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A career-long love affair with science

- Wits University

From being dazzled by the launch of space stations in the 1970s to pushing the boundaries of quantum physics.

When Wits University’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, was a boy growing up in Katlehong in Johannesburg’s East Rand, the wonder of space endeavour was changing the world. The possibilities to unravel the mysteries of the universe held new frontiers for science and physics.

In a recent keynote address during the Wits Physics Open Days presented by the School of Physics as part of the University’s centenary celebration, Vilakazi said NASA’s Apollo Missions and the launch of Skylab, the first US space station, fired his imagination when he was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.

“It inspired me personally and even though it was very difficult for some of us to even think about doing science growing up in the townships, it became my personal moon shot – to dream that I too could be a scientist,” he said.

He stayed true to shooting for the moon and by 1992 started his journey as a science scholar at Wits University. He hasn’t looked back since.

Just this May, Vilakazi was made a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society in the United Kingdom. The Royal Society recognised him for his contribution to the physics programmes at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, and for continuing to build capacity for experimental particle physics and quantum computing in sub-Saharan Africa.

Love affair with the atomic nucleus

In his lecture, titled: A personal journey into the heart of the atomic nucleus, Vilakazi recalls how as a Master's student “my love affair with the atomic nucleus began and has continued till the day I was ‘demoted’ into management and the position of Vice-Chancellor at Wits,” he joked. “It makes this story not of the present, but a story of the past - between 2000 to 2013 - when I still had a foot in research.”

After graduating from Wits in 1998, Vilakazi went on to do his doctoral research at CERN.

“I invested eight years of my life in this project, and my friends like to remind me that I spoke nothing but high-level figures during that time - I was just living and dreaming the project. And luckily, it worked out,” he says, noting that CERN is home to the Large Hadron Collider - the most powerful particular accelerator which fires proton beams at 14 tera electron volts, 14 trillion electron volts. It is most famous for discovering the Higgs boson – a subatomic particle considered a fundamental building block of the universe. The discovery of the Higgs particle in 2012 is said to mark a turning point between established physical knowledge and new physics.

In 1999, Vilakazi returned to South Africa to take up a lecturing post at the University of Cape Town. Here he was instrumental in establishing South Africa’s first experimental high-energy physics research group focusing on the development of the High-level Trigger for the CERN-ALICE experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.

“The team I was leading aimed to write the tracking algorithms in Cape Town and make sure that they combined with measurements of other events in Kolkatta, India, and then to combine these for analysis, make decisions and send them back to Switzerland. So effectively, we were running a large cluster computer across three continents.”

By 2007 Vilakazi, took up the directorship at iThemba LABS and four years later in 2011, he was appointed Group Executive for Research and Development at the NECSA (Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa).

Fast forward to 2014, Vilakazi returned to his alma mater, joining Wits as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs.

He became the Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal in 2021 and paused at a career highlight of the 2019 agreement of the partnership between Wits University and IBM.

“We were all very excited about the new collaboration,” he said. It would open the door for South African researchers and their counterparts for 15 universities across the continent to gain access to the 20 qubit-IBM Q quantum computer with its advanced quantum computing systems and software for teaching quantum information science and exploring early applications.

“It has put us right at the forefront of developing the next generation of young people who will be writing codes using quantum computing,” he said.

In conclusion, Vilakazi emphasised that his personal journey in science had also been buoyed by mentors, students, and colleagues who supported and shared his journey. He stressed the continued necessity for collaboration; to push for more doors to be opened for Africa and ultimately to hold on to the inspiration of technological advancement and physics to answer more questions of our time.