Flanked by his two promoters, Professors Thembela Hillie and Wiets Roos, stands a proud Dr Gebhu Ndlovu of the DST/CSIR National Centre for Nano-structured Materials. He received his PhD in physics from the University of the Free State. More importantly, his investigations of Antimony on Copper ultimately led to the discovery of new structural phases of the system which are temperature dependent and can lead to applications in temperature sensing.
PhDs in physics are not awarded every other day, especially not if your speciality area is in nanotechnology. Add to that the fact that you raked in numerous awards along the way, and you have a remarkable achievement.
Dr Gebhu Ndlovu was awarded his PhD from the University of the Free State (UFS) under supervision of Prof Thembela Hillie, a colleague at the DST/CSIR National Centre for Nano-Structured Materials (NCNSM), and Prof Wiets Roos from UFS.
During the final two years of his studies, he received awards for the most outstanding oral presentation given at the NanoAfrica conference by a PhD student; the Frank Nabarro prize for the most outstanding oral presentation in the field of condensed matter physics and/or materials science delivered at the annual SAIP conference by a doctoral student; the Wirsam Tescan prize for the most exceptional presentation at the 49th annual meeting of the Microscopy Society of Southern Africa, the SMM Instruments prize for the best paper on an innovative microscopy technique at the latter conference, and the CSIR Materials Science and Manufacturing prize for the best doctoral student.
“Together with Prof Hillie, I managed to acquire and present the very first South African atomic resolution results on surfaces, which was recognised by the SMM prize for the best paper on an innovative microscopy technique at an international conference,” says Ndlovu.
His success did not come without hard work. “After having worked three long and hard years on the PhD project, I was called in to hear the news that a project of this kind will require at least five years to complete. But I thought that I should prove my promoter wrong and finished it in less than five years. I had to work at least 18 hours a day, which means I also had to work over weekends in order to complete the project,” says Ndlovu.
The project opened his mind to one of the mysteries of science namely, the manipulation of matter on an atomic scale. His investigations of Antimony on Copper ultimately led to the discovery of new structural phases of the system which are temperature-dependent and can lead to applications in temperature sensing. He presented his work through more than 15 presentations at local conferences and meetings and seven international presentations. He has also published his results in Nano Scale Research Letters.
“In the last year of the project, I thought that I had suffered a major blow when my main supervisor, Prof Hillie, had to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a year. It was at a critical stage of the project. His departure tested my capabilities to work as an individual.”
Ndlovu was prominent in designing one of the first prototypes of the series of electronic chips for gas sensing applications at the NCNSM. He has made a major contribution in understanding the role and interaction of materials at the atomic scale, which include the segregation and atomic resolution at surfaces.
Today, he is one of few researchers in South Africa who has the competence to use Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (STM) and has operated and maintained with success, an ultra-high vacuum variable temperature STM, of which there is only one in the country.
Ndlovu concludes: “I want to mention two supervisors who have had an enormous influence in my professional life as well as having greatly enriched my personal life; they are Professors Thembela Hillie and Wiets Roos. There is not enough ink to detail my debt to them.”
Dr Ghebu Ndlovu