and to exploit the amazing property of these particle to absorb colours of light.

This property can be used to determine their internal structure and mass, how they rotate and vibrate, and what the density and temperature of the gas is. Combining this information with astronomical observations from big telescopes, astronomers discover what distant stars and galaxies are made of, how far they are away, how stars change over their lifetime and can even test whether things like the mass ratio of tiny particles in an atom (protons and electrons) has changed over billions of years.

How did you become interested in this specific area of research?

It has always interested me to know how things work. That led me to studying physics.

What do you enjoy most about being a researcher?

I am not only a researcher, I am also an academic and an educator. I enjoy the combination. Research keeps my career interesting; gives me problems to solve and new projects to plan. Research brings me into collaboration with enthusiastic postgraduate students and a diverse range of researchers from over the world. There is never a dull moment.

On the other hand, lecturing, tutoring undergraduates, being involved in curriculum development and training postgraduate students give me a sense of meaning in my career. I help to prepare young people to build the future and to make a difference. Putting energy and care into education and training is investing in the future of South Africa and it is more critical now than ever before.

What does success mean to you?

I have chosen to work part-time for the past 10 years; therefore, I had to define for myself what “success” means without comparing my career to those of others. Success for me is making a contribution to science in a 100% trustworthy and ethical way, making a difference in the lives of my students and colleagues, and giving my family loving care.

To what do you attribute your success?

I have chosen a career in a field that I am good in. I love what I do and always want to give it my best. I have very good professional relations with all my colleagues and benefit greatly from the mutual support, in particular my colleagues within our Laser Research Institute. However, my most important support team is the team at home: my mother, my husband and our three children. They ensure that my life keeps a healthy balance and continuously remind me that my identity and worth as a person is far greater than my career.

Do you have words of advice for the next generation of women researchers?

Be yourself, respect yourself and your abilities and do not compare yourself to others. Actively cultivate collegial professional relations with your colleagues on all levels. Have a balanced lifestyle. Remember that your career is a journey, not a destination, and that the “scenic route” can be just as fulfilling and successful as the perceived “highway to success”.