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A tale of two continents

Over the past two decades, Professor Paul O'Brien's work has helped change the lives of many of South Africa's young scientists. Here, Professor O'Brien and one of his first protégés look back upon the impact he has made.

On a damp afternoon in March, Professor Paul O'Brien visited Buckingham Palace to collect his CBE for his services to science and engineering. But the story begins in a much warmer setting.

"In Africa, Paul has really inspired and helped so many scientists," says Neerish Revaprasadu, SARCHi Chair of Nanotechnology and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Zululand (UNIZULU).

"He's very good at getting the best out of people."

Paul's tale is one of collaboration across two continents. He and Neerish first met in late 1996, when Paul visited UNIZULU as the UK project leader for a Royal Society programme which had just been set up to support the dawn of democracy in South Africa. The programme aimed to build excellence in teaching and research in historically black universities in Africa, with UNIZULU being one such institution.

"I had read about South Africa as a child and always wanted to visit," says Paul. "But I wouldn't go until it was democratised". In April 1994, Paul's wish came true. South Africa held its first ever general election with universal suffrage and appointed Nelson Mandela as its president, finally marking the end of apartheid in the country.

Neerish Revaprasadu, SARCHi Chair of Nanotechnology and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Zululand

Neerish Revaprasadu (right), SARCHi Chair of Nanotechnology and Professor of Chemistry at the University of Zululand

During the late 1970s, Paul had helped to build a new university in the Portuguese city of Aveiro as part of a capacity-building project, an experience which made him optimistic that the Royal Society's ambitious programme in Africa could work. When Paul was approached in 1996 to lead the Royal Society programme, he jumped at the chance.

At a glance
1979

Helped to build a new University in the Portuguese city of Aveiro

1996

First visit to UNIZULU as project lead for a Royal Society programme set up to support the dawn of democracy in South Africa

1999

Paul joined The University of Manchester

2016

Awarded CBE for services to science and engineering at Buckingham Palace and the RSC prestigious Longstaff Prize

At the time of their first meeting Neerish was working as a senior lab technician in the chemistry department at UNIZULU. After immediately impressing Paul, Neerish quickly became the first exchange student to take part in the Royal Society scheme and flew to London in February 1997 to begin studying for a PhD at Imperial College.

"I was thrown into the deep end," explains Neerish. "I had never been overseas and I was worried about my ability to succeed. Once I started, I gained immense confidence through Paul's guidance and supervision. I was able to meet so many aspiring scientists during my stay in London and achieve my true potential."

In 2000, Neerish became the first South African ever to receive a PhD in materials chemistry. "When I returned to South Africa I realised that I was quite unique in my field," says Neerish proudly. The two have collaborated ever since, with Paul maintaining his strong links with UNIZULU and South Africa.

"Having an ongoing collaboration with Paul helped me achieve the SARCHi Chair of Nanotechnology, which is a prestigious programme funded by the National Research Foundation in South Africa. I also became a full professor after ten years in academia," says Neerish.

When Paul joined The University of Manchester in late 1999, he brought his strong ties with Africa and Neerish in particular. Many of Neerish's students at UNIZULU have subsequently visited Manchester to work and study. "I guess one or two more Manchester United fans have also been created," jokes Paul.

The Royal Society programme ran for nearly 12 years in total and brought over £700,000 of funding to South Africa, leading to 12 alumni holding substantive posts in academia or research. "The opportunity changed my life," says Neerish. "Paul is very well known in South Africa through his work with the Royal Society. He has changed the lives of numerous other students in Africa."

Paul was awarded UNIZULU's first honorary DSc degree in 2006 after ten years of support work with the university. In addition to his CBE, last month Paul also received the Royal Society of Chemistry's (RSC) prestigious Longstaff Prize, which is awarded triennially to the RSC member who has done the most to advance the science of chemistry.

UNIZULU is just one of the success stories from Paul's collaborative work in Africa. He has since continued his efforts in South Africa, arranging for the Nobel Prize winner Sir Harry Kroto to visit the country, and becoming a founding member and adviser to the South African Nanotechnology Initiative.

Following his success with UNIZULU, Paul was invited by the Royal Society to help to establish a similar project in Ghana and Tanzania. More recently, he obtained a new £1.15 million grant from the Royal Society and the Department for International Development for capacity building projects in South Africa, Ghana and Cameroon.

Twenty years on from his first meeting with Neerish, Paul's links with the continent of Africa are stronger than ever. "Paul has done his country proud through his work in the sciences in Africa" says Neerish. Manchester agrees.

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