SA-based scientist in world top 100

29 March 2011

Suprakas Sinha-Ray, an Indian immigrant who turned down job offers in the US and elsewhere to work at South Africa’s Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, has made it onto the prestigious Thomson Reuters list of the world’s top 100 chemists of the decade.

When Thomson Reuters released their list earlier this month identifying the world’s top 100 chemists over the past 10 years, based on the impact of their published research, Sinha-Ray came in at number 50 – the only representative from the African continent.

50th out of a million

Since approximately one-million chemists were recorded in the journal publications indexed by Thomson Reuters during the last decade, these 100 represent the top 100th of 1%.

The national affiliations of the authors are: 70 for the United States, seven from Germany, four from the United Kingdom, two each from Canada, France, Denmark, Switzerland and South Korea, and one each from Australia, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Israel, South Africa, Brazil, Japan and Singapore.

Quite a number of former Nobel laureates also feature on the list, which places Sinha-Ray in exceptional company. At age 37, he also seems to be the youngest chemist on the top 100 list. “I can’t say for sure, but it looks like I am the only one below 40 years of age,” he said.

“This is a very proud moment for all of us and I believe also for the CSIR and South Africa,” Sinha-Ray said. “The selection criteria are very stringent … I have received hundreds of e-mails from around the world. Really, this is a great experience.”

The science of super-small things

Sinha-Ray, who heads up the CSIR/Department of Science and Technology’s National Centre for Nano-Structured Materials, holds a PhD in physical chemistry (polymer science and engineering) from the University of Calcutta, India.

According to online encyclopedia Wikipedia, nanotechnology refers broadly to a field of applied science and technology whose unifying theme is the control of matter on the atomic and molecular scale, normally 1 to 100 nanometers, and the fabrication of devices within that size range. A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre.

In 2007, South Africa launched two new innovation centres to help the country compete globally in the fast-developing fields of nanotechnology and nanoscience.

The National Centre for Nano-Structured Materials is based at the CSIR campus in Pretoria, while the Department of Science and Technology/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre is based in Johannesburg.

Times LIVE’s Rowan Philp, in an interview earlier this month, wrote that Sinha-Ray “deals with molecules thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair, fiddling with their structure to make them stronger, lighter, more fire-resistant – ‘almost anything’.”

Sinha-Ray, who trains and works with 35 mostly South African students and researchers, told Times LIVE that the group’s “dream” was to develop a membrane that could cheaply turn sea water into safe drinking water.

“They also hope to find a way to take drugs directly to diseased cells. And, using clay dredged from Highveld mines, they plan to make a substance stronger than steel – possibly a new material for cars of the future.”

Choosing South Africa

When Sinha-Ray, then working at a Canadian university, chose in 2006 to work at South Africa’s CSIR, despite offers from the US and elsewhere, he said his colleagues were shocked, and that friends tried to discourage him.

“They said, ‘If you leave the first world and go to South Africa, that means your career will be finished'”.

But, he told Times LIVE, the science in South Africa was “much better than people outside believe … South Africa is always advertised in a bad way, but the support, love and respect we are getting from South African people is unbelievable – more than in Canada.”

He has applied for permanent residency, and said he would likely apply for South African citizenship.

“Government support for this work is excellent, because this is a field that can create good jobs and change lives,” he told Times LIVE. “This is the future, and South Africa’s name – and the names of the very good South African researchers we have developed here – will be there when it comes.”

SAinfo reporter

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