Mr Xavier von Stein, a former Somerset College learner, received the prestigious S2A3 medal for the best MSc student in natural sciences at Stellenbosch University in 2016.
The S2A3 medal is awarded annually by the Southern African Society for the Advancement of Science to the best MSc student in the natural sciences at each of South Africa's tertiary institutions.
Mr Von Stein, who grew up in Stellenbosch, says he initially started out with a BSc in biology and biotechnology. But, after being exposed to physics in his first year, decided to change tack.
"Out of all the first year modules, physics was the one I enjoyed the most. I found the problem-solving aspect particularly appealing," he says.
For his MSc in laser physics he explored what happens to a particular group of photoactive molecules after absorbing light.
He explains: "These molecules are photochromic, meaning that they undergo a change in color after absorbing light (similarly to ophthalmic transition lenses). To understand what happens after these molecules absorb light and why they change color, we used ultrafast spectroscopy to look at the molecular dynamics that occur."
This is no easy task, as these processes take place in the order of a millionth of a billionth of a second. This is also the first time that these molecules have been studied on an ultrafast time scale.
"This unique dataset has provided new insights and we were able to contribute to the fundamental understanding of these molecules," he adds.
Apart from his studies, Xavier is passionate about music, sculpting and is also an avid motorcyclist.
His advice to students interested in physics?
"There is no substitute for hard work, but the research topic and the people you choose to work with are equally important. The combination of these two factors is crucial in facilitating a stimulating and successful research environment."
On the photo above, Xavier von Stein. Photo: Anton Jordaan