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Dr Art McDonald, the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics recipient, has stressed the importance of academics choosing their research collaborators well.
Dr McDonald delivered a special National Research Foundation (NRF) Science for Society Lecture at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus on Tuesday, 20 September 2022. The NRF organised the lecture, themed “The Road to a Nobel Prize”, in partnership with the High Commission of Canada and Future Africa.
Dr McDonald was a co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics with Japan’s Dr Takaaki Kajita. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel Prize in Physics, announced at the time that the two veteran academics were recognised for discovery that changed humans’ understanding of the innermost workings of matter and which can prove crucial to our view of the universe.
Dr McDonald led research groups at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO), Canada, that investigated the metamorphosis of the neutrinos. He was a director of the observatory. The long-term study proved that the neutrinos from the Sun do not disappear on their way to Earth, but instead mutate. Neutrinos are one of the smaller, but abundant particles in the universe.
In his special NRF Science for Society lecture, Dr McDonald pointed out that academic collaboration made the discovery by the SNO teams possible. “When students ask me how you do well in science, I say choose your collaborators well,” he said.
“I received a Nobel Prize, but I received it on behalf of 200 or 300 scientists or tactical people who actually did the work on this major experiment. I’m simply representing here as a Nobel Prize winner.”
The research collaboration at the SNO goes back to 1984 when Dr McDonald was one of the 16 founding members of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Collaboration. He was a full Physics professor at the time.
“We started in 1984,” he recalled. “Our results, for which the Nobel was awarded, were in 2002. So, this was an extremely dedicated group of people. In the process, we educated over 200 students as postdocs. Those same students were surveyed later, and only about 25% of them ended up as professors in universities,” he said. “I’m very pleased to be able to say that over 35% of people who have those academic positions are women. That's not common in Physics these days and I consider it progress.
He added, “The other 75%, were surveyed 10 years after the project was over, and they worked in a wide variety of occupations.”
Dr McDonald posited that his earlier schooling days contributed to his love for education and academic success. He grew up in Sydney. “It was a very industrially oriented town. But then education was emphasised,” he recalled. “… Teachers are very influential in people’s success. My high school Mathematics teacher, Bob Chafe, gave us extra classes after school.” Chafe’s class of 35 learners produced two PhDs in Mathematics and one in Physics. This feat was “just an indication of this gentleman’s skill”, said the Nobel Laureate.
Another key to academic success for Dr McDonald is balancing between one’s first passion and what they are good at. “I went to Dalhousie (University for undergraduate studies in the 1960s) and I discovered Physics. I went there knowing that I love math and I wanted to apply it in some way,” he said. “In fact, the other thing I often say to young people who ask me how you choose a career is ‘well, think about the things you might like to do when you get up in the morning. But then try a variety of things to see what you’re good at.’”
“Lo and behold, I tried physics and I was good at it. So, I put it together, and if you do that, you’ll have fun every day and you’ll also be successful. I discovered that physics really enables you to understand the universe at all levels, from the most microscopic to the furthest reaches,” Dr McDonald added.
Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, the NRF Chief Executive Officer, delivered the welcome address at the lecture and also touched on academic collaborations. He said, “The growing science, technology and innovation network will increasingly play a key role in the facilitation of research collaboration. These collaborations and other partnerships are heavily anchored in a common understanding, mutual trust, and transparency to effectively deliver on the collaboration outcomes. The key aspect again is for all of us to remember that the collaboration must be meaningful because we’re solving similar problems worldwide and we must find ways of making sure that we work together in a meaningful form. These networks and partnerships are going to keep us in good state.”
Issued by The National Research Foundation