Dr Japie van Zyl remembered as one of SU’s greatest graduates

Dr Japie van Zyl, who passed away on 26 August this year, can be regarded as one of the Faculty of Engineering’s most distinguished and outstanding alumni. This is also the opinion of Prof Christo Viljoen former Dean of Engineering and Vice-Rector at Stellenbosch. He says: “Japie is one of the greatest of SU’s graduates, not only in Engineering, but among all alumni.”

Dr van Zyl obtained an HonsBEng in Electrical Engineering cum laude at Stellenbosch University in 1979, and an MS in Electrical Engineering (1983) and a PhD in Electrical Engineering (1986) at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, USA.

This exceptional alumnus is fondly remembered by his alma mater. Prof Viljoen, reminisces: “In every final-year group of Engineering students, there will always be one or two who will stand out above the others, and whom lecturers will always remember. Japie van Zyl is one of those. Coming from Outjo in the (then) South West Africa (now Namibia), his unique Afrikaans pronunciation and expressions were striking. But Japie will be remembered for other reasons: his extraordinary intellect, his exceptional mathematical insights, and the neat handwriting in which he completed assignments, tests and exam papers. Above all, I remember him because of his cheerful disposition: Japie always made jokes and laughed a lot. I only saw him upset once: when he achieved a ‘meager’ 80% in an electronics test!

“We kept in touch as he advanced to the highest levels in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This was mainly done via the late Prof Jan du Plessis, to a large extent Japie’s mentor and lifelong friend. Jan was South Africa’s microsatellite pioneer who made a name for himself with Sunsat and Sumbandilasat. Their friendship was strengthened by their interest in space engineering and the fact that they hailed from the same country.

“During the celebratory dinner in December 2015, when Japie received a well-deserved honorary doctorate in Engineering from Stellenbosch University, he came to me and told me with gusto about an incident during his student days in Stellenbosch – an incident that I, in all honesty, cannot remember. He, and the student with whom he was partnered in an Electronics practical, had made a mistake and they called for my help. Then, according to him, I apparently exclaimed with a ‘goodness gracious, Japie, what on earth have you done?’. He says that this remark instilled in him a habit to always double-check that everything was done correctly before testing his designs.

Prof PW van der Walt (also a former Dean of Engineering) tells of his admiration for Japie van Zyl’s skills as a student. Here is one of the anecdotes he recalls. “An exam in one of the subjects I taught during his honour’s year required pages and pages of calculations. Japie submitted an answer script with only two or three places where the numbers were crossed out neatly with a ruler, and which was otherwise faultless. I have never seen such a tour de force before or since.”

Prof Herman Steyn (Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering) met Japie when they were both Maties Engineering students residing in Huis Marais. He elaborates: “During the early 1980s Japie went to America with a bursary to do his master’s degree at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). After completing his studies, Dr Charles Elachi, his supervisor, asked him if he was not interested in doing a PhD. Japie replied that he did not have the $10 000 per year to enrol for a PhD, to which Dr Elachi replied: ‘That is the most stupid excuse I have ever heard!’ With Dr Elachi’s support, Japie then continued with his PhD under Dr Elachi, who later became the Director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Caltech. Recognising Japie’s engineering and intellectual ability, Dr Elachi ensured a position for him at JPL where Japie later became an Associate Director for Project Formulation and Strategy.

“Even during his very busy schedule at JPL, Japie was always willing to contribute time to his alma mater at Stellenbosch. He served as an Extraordinary Professor at the Department Electrical and Electronic Engineering (since 2006) and on many occasions on his annual trips to South Africa and Namibia, he presented talks to our students on the exploration of Mars and the latest technology, JPL Mars rovers.  He was recognised as a world-leading expert on synthetic aperture radar and received the IEEE Young Engineer Award in 1997. He also agreed a couple of weeks ago to became a non-executive director of CubeSpace, a Stellenbosch University spin-off company, as he was very interested in the work we are doing on small satellite attitude control systems competing in the international market.

“Some of the quotes Japie made to students were: ‘No country can compete internationally without a solid base of science and engineering’, ‘If you have a dream pursue it, but it will demand hard work and perseverance’ and ‘Do not try and impress your teachers or parents, but compete against yourself to always keep improving’.”

Prof Steyn concludes: “Japie was down-to-earth and friendly; always approachable and willing to help. In my opinion what stands out the most about him are his achievements, his intellect and his knowledge. It is very sad that he passed away at the early age of 63.”

Dr Stéfan van der Walt, Senior Research Data Scientist at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, and son of prof PW van der Walt, can testify and confirm that he also experienced Japie as friendly, approachable and willing to help. He says: “I wanted to visit the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. However, I could not ride on the bus from Caltech campus as I did not have a staff card. So, a colleague lent me his old bicycle, and I set out to cycle the 10 km uphill to the JPL. It was a hot day and the 10 km felt very far. When I arrived at the JPL’s gate, all sweaty and tired, the guard looked at me strangely, but fortunately let me in. The receptionist showed me the internal phone from which I could call Japie. When he answered, I spoke to him in Afrikaans. For a short while there was only silence – and then I heard Japie’s enthusiastic voice saying ‘hang on, I’m coming down to fetch you!’ He showed me around the JPL and we had dinner together at the faculty club. Afterwards, when I discovered that my borrowed bicycle had a flat tire, Japie helped me load the iron horse into the back of his car, and gave me a lift home. It was a wonderful day for a young space enthusiast, and I will never forget his hospitality. As my father said afterwards, it is indeed a special kind of director who makes so much time for an unexpected and unknown visitor!”

In his career, Japie certainly inspired many colleagues as well as students. Dr Elachi noted during an interview on RSG on 6 September: “Japie was a top student in my class and became my teaching assistant. When he finished his PhD, he joined me at JPL and became a close friend. I loved him like a brother. He took over my class and taught for 20 years. In addition to being a brilliant scientist, he was a wonderful mentor – the students loved him, even better than me! He always saw what was beyond the horizon and headed planetary missions and future missions. He will be sorely missed.”

Kalfie van Zyl, wife of the late Japie van Zyl, says that the two of them met when they were still young children. In the above-mentioned radio interview, she commented: “Japie was brilliant, humble and motivated many people. He always wanted to make the impossible possible.”

Photograph: The late Dr Japie van Zyl.