A PhD partnership between the Durham Centre for Soft Matter and a South African Universities Soft Matter Community

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Chemistry


Soft matter and polymers are ubiquitous in modern life! Be it manufactured plastic products (polymers), food (colloids), paint and other decorative coatings (thin films and coatings), contact lenses (hydrogels), shampoo and washing powder (complex mixtures of the above) or biomaterials such as proteins and membranes, polymers and soft matter touch almost every aspect of human activity and underpin processes and products across all industrial sectors. In the UK for example - soft matter and polymers underpin industrial sectors which account for nearly 20% of UK GDP and over 1.1M UK employees. Soft matter and polymers are of fundamental social and economic value!

In 2014 the Durham Centre for Soft Matter, as lead organization was awarded (with Leeds and Edinburgh Universities) an EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces (SOFI CDT) which will train, in total 80 PhD, students in five cohorts. The ambition of SOFI CDT is to provide a broad, multidisciplinary PhD training experience across all areas of soft matter science, with industry-focussed transferable skills and business awareness alongside a challenging PhD research project to enable graduating PhD students to have high impact careers in industry. The wider SOFI community comprises of a network of 15-20 industrial partners, from SMEs to multi-billion multinationals and a network of overseas academic partners, including Stellenbosch University (SU). A key activity for all SOFI CDT PhD students is the opportunity to participate in three-month PhD student exchanges with the overseas partners - starting in 2016.

The current proposal will build a partnership between the Durham Centre for Soft Matter/SOFI CDT and the emerging polymer/soft matter community in South Africa with a key aim to offer a focal point for capacity building, enhanced collaboration and the development of a long-term, sustainable partnership. The Polymer Science group at Stellenbosch University is a recognized Centre of Excellence and pre-eminent Polymer Science group in Africa. As such, and given the established links to Durham University, it is best placed to coordinate the activities of the consortium of South African universities.

At the heart of this new partnership will be students. 10 PhD students each from the UK and South Africa will undertake a 3-month research and training exchange visit hosted by a research group with complementary and relevant expertise. As part of the exchange program and alongside a short term research project the students will participate in;

i) Annual Durham-SA research symposia in both countries at which staff and students will present their research.
ii) Student-led outreach activities, in particular involving student visits to underprivileged schools in South Africa.
iii) A program of social and cultural activities

A more limited program of short staff exchange visits will promote a longer term partnership which will be sustained beyond the period of Newton Funding.

We believe that the enhanced PhD experience will significantly benefit the students in question and offer them the skills and contacts required to be successful in an increasingly global research environment.

Planned Impact

In many respects the impact of this new partnership between the Durham Centre for Soft Matter and the soft matter/polymer community in South Africa, will be as strongly felt by the wider community as by the academic community.

One of the core aims of the proposed partnership is to promote long-term sustainable growth, capacity building and economic development in South Africa via the varied program of activities proposed. Examples of the proposed partnership activities and how they will have a social and economic impact are given below;

i) The support of research and innovation capacity will be enhanced through PhD exchanges between Durham University, a world leading centre of Soft Matter research and a consortium of South African Universities with research interests in Polymers and Soft Matter. Moreover and in particular, increasing the skills and knowledge base of South African PhD students in the wider field of Soft Matter by providing research and training opportunities within the interdisciplinary SOFI CDT will give such students the skills and experience to make a significant impact in their future careers.

ii) Outreach activities - Outreach training will be provided in Durham to visiting students. This training will involve a half-day visit from a local school with objectives being to convey the social and economic relevance of soft matter science coupled with an added cultural context - i.e. including some cultural references to life in South Africa. On return to South Africa, each joint cohort of UK/SA students will visit at least one underprivileged school in South Africa to mirror the outreach activities in the UK and to engage and enthuse the school children about the sciences. In this way the partnership will deliver science communications skills to the PhD students but of equal importance, the PhD students will get the opportunity to promote science in the wider community and especially to children in their formative years. Schools who participate in the outreach activities, which are aimed at broadening the knowledge base of school children in underprivileged schools, will benefit, as will the children themselves who will be encouraged to consider a career in science.

iii) Soft matter and especially polymers is already a significant sector in SA. The SA consortium boasts a number of industrial collaborations in the polymer sector including the manufacturing of coatings/paints (Kansai Plascon), polyolefins (Sasol) and paper/cartonage (Mpact). Representatives of South African companies working in the field of polymers and soft matter will be invited to participate in partnership events providing an invaluable opportunity to interact with an international network of world-leading scientists and students and to learn of the research results of the various PhD projects. Such events will be support by IOM3 Southern Africa which has significant links to relevant industries. More broadly, and in the longer term we would expect the industrial soft matter/polymer sector to benefit from the potential employment of PhD students with a broader range of both scientific and transferable skills.


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Description A number of PhD students from both Durham University in the UK, and from a small network of South African Universities, coordinated by the university of Stellenbosch, participated in three month research visits. Thus PhD students from Durham spent three months doing short term research projects hosted by a research group in South Africa, whilst students studying in South Africa spent three months studying in Durham. The broad scientific area that all of the students are interested in is the field of soft matter. Soft matter is a very broad class of materials which includes natural and synthetic polymers, biological material, colloids, gels and emulsions. Each student was working in a different project in this very broad field and by participating in this programme each student learned new skills or worked with instrumentation or techniques which are not available in their home department.

For example one student visiting Durham learned how to synthesize polymers using anionic polymerisation, a technique of significant commercial importance but one only carried out in a handful of university labs around the world. A student from Durham spent time in Stellenbosch sharing his expertise via the development of new rheological characterisation techniques and therefore expanding capability at the University of Stellenbosch.

The key objectives of this PhD exchange programme were to provide PhD students (from both the UK and South Africa) a unique opportunity to learn new skills, widen their network of collaborators, contribute to research in an international context and benefit from the cultural experience of living and working in a foreign country. For the students who have participated, these objectives have been met.

A second set of objectives were to enable a number of staff visits between the UK and SA to develop and build sustainable collaborations. Once again, where staff have engaged this objective has been met, and in notable case a sustainable collaboration between academic staff in the Department of Chemistry at Durham, and the Department of Physics at Stellenbosch has emerged. The Durham team have successfully applied for PhD studentship support from a Durham based Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT), a student has now been recruited to the project and the project will be supported by the Department of Physics in Stellenbosch. It is likely that the student in question will spend up to 3 months on a research visit to Stellenbosch during his PhD.
Exploitation Route Many or most of the findings emerging from these rather short term research visits are unlikely to generate significant impact beyond the confines of the specific PhD project.
Sectors Other

Description PhD Exchange Partnership 
Organisation University of Stellenbosch
Country South Africa 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution I was the PI and coordinator of the PhD exchange programme with the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa and other South African universities. I also acted as host for two visiting PhD students.
Collaborator Contribution Professor Harald Pasch in the Department of Polymer Science at the University of Stellenbosch coordinated, in South Africa, the PhD partnership.
Impact This collaboration involved members of academic staff at Durham University with interests in Soft Matter and specifically staff within the departments of Chemistry, Physics and Biology. Academic staff at the University of Stellenbosch with similar research interests were involved. So far one publication (https://doi.org/10.3390/polym10091036) has emerged from this partnership but i believe further manuscripts are being prepared.
Start Year 2015