April 26, 2017

Professor Seeram Ramakrishna

1on1-the-weekly

theweekly.coThe Central University of Technology (CUT) recently conferred an Honorary Doctorate in Engineering on Professor Seeram Ramakrishna from the National University of Singapore in recognition of his leading scientific work in the fields of healthcare, energy and water, among others.

Ramakrishna, who teaches Mechanical Engineering, was invited by the CUT at the launch of its Strategy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship where he interacted with students, staff and industrialists.

He was subsequently appointed visiting professor in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and he is expected to visit CUT once a year during his two-year appointment.

The Weekly’s Martin Makoni asked Ramakrishna in written questions what his work entailed and how it has evolved to improve people’s lives. Makoni also asked him how scientists in developing countries such as South Africa can be more innovative in their studies and possibly develop viable enterprises from that work. Excerpts:

You are considered the world’s foremost scientist on nanomaterials by electrospinning for use in diverse fields such as healthcare, energy, water and the environment. Kindly unpack that statement, what work do you do?
Materials display enhanced properties when we engineer them at length to scales a thousand times smaller than the thickness of a paper. Such engineered materials are called ‘nanomaterials’, and the technology enabling it is known as ‘nanotechnology’.

Electrospinning is a nanotechnology method to produce nanofibers and nanoparticles. Over the years I have shown how nanofibers can be applied to: treat damaged tissues of human body; convert sunlight into electricity and store it in batteries; clean contaminated water; remove particulates and odours from air and package food nutrients and pharmaceutical active ingredients for the well-being of people.

In the citation delivered at the CUT when it bestowed the doctorate on you, it said your researches over the past three decades have significantly contributed to the processing and mechanistic understanding of the functional behaviour of composite materials, nanofibres and nanoparticles, what does that mean?
Geometry and properties of nanofibers and nanoparticles are influenced by the processing parameters. Through systematic studies I found the relationships between nanomaterials properties and processing parameters. This information is necessary for designing and fabricating innovative products for diverse applications.

How important therefore, is your work to people’s daily lives?
The quality of our daily lives is dependent on the availability of clean water, air and energy, durable construction materials, affordable healthcare, medicines and nutrient food. My work is related to all these aspects of daily life.

The developing world is on a constant search for new innovations in order to improve people’s lives as well as create employment, how much do you think your innovations have been able to address this need?
Companies around the world are making products based on my research contributions. Indirectly, our innovations are contributing to job creation, economic growth and the well-being of people around the world

One of the major stumbling blocks to research and development is the lack of funding. Singapore is probably in a better position compared to countries in Africa. How can scientists in Africa be assisted so that their efforts in improving or coming up with new technology bear fruit?
Scientists in Africa can overcome their limitations by collaborating with researchers and companies from around the world. Opportunities are growing and much better than two decades ago.

From your interactions with African scientists as well as through studying their work, how would you describe the level of innovation in Africa and are you considering any collaborations with South African scientists for some major projects?
African scientists are trying their best and will make great strides in the coming years and decades. Yes, I am nurturing collaborative opportunities in nanotechnology, clean energy and water, food packaging and healthcare areas.

What do you think local scientists need to know and or do in order to improve their work?
Absorb best practices from around the world. It is a continual process. Plugging into the global trends and opportunities is desirable.

Scientific developments have often been blamed for the climatic changes that have resulted in changes to weather patterns, how do you view this criticism and what do you think scientists have failed to do, resulting in this situation?

Science is about generating new knowledge. Accumulation of knowledge over millenniums enabled humans to evolve and progress. While harnessing knowledge, humans are causing imbalances to the climate and universe beyond earth. Scientists, policy makers, corporates, and common persons alike should openly and honestly express what they know, put out facts and debate. Strong debates based on facts and insights will further enhance humans and societies.

You will be a visiting professor in the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering at the CUT over the next two years. What major projects will you be working on and what contribution do you hope to make to the university at the end of this?
I am passionate about innovation and entrepreneurship; digital manufacturing and nanotechnology to address societal challenges. I hope to facilitate programs and efforts related to those at CUT and South Africa.

Science is often viewed as a very complex subject, what would you say to young people in South Africa probably considering a career in science but are not sure whether it will be the right career move?
Independent of country, race, religion, ethnicity, education and age, there is a distribution of interests among people. I consider scientific research a worthwhile pursuit. It provides opportunities for learning, reflection, development and contribution to the society. I recommend young South Africans to try it and pursue it.
Overall.

where do you see Africa going in terms of scientific growth?
Africa has a growing population which is young and own unique ways of thinking. These aspects are necessary and helpful for scientific growth. In other words, Africa certainly has a huge potential for scientific growth.

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