Two men prove they can make a difference, despite the odds against them

Geoffrey Orsak

 Geoffrey C. Orsak

It is easy to get discouraged about the lack of real positive change in our world. I just returned from my own buzzkill, having attended a meeting of preselected academic change agents. For every idea of real needed change (and there were many), the assembled group was able to freely share 10 well thought-out reasons they wouldn’t work — why the system was actually set up to prevent change.

Groups without great leadership tend to decay to cynicism — I am sure you have seen it in your own life and career. Because of this, I have been increasingly interested in singular individuals who have made immense personal commitments to some form of positive change, and against all odds, have done the nearly impossible.

Let me share two stories with you.

Neil Turok is a brilliant theoretical physicist from Cambridge University who studies the big bang. He has published some of the most influential works in modern physics with the likes of Stephen Hawking and a number of Nobel Laureates.

As a native of South Africa, Neil has seen firsthand the poverty and suffering of individuals all across the continent. His vision for real change was simple and clear — build from scratch an education system in Africa so Africans can become part of the world’s scientific and engineering community. As he puts it, his dream is for the next Einstein to be African. Crazy, impossible … yes, if you are so inclined to focus on the barriers.

But in his day job, Neil looks for answers to mysteries beyond our mortal imaginations. So in just six short years, he has created AIMS: African Institute for Mathematical Sciences that is today teaching such advanced topics as bio-informatics, computational theory, information and communication, and disease modeling. African students come to AIMS from nearly every country on the continent with their own dreams of becoming great scientists, engineers, doctors — a strategy that will literally change this continent from the inside out. See this hero on his TED talk at http://designnews.hotims.com/23114-527.

William Kamkwamba is a young man from Mastala, Malawi, a nation nestled between Mozambique and Zambia in Southeast Africa. William had to drop out of school because he couldn’t afford the $80 education fee.

 William Kamkwamba

William Kamkwamba and his original
windmill in Mastala, Malawi.

When William was 14 years old, he saw a picture of a windmill in a book — and without any training whatsoever, built an electricity generating windmill in two months out of found parts from a bicycle, a tractor fan and wooden limbs. Today, William has added solar power and water pumps to provide electricity and clean water for his entire family — single-handedly transforming the lives of the people he loves most.

William, too, has a big dream: To complete his education and then start a company to provide electricity to people across Africa. He is studying at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa and will soon begin on his own journey to bring change to Africa. Don’t miss this fantastic short documentary on William at http://designnews.hotims.com/23114-528.

Why is it that with so many advantages, we haven’t figured out how to bring this kind of change to our country? The challenges of dismal public schools, generational poverty and once strong industries now struggling to compete seem insurmountable. We shouldn’t be looking for someone else to provide the answers. William and Neil show the futility of that approach.


Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of the Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at dean@lyle.smu.edu .