I had the opportunity to go back to South Africa in May this year. The visit was a mix of things and one of them was talking about my research in Reinforcement Learning to multiple audiences in SA. I visited a number of places/institutions and this is a report back on those.
CSIR is the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. It is the premier research organization in South Africa and is funded by the South African government. Before starting my PhD journey I worked for the Modeling and Digital Science: Information Security group at CSIR (link). I was hosted at the CSIR by my old group under the leadership of Vincent Nelwamondo. The talk was well attended by multiple different groups from the CSIR and I enjoyed the conversations and questions after.
There is a lot of great stuff being worked on at CSIR with very young people pushing the boundaries in research that is relevant for the country. The reason I put in that last bit, is that there is a lot of doom and gloom that people tend to push out about South Africa but my visit to South Africa brought me back to the ground and got me to get a clearer picture of what has been going on since I have been away. There are challenges, especially with youth and unemployment.
At Wits I was hosted by the IEEE student branch and the talk was attended by people from the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science departments. I hope to keep in touch with the people I met and talked to about possible collaborations.
We arrived on the first day of the Wits Arts and Literature Experience (WALE). So got the chance to experience the parade and reconnect with an old friend Peter Maher. It is also Wits' 90th year anniversary so Peter has bene in the thick of things working on the celebrations.
University of South Africa (UNISA)
Well this was an interesting one. Initially I only setup a meeting with Prof. M. Setati just to talk about the higher education landscape from her perspective. While we were talking about how she saw things and her experiences at UNISA (She was a Witsie previously) she invited me to give a talk on innovation. I had not previously scheduled this talk and given I was only in South Africa for 3 weeks I ended up having to give the talk on my last day in SA. UNISA is a different type of university in South Africa. A majority of their students are remote and attend through distance learning methods. Even given this UNISA is working towards innovating in the space of delivering education even to the remotest areas. We ended up talking about the developments in online education delivery in the last few months and what the changes potentially mean to the South African landscape.
The talk did not center on my research per se, but mostly on some projects I had worked on while at Rutgers that I thought could give some insights into innovation. I enjoyed giving the talk as it forced me to think about some of my side projects in a different way as I normally pitched them to people who already knew what the projects were. You can read a blurb about my visit to UNISA here (link)
I did not really visit UJ but had a long meeting with the Executive Dean of Engineering, Prof. T. Marwala, who happens to be my previous Masters advisor. The meeting was long and also ended up having multiple venues thrown in . It was great to catch up as well as get to grips with what UJ is doing on the engineering research and teaching side of things. UJ is pushing hard and it shows. It will definetly be giving the established universities in South Africa a run for their money in the next few years.
Overall the visit was great. It was great to be home. It was great to meet new people. It was great to share my work(s) with everyone. As I said South Africa has a lot of talented young people they are all working hard. Sometimes we just have to cut ourselves some slack an focus on the positives to move us forward. We will take care of the challenges and not focus too much on artworks 🙂
Wait there's more:
I finally bought and read Jacob Dlamini's "Native Nostalgia". Its a great book and really got me to think of my experience growing up in a Township in South Africa. Info about the book here: Amazon: Native Nostalgia
Amazon: Native Nostalgia
The trip was sponsored generously by the Fulbright Science Technology Award.