National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Frederik van Heerden


Frederik is from the North-West province and is studying Genetics, Psychology and Physiology at the University of Pretoria.


 “Try to understand what you’re interested in as soon as possible and base your decision on that, but not to feel bad if you aren’t sure which job you want to do by the time you leave school.”


Tell us a bit about your school

Vryburg High School has approximately 700 learners at any one time. It’s a public school, but is not solely funded by the government. In terms of language it is a dual-medium school – offering learners the opportunity to take their classes in either English or Afrikaans (though you must take all your classes in the single language you choose). I took my classes in Afrikaans, though I am also fluent in English. The school places emphasis not only on academic achievement, but also sporting and cultural talent, as well as valuing leadership. The main sports are rugby (which the school is quite successful in at times), netball, hockey, tennis, athletics and soccer. Cultural activities offered include public speaking, debating, indigenous dance and writing. External academic Olympiads for math and language are often offered. My personal choices for extracurricular activities were tennis and writing. I am quite good at writing, but not very good at tennis. I also participated in most of the Olympiads, often with modest success. All of the teachers at the school are very devoted to their calling and do their best to see the learners excel on all terrains. Vryburg itself is a well developed town in the North West province, but nowhere near a city in size. It’s mostly known for being “the Texas of South Africa” in that it is a hub for the cattle farming communities around it, as well as being part of the Stellaland area (so named, because, at least before the advent of electric lighting, the stars in the night sky seemed to shine particularly bright there).

Did you encounter any challenges at school that made it difficult for you to excel in maths and science?

I didn’t face any challenges unique to me when I was at school. The main issue was simply to keep up with the coursework: since learning new mathematical or scientific concepts builds upon concepts already known, missing out or not understanding an idea often causes difficulty later along the road. Fortunately I took an advanced, extracurricular course in calculus and algebra. This meant I often already grasped ideas and methods when they came up in class. Limiting my extramural activities also allowed me ample time to study, which I quite needed for Life Science and Physical Science (those curriculums seemed to contain quite a lot of work). Life Science came quite naturally to me; more than Physical Science.

What advice do you have for matriculants who have to apply for places at higher education institutions?

Wits is in the big city, which is one of the things that makes university life interesting and challenging at the same time. On the one hand it has always been my dream to come here and even today, having been here for about 7 months or so, it still feels like my first day! On the other hand, there are so many things happening here which one was never exposed to at home in the rural areas, because we were under the watchful eye of our parents. So it’s a place fit only for those who can face and resist temptations.

Where do you see yourself five years from now, in terms of your studies/career?


When/how did you realise you enjoyed science and mathematics more than your other school subjects?

I have always been drawn to the never-ending search to understand ourselves and our world, though like most people I grew to understand my own interests better with time. In first grade I wanted to become a dentist, but a friend who was disgusted by the prospect of working with other people’s mouths caused me to change my goal to “doctor” (which meant general practitioner, since seven-year olds don’t know about medical specialization). I didn’t think about my career choice much again until high school. By that time I had lost my enthusiasm for the idea of being a medical practitioner and my parents thought I had to consider some other options. My father suggested actuary, but I immediately found that option not to my liking. I enjoy applying math to something I’m already interested in, but making my living off constantly doing complex calculations is not something I want to do. At the end of eleventh grade my parents took me to a career advisor with a doctorate in psychology. After talking to me for a while and applying tests to measure my interests and abilities, she recommended my current course. I think it’s perfect for me. Genetics was by far my favourite part of Life Science at school – tracing the inheritance of traits is fascinating. Psychology, something you aren’t very exposed to at school, I find equally interesting. Why do people behave the way they do? Why are they the way they are? I often find myself reading my textbook for fun. Perhaps a bit ironically my original interest in medicine comes back in the form of me studying physiology. It should be noted that while I’ve decided to pursue science as my career, I enjoy literature and language almost as much and still pursue them as hobbies.

What/who inspires you?

That’s a difficult question. By nature I am extremely curious about living creatures, especially people. It takes years to understand even a single human on all levels, mental and physical, macroscopic and microscopic. Maybe the sheer diversity and complexity of humanity, and life on earth as a whole, is what inspires me.

Why did you choose the course you are studying now?

As explained above, I was fortunate enough to see a professional career counsellor. I think that people with expertise in helping other people understand what the best choice for them is, often provide the most useful advice when considering what you wish to do with your life.

Any other stories/tips/ideas/advice you would like to share that would be helpful to learners in Grades 11 and 12?

Test your limits and work devotedly, but don’t overwork or torture yourself.

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