Manchester chemist has been awarded the first honorary DSc degree from the University of Zululand.

Paul O’Brien, head of chemistry at the University of Manchester, UK, has been awarded the first honorary DSc degree from the University of Zululand (Uzulu), South Africa.


O’Brien’s degree was awarded for his support of nanotechnology at Uzulu, where he has acted as an inorganic chemistry ’godfather’ since 1996. This was the start of the Royal Society’s UK-South Africa partnership programme, which now runs 10 projects.

Over the last 10 years, about 20 Uzulu students have worked in O’Brien’s labs and Uzulu now produces one or two PhD candidates each year. ’One of the achievements of the programme is that 10 years ago [Uzulu] had never graduated a PhD in chemistry, and in the last three years we’ve graduated five,’ said O’Brien. Most of these PhD candidates have done their research in South Africa, with trips to the UK to use specific instruments.

Uzulu is one of South Africa’s historically black universities (HBUs, also known as historically disadvantaged universities). HBUs are a legacy from the days of apartheid and tend to be in the remote areas, O’Brien explained. When O’Brien first visited Uzulu in 1996, he was impressed by the infrastructure in South Africa, but saw a need to recruit people ’who had been to the outside world’. 

O’Brien plans to continue his godfathering role. ’I wouldn’t want to abandon them,’ he explained. ’I’ve just put some plans in place to help with their undergraduate programmes.’ His hope is that the HBUs will continue to become internationally competitive and join the international science community. ’They are more or less there,’ he said, but added that the situation was still fragile. ’It still needs nurturing.’

Under the terms of the scheme, the Royal Society is phasing out its support for the collaboration. ’Over the past few years, the amount of funding has been reduced since project leaders together with the South African universities have been able to secure funding from elsewhere,’ explained Jane Buckley, international officer at the Royal Society. Money will come from international industrial sources, including 3M, and a South African minerals company. ’There are lots of strands now coming together to help support the collaboration,’ said O’Brien.

The degree was a ’very unique honour,’ he said. A highlight for him was the degree ceremony ’It was nothing like a stiff formal European ceremony,’ said O’Brien, ’it was lots of whooping and shouting and dancing.’ 

O’Brien is about to travel to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to give lectures and lay plans another international collaboration.

Katharine Sanderson