Dr Sreejarani Kesavan Pillai
A fascination with chemistry and a curiosity to know the basic science of materials around her, unwittingly paved the way for Dr Sreejarani Kesavan Pillai to find herself at the core of the research where discoveries begin.
A senior researcher at the National Centre for Nano-structured Materials at the CSIR, Pillai literally only realised the excitement inherent to nanotechnology post doctoral, when she started on a project based on carbon nanotubes at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria.
Until then, in 2006, she pursued the field of chemistry and obtained a PhD in physical chemistry at the Cochin University of Science and Technology in her country of birth, India.
“Nanotechnology was an entirely new research field to me at that time,” she says. During her work at TUT she was involved in the synthesis, purification and characterisation of single and multi-walled carbon nanotubes.
“Research on this material made me realise the potential growth of this science in the future manufacturing technology.”
She joined the CSIR as a senior researcher in nanoscience in 2007 and is involved in various projects based on carbon nanotubes and other nano-structured materials. “I am fascinated by the architecture and properties of nanomaterials, which hold such immense possibilities for future applications.”
The exciting and diverse area of nanotechnology, which is considered pivotal for all future research, comprises the study and manipulation of tiny material structures with at least one dimension roughly between 1 and 100 nm. In context, the comparative size of a nanometer to a meter is the same as that of a marble to the size of the earth.
Over the past few years, nanotechnology has radically changed the fields of physical science and engineering and is extensive in its potential impact that encompasses physics, chemistry, materials science and engineering, as well as biology and medicine.
In South Africa, one of the first two centres has been established at the CSIR in 2007 and activities are aligned to the focus of the Department of Science and Technology’s Nanotechnology Strategy.
The focus of the CSIR centre, the National Centre for Nano-structured Materials, is on materials and energy research. These areas have been identified in the National Nanotechnology Strategy as key in the development of nanoscience and nanotechnology in order to effect social development.
Pillai maintains that it is an honour to be associated with the research community at the CSIR. She was a CSIR research fellow in India, as well during her PhD studies. “The opportunity to do postdoctoral research in one of the most promising fields - nanomaterial science - attracted me to South Africa. The fast-growing nanoscience centre also gives me a great opportunity to work with young and diverse research teams on different projects based on nanomaterials.”
In contrast with nanotechnology, where there is plenty of room at the bottom in the science of the small stuff, Pillai finds balancing the roles of a wife, mother and researcher “mammoth”. The secret of also making a success of this, however, lies in proper time management and good planning. “Then it is a pleasure,” she says, explaining how she manages stringent research and family responsibilities. “I always find enough time to spend with my family in the evening.”
She believes that, properly planned, a woman can get enough time for research activities. Add interest and she can achieve great successes and can compete successfully with counterparts.
Pillai would like to see more women in science. “In any society there are women of great intelligence and talent and it is unfair not to maximise this by keeping them away from the community. More women representation is required in the scientific field whereby one can take advantage of the support offered by the government and other funding agencies. This can be encouraged by increasing the number of women in postgraduate studies, research and leadership positions,” she says.
She dreams of taking even bigger strides in her field of research. “I will feel fulfilled if my work can contribute to nanoscience and uphold the traditions of the CSIR. I would like to disseminate the experimental findings for the benefit of the national and international science fraternity. In five years’ time our team must be able to play a significant role in the field of nanotechnology and I hope to be one of the leading researchers with a great impact on nanoscience research in South Africa.”