SA scientist joins top MIT class

[Image] Prof Thembela Hillie will join a distinguished
group of alumni when he completes his
MIT Sloan MBA in 2012.
(Image: CSIR)

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Prof Thembela Hillie
  CSIR research group leader: low
  dimensional systems

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Shamin Chibba

Take a young man out of his small hometown, put him on the road and see how far he will go. Many will guess that if he has enough determination, he will go further than he could ever imagine.

This can surely be said of nanotechnology expert Professor Thembela Hillie of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who hails from the small town of Butterworth – also known as Gcuwa – in the Eastern Cape and now finds himself in the classrooms of one of the most prestigious universities in the US.

Hillie was selected by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management (MIT Sloan) to pursue a one-year mid-career fellowship in innovation and global leadership. He also received a Dean’s Fellowship Award worth $90 000 (R740 000).

According to the CSIR website, the Sloan fellowship combines financial courses with electives in technology strategies, giving Hillie the opportunity to augment his scientific background with business skills.

He arrived at MIT Sloan in May 2011 and opted for a full-time executive MBA course that will run until June 2012.

Hillie said the course is designed to prepare a group of mid-career managers from different parts of the world to magnify their impact as leaders.

Distinguished MIT Sloan alumni include Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general; Benjamin Netanyahu, ninth prime minister of Israel; Calie Pistorius, former principal of Pretoria University; and Alan Mulally, president and CEO of the Ford Motor Company

Surrounded by great minds

Hillie, who holds a PhD in solid state physics, was chosen for the class of 2012 through an application and a series of interviews.

The nanotechnologist believes his leadership in projects involving the India-Brazil-South Africa alliance, the UN International Development Organisation’s expert group on nanotechnology, and the World Economic Forum convinced MIT to select him.

He described his first three months at MIT as hectic, as the group had to quickly learn about business fundamentals. What he had learnt thus far was like “drinking from a hosepipe”.

“This was to prepare us to take electives and form study groups with second year MBAs,” he said, adding that being surrounded by so many great minds – some of them Nobel laureates who are willing to give up their time to help – has humbled him.

He said MIT Sloan also allows him to interact with faculties from other schools.

“Being here also gives me the opportunity to cross register with Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Governance for some electives,” he said.

Since his arrival, Hillie has been interacting with a cohort of mid-career global leaders from a diverse range of industries, including engineers and entrepreneurs, who have an average of 14 years’ work experience.

He and his contemporaries have been discussing problems with business leaders of technology-based corporations, leading scientists and economists. Through discussion, they have been able to link knowledge generation and technology development, and create a toolkit for technology innovation.

About emerging technologies

According to Hillie, the concept of emerging technology refers to new technologies that use an interdisciplinary approach. This includes nanotechnology, synthetic biology and converging technologies.

“These are relatively new technologies with a potential to have a positive impact on society,” he said.

He added that such technologies can add economic and social value to materials, products and processes that can bring about global prosperity.

Emerging technologies, especially nanotechnology, can be used to overcome a number of pressing challenges such as energy generation and storage, health care, climate change and food security.

South Africa is ready for nanotechnology

In recent years there has been a lot of hype surrounding nanotechnology, both positive and negative. However, Hillie said the negative press is subsiding and the science is now taking over.

The national Department of Science and Technology can take much of the credit for changing the country’s attitudes towards nanotechnology, through its public awareness campaigns that educate people on the technology’s benefits.

“We are teaching students the fundamental science at nano scale – this excites them and brings more talent to science,” said Hillie.

He believes South Africa is ready to implement emerging technologies, and confirmed that there are numerous national strategies around the country that are accompanied by research activities.

However, he said the only thing South Africa lacks are the tools to convert the research into products, which is something Hillie is currently learning at MIT.

As far as integration into daily life is concerned, he said that we already live with nanotechnology, mostly as enhancements to existing technologies such as computer memory, scratch resistance coatings, packaging material and televisions.

“It can also be applied in water purification, drug delivery and energy sources,” he said.

He does believe that there will come a time when the technology will be advanced enough to change the way we do things.

Emerging technologies bring scientists together

Research into emerging technologies is conducted at different levels in various countries and is dependent on the amount of financial support researchers receive.

Hillie said scientists from developed nations are leading in research efforts because they obtain greater funding compared to their developing counterparts.

In this regard, Africa lags behind many other countries. But despite the financial gap, there is one positive that comes out of emerging technologies research, according to Hillie, and that is that it’s brought scientists together from around the world.

“Never has collaboration amongst international bodies been so extensive,” he said.

Hillie himself has led a group of Indian, Brazilian and South African nanotechnologists for six years. And when he graduates next year, he will be collaborating with  powerful leaders that include the alumni of MIT, MIT Sloan, and the Society of Sloan Fellows of MIT.