African Physics Newsletter

Top Nuclear Physicist to Lead University of the Witwatersrand

A leading high energy physicist in South Africa, Zeblon Vilakayi will become vice-chancellor or Wits from the beginning of 2021.

The physics community in South Africa knows Prof. Zeblon Zenzele Vilakazi as dynamic, visionary, and versatile, always excited by change and adventure. His optimistic and energetic presence enlivens every discussion in which he is engaged.

He is a renowned Nuclear Physicist, and has been appointed to steer great developments at Wits University – the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

From Wits to CERN

He hails from Katlehong, a township located on the East Rand of Johannesburg. Professor Vilakazi obtained his B.Sc. from the University of Manchester, United Kingdom, in 1991, while both M.Sc. (1994) and Ph.D. (1998) were earned from Wits.

He was one of the first pioneering postgraduate students who conducted research on ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) High Energy Physics experiments on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. His research interests include computational physics and heavy-ion collisions at high energies.

National and African projects

He embarked on his academic career at the Department of Physics, University of Cape Town, and then accepted a management position as the Director of iThemba Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences under the National Research Foundation in 2007. Moving to the University of the Witwatersrand as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Postgraduate Affairs) and Professor of Physics in 2014 has been successful with the implementation of various academic and innovative projects for the benefit of South Africa and the entire African continent.

He played a key role in realizing the establishment of the (US$50 million) R 750 million IBM research laboratory (one of only 13 in the world) at the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct. IBM pioneered the Watson Cognitive Computer, which signaled the era of practical uses of Artificial Intelligence.

IBM Quantum Computing network

In June 2019, he played a key role in securing a place for Wits to become the first African academic partner in the development of practical applications through access to the IBM Quantum Computing network. Prof. Vilakazi has championed supercomputing, and especially quantum computing, on the African continent in terms of becoming “quantum-ready.”

Furthermore, he has contributed towards Wits doubling the number of top-rated researchers and achieving double digit growth in research outputs over the past five years. This has resulted in the university now being firmly among the top 150 to 250 universities in the world.

International scientific advisory panels

He has contributed positively by serving on international scientific advisory panels and committees such as the CERN-ALICE Collaboration Board, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Standing Advisory Group on Nuclear Applications (as Chair), and the Programme Advisory Committee for Nuclear Physics at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR), Dubna, in the Russian Federation.

He has served as the South African representative on the BRICS Working Group for Research Infrastructures and Mega Science Projects, as well as on key ministerial advisory panels within the Department of Science, Innovation and Higher Education and Training.

A world-class researcher

The Chair of the Board of the University of the Witwatersrand, Mr. Isaac Shongwe says: “Professor Zeblon Vilakazi is the epitome of a world-class researcher who is globally recognised for his scientific work, and for his contribution towards developing higher education in Africa. He is a truly talented individual who is an inspiring exemplar for all Africans. We are confident that Professor Vilakazi will ably lead Wits to its centenary in 2022 and beyond, steward a new vision for the academy, and reinvigorate the academic project in a higher education context that is rapidly changing.”

We look forward to a productive post-COVID-19 era under the leadership of Professor Zeblon Vilakazi with a vigorous institutional culture, hope, and optimism.

Iyabo Usman

This post has first been mublished in the African Physics Newsletter - © American Physical Society

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