College of Science, Engineering & Technology

A potent mix for a power couple

Professors Ajay and Shivani Mishra

It was chemistry that brought professors Ajay and Shivani Mishra together, but it is "the chemistry beyond chemistry" that has propelled the couple and their careers ever since they completed their first joint research project.

"I found I was reading his mind and he was reading my mind," says Shivani, recalling their first chemistry research project, conducted from 2003 to 2005 for the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. "The chemistry between us was beyond chemistry."

"The project in India was about to end and she accepted my lifetime project," says Ajay - his marriage proposal, in other words. This powerful synergy has produced remarkable results.

At the Unisa Research & Innovation Awards earlier this year, Ajay, a C2-rated scientist, was honoured as a recipient of the prestigious Chartered Scientist (CSci) and Fellow member recognition by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

On the same evening, Shivani received a Women in Research Leadership Award and an award for her C2 rating.

The Mishras, both part of the Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability (NanoWS) research unit at the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, agree that their personal relationship has greatly benefited their research.


Research benefits from personal rapport

"Sharing and caring is what we have been doing and it is very advantageous," says Shivani. "We can share the knowledge, find new solutions to difficult problems and critique each other."

She recalls the time early in their relationship when Ajay read an article she had written from her PhD in organic chemistry and submitted for publication.

"He saw it and started laughing. He said the way I was writing, no one would accept my article. The reviewer did not accept it. I could see that his (her husband’s) words had too much of strength. Even today, I will not listen to anybody else, but I listen to what he says and follow him - although not blindly."

Ajay elaborates. "I tried to explain that a picture on the wall needs to be framed. Her writing skills were not the problem. The question was how to present. It needed a frame."

Shivani has since published over 75 articles in scientifically accredited international research journals, along with more than 30 book chapters.

Meanwhile, Ajay has learnt as much from Shivani as she from him. "What I like very much about her is she is ready to take any kind of challenge, and when I have a difficult research problem, she makes it so simple. And she can read my mind. When I am struggling to finish an article, she will say, 'I will look after the kids'."

The Mishras have two daughters, Anchal (10) and Akriti (7), both of whom - not surprisingly - have scientific leanings. "Anchal is more scientist than child," says Ajay. "When she was two-and-a-half years old, I had a very nice phone that she put in the water and told me the phone is swimming."


The elements of success

Both parents shoulder an equal share of family responsibilities, which is a vital part of their personal and research success, especially when one or the other is travelling abroad. Ajay is an adjunct professor at Jiangsu University in China and a visiting professor at Robert Gordon University in Scotland, while Shivani is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a Fellow of the International Congress of Environment Research, and a member of scientific bodies such as the American Chemical Society.

"When he goes overseas, I look after the children and when I go, he does," she says. "I can cook a few things now," he says, adding that he learnt to make pancakes from YouTube.

Apart from their policy of sharing responsibilities, they are extremely organised. "We always have a proper plan for the day and everything is organised. We do not appreciate a disorganised home," Shivani says.

The same goes for their approach to work, she adds. "We are proactive. We know that in December, a funding call will be coming up. We know it and we try to pre-plan and contact our collaborators in January or February. We don’t wait for the project to be announced. We are ready when it is announced."

Says Ajay: "Even when we are supervising students, we have a plan for each student. Most of the students we jointly supervise get cum laude. If you design properly and assign responsibilities, everything is much easier. We sit down with our students and distribute responsibilities so that we are all going in the same direction."

This formula clearly works, as does Unisa’s willingness to recognise its researchers for a job well done.


What appreciation from Unisa means

Asked how they feel about internal awards such as those presented during the annual Research & Innovation Week, the Mishras say this is much appreciated.

"If you are performing and your management is supporting you, it encourages you to achieve the best of the best. That is the beauty of working at Unisa," Ajay says. "Last week, I was awarded a grant of close to R1 million and received an e-mail from Prof Mandla Makhanya (the Principal and Vice-Chancellor), congratulating me. I wrote back and said, 'Thank you very much for the appreciation and support which encourages us to achieve the best.' The VC replied again and said, 'Kindly note that you are in fact our pride as a university.' That support shows Unisa management is looking after you."

"When we are working, awards are never in our minds and never will be. We just try our best to perform," says Shivani. "But if people recognise us and think we deserve it, we are really happy. It motivates and encourages us."

* By Clairwyn van der Merwe, Contract writer, Directorate of Research Support

Publish date: 2019/05/06