Thulani was first exposed to science at secondary school and now develops materials and processes at petrochemical company, Sasol.
Life and work
Thulani Dlamini did not study any science at all until he was of secondary-school age. When he moved from the school in his township to boarding school, he immediately found both sciences and maths fascinating. The school was run by the Catholic Church, and, unusually, both his maths and science teachers were nuns:
“I had very good teachers for maths and science at school; their teaching methods made the subject very interesting and exciting. Perhaps as a result of their chosen path in life, they demonstrated a very high level of tenacity, discipline and structure – which I think are good qualities for scientists.”
Initially drawn to science in general, his decision to pursue chemistry was more incidental than planned. His first idea was to become a teacher, inspired by the teachers at his school, but later he developed an ambition to be a medical doctor. However, a short stint of work experience at a hospital during one of his school holidays convinced him that this was not for him.
After a year at the Catholic boarding school he was offered a scholarship to study chemistry at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, with the possibility of employment after completion of his degree. Accepting the offer, he soon developed an interest in catalysis and materials science and decided to study for a PhD in this field.
“I never liked subjects that relied on one’s ability to just remember information. I found that maths, science and chemistry gave me the opportunity to interpret things in my own way in a manner that would make sense to me.”
After completing his PhD, Thulani moved towards the industrial chemicals sector. He studied for a Master’s degree in business leadership, and began working at the South African petrochemical company, Sasol Technology. He is currently their vice president for strategic research & technology, where he works on innovation and developing long-term technology options for the company: finding ways to develop materials, chemicals and processes that can solve problems.
“The freedom to think creatively, develop new ideas, work in an intellectually challenging environment is very exciting. Chemistry is abounding with possibilities to be innovative and creative; you need to constantly challenge the status quo and find ways to push boundaries.”
Although Thulani has not himself experienced overt discrimination in his work, he has suffered more subtle forms of prejudice. He sees that minority groups do not have access to the mentoring that is provided to other groups in the scientific community, and lack visible role models that can support younger researchers. Where funding is an issue, unbalanced selection panels from grant funding agencies can show an unconscious bias against minority groups. Nonetheless, he remains optimistic for the future:
“Diversity is important in everything in life. Taking diversity seriously can only enrich you in terms of the views and inputs received. Science needs to serve humanity and by nature, humanity is diverse. Unfortunately society often judges people on the basis of their diversity profile instead of the quality of their contributions – I hope that this will change in future.”
Words by Stephen McCarthy
Images courtesy of Thulani Dlamini
Published January 2015