University of Cape Town: 2030 Future Leaders Dinner: celebrating excellence

“You must define what success will look like for you.” This was some of the sage advice of Professor Kelly Chibale, the founder and director of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D), shared during the recent UCT 2030 Future Leaders Dinner.

Professor Chibale, who is an A-rated scientist and holds the South Africa Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Drug Discovery, was invited to deliver the keynote address during the intimate dinner held at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town and attended by 12 future leaders (six were unable to attend), as well as members of the UCT executive and representatives from the Research Office.

The UCT 2030 Future Leaders Programme was launched in 2018 and underlines Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s commitment to nurture up-and-coming scholars from various faculties with a view to securing sustainable future leadership for the university.

Professor Phakeng opened the proceedings with a warm welcome, reminding attendees that UCT’s success is ultimately the success of the future leaders.

“Here, we pursue excellence with transformation. They are not opposites, they work together.”

“No university is perfect, but some universities are great,and what makes them great is the people in them,” she said. “People respect us because of you. They take us seriously because of you and what you do.”

Phakeng added that as South Africans we tend to neglect celebrating excellence, but that it is one of the crucial pillars on which UCT’s future continues to be built.

“In our Vision 2030, we believe that excellence is non-negotiable,” she said. “Here, we pursue excellence with transformation. They are not opposites, they work together.”

In pursuit of ongoing excellence

Chibale’s inspiring keynote address focused on the concept of excellence – not only achieving it, but also sustaining it.

He started his academic career at the University of Zambia in 1987 and went on to obtain his PhD in Synthetic Organic Chemistry from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom (UK) in 1992. This was followed by postdoctoral stints at the University of Liverpool, the Scripps Research Institute, the University of California San Francisco, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and Pfizer in the UK.

He joined UCT as a chemistry lecturer in 1996 and worked his way up to the position of full professor by 2007. During his time at UCT, he also obtained a National Research Foundation (NRF) A-rating, was appointed SARChI Chair in Drug Discovery, became the director of the South African Medical Research Council’s (SAMRC) Drug Discovery and Research Unit and founded H3D.

At the dinner, he said there are no formulas for success and that every person’s journey unfolds differently, hence it is important to determine what success will look like for you as early on in your career as possible.

He shared four elements that he found to be key to attaining and sustaining excellence during his career so far:

Build capacity through the pursuit of excellence. Someday, a young researcher’s focus will have to be on raising funds and lab work will have to be left in the hands of trusted trainees and colleagues.
Prosecute globally-aligned projects. “[This] not only helps you avoid duplication, but also allows you to tap into a network of partners or centres of excellence,” Chibale said. This is advantageous in terms of gaining both expertise and funding.
Have a strong publication strategy. “Focus on publishing in the top journals in your field,” Chibale said. “Even when a top journal turns you down, you keep going back and learn from their feedback. One day you’re going to figure out what they want.”
Build network. “Whether you like it or not, life is who you know,” he concluded. “Do not underestimate the power of networks and focus on developing these relationships over time.”
He added that going to conferences is a great way to network and that being friendly is one of the keys to being successful in this regard.

Advice for the road ahead

In conclusion, Chibale shared that the character traits of humility and consistency are invaluable in achieving and sustaining success.

Regarding humility, he said it is of the utmost importance to “know what you know you know”, but also to “know what you don’t know”. While the former gives you confidence in your abilities, the latter empowers you to gain the knowledge required to succeed.

Along with this, being consistent in your efforts will ensure that you do not get swayed by opportunities that do not align with your goals.

“If you have a vision to do something, you have to stick to that vision that you received,” he said. “When I made up my mind about what I wanted to do, I refused to look to the left or the right. That consistency is so important – you have got to be convinced.”