Vaughan scoops prestigious Irish science award

14 October 2002
PROFESSOR Kit Vaughan has been selected for an ETS Walton Visitor Award by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Vaughan, who holds the Hyman Goldberg Chair in Biomedical Engineering at UCT, is one of only 14 researchers from around the world – the others are from Canada, the Czech Republic, Japan, the UK and the US – to have received this prestigious award in its inaugural year. The announcement followed a highly competitive selection process involving researchers from around the globe.

Vaughan leaves for Ireland on sabbatical in January, his first in 20 years, and will spend 12 months at University College Dublin.

SFI established the programme to honour the Irish academic Professor Ernest Walton, who shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1951 with John Cockcroft (Walton is the only Irish-born academic to have won a scientific Nobel Prize).

In 1932 they built a linear accelerator and were the first to “split the atom”, achieving a transmutation of the elements – the conversion of lithium into helium – and also verifying Einstein's famous equation, E = mc2.

“As an honours graduate in physics and applied mathematics, I feel especially privileged to be associated with Ernest Walton and his legacy to science”, said Vaughan.

The award is in recognition of Vaughan's distinguished research achievements, his commitment to Ireland as a visiting researcher, and his dedication to the vital bonds joining researchers across the globe.

Dr William Harris, Director General of SFI, explains: “The Irish Government provides some of the largest individual research grants among international agencies worldwide, with a focus on co-operative research programmes in the fields underpinning biotechnology and information and communications technology. We look forward to helping Professor Vaughan have a productive and enjoyable stay in Ireland.”

When asked what he will be doing in Ireland, Vaughan explained: “As a Walton Fellow, this award will enable me to extend my collaboration with Professor Mark O'Malley in the Department of Electronics and Electrical Engineering at University College Dublin.

“We first started working together in 1994 when he was a visiting Fulbright Fellow in my laboratory at the University of Virginia in the US.

“We currently have support from the Wellcome Trust which has enabled us to exchange PhD students and post-doctoral fellows between Cape Town and Dublin. Our research focuses on mathematical analysis of the nervous system and how it controls the muscles.

“During my sabbatical stay in Dublin I will be assisting Professor O'Malley in establishing an exciting interdisciplinary programme called the 'Centre for Neuro Engineering'. This will be a national facility, involving academic institutions and industry, with a five-year budget of Euro 10-million.”

The medical application of this research holds great promise for the diagnosis and treatment of various disorders. “As we can use artificial means to stimulate the muscles, it is important to know how this happens physically, by modelling the process mathematically and implementing it in an engineering setting,” Vaughan elaborated.

Similar technology was used to design pacemakers, which stimulate the cardiac muscles, and which represented a major medical breakthrough in the late 1950s.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Njabulo Ndebele has endorsed Vaughan's selection. “We are very proud of UCT's reputation as a world-class research university and are privileged to have researchers of the calibre of Professor Vaughan among us. This recognition affirms him in a very special way”.

In making the award, SFI have sent Vaughan a framed certificate that includes the Irish expression Le buiochas agus comhghairdeas uainn, which means “with our gratitude and congratulations”.

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