Four score Science Oscars

07 June 2004

Winners circle: (From left) Prof Wieland Gevers, Prof Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, Prof Cheryl de la Rey, Prof Iqbal Parker and Dr Coleen Moloney.

UCT produced four of the main winners at a glittering National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) Awards ceremony at Caesars on May 28, with guest of honour the new Minister of Science and Technology Mosibudi Mangena in attendance. Taking top honours in their categories were Professor Wieland Gevers, Professor Iqbal Parker, Professor Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan and Dr Coleen Moloney, the latter both of the zoology department and both members of South African Women in Science and Engineering.

Commenting on the value of these awards Chinsamy-Turan said: "As scientists one is often recognised by ones peers through papers published at conferences, but the general public rarely knows or appreciates the work we do. However, in a country like ours where there is a dire need for human resources in science (especially among women and blacks) recognition by national bodies like the NSTF serves to raise the profile of scientists and perhaps will help young people see scope for careers in science."

According to the DVC for research and innovation, Professor Cheryl de la Rey, the ceremony turned out to be a great occasion for UCT. "Not only did we dominate the listing of finalists in the brochure, called the Who's Who of Science, Engineering and Technology in South Africa in 2003, the UCT table ended up with the biggest collection of trophies. Several sponsors and agencies like Eskom, the NRF, CSIR and the MRC noticed this."

She said it was pleasing that the accolades had acknowledged excellence across the spectrum of researchers from relatively junior to the most senior.

"Prof Gevers has undoubtedly made a major lifetime contribution to science and technology in South Africa and the awards to the younger researchers are an affirmation that UCT has several rising stars who are making outstanding contributions."

Prof Wieland Gevers, interim director of the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, won the Individual over a Lifetime Award. Gevers was honoured for his stature as a researcher, which has brought him international recognition in a number of areas covering futile cycles, antibiotic synthesis, muscle cell development and cholesterol metabolism. Biochemistry in South Africa owes much of its standing to his work. He has been an outstanding teacher and mentor to students at all levels. He progressed to become an academic administrator who made an enormous contribution to national higher education policy development and practice since 1994. He steered the new Academy of Science of South Africa to full recognition in the country and abroad and also pioneered the regional consortia of South African Universities and Technikons. Through the South African Universities' Vice Chancellors' Association he has developed quality frameworks and quality assurance in academic programmes. The NSTF trophy takes its place alongside four gold medals, won for his scholarly work, and two honorary doctorates.

Dr Coleen Moloney, senior lecturer in zoology, won her award for research capacity development over the past five to 10 years, primarily for her efforts to encourage black students to pursue studies in marine science, work that began in 1998 while she was employed by Marine and Coastal Management (MCM). Through MCM, she was also involved in planning an educational initiative linked to the South Africa/United States (Mbeki-Gore) Binational Commission. Two black students went to the US on study visits. "However the major effort to encourage black students to pursue marine studies in South Africa was based on our perception that there were too few opportunities for personal contact between students and researchers. A collaboration with her colleagues from UCT, MCM, the Universities of Fort Hare, the Western Cape and the NRF resulted in a small project within the Benguela Ecology Programme, under the auspices of the South African Network for Coastal and Oceanic Research. Through this some third-year and honours students from Fort Hare came to Cape Town for experiential training at MCM. Many proceeded to postgraduate study and three have graduated with MSc degrees. The knock-on effects have encouraged other black students to opt for studies in marine science. Reflecting on the honour of the NSFT award, Moloney paid tribute to her collaborators and a "great bunch of students".

Another of zoology's senior lecturers, Prof Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, won the senior black researcher (women) during the past five to 10 years award, for her contribution to determining the growth rate of dinosaurs, through analysis of fossil bones, tissues and the understanding of the biology of extinct animals. Her work includes a critique of the use of bone depositional data to estimate growth rates, a widely-used method in this field, which has allowed new deductions to be made. Her other significant contributions are through her work in promoting science education. In particular, as the director of the Natural History Museum of Cape Town, she implemented a series of exhibits, Go Bats, Mineral Mania, Engraved Ochre and Fossil Stones, to change public perception that science is dull. These exhibitions have made a significant contribution to public understanding of science and technology.

Prof Iqbal Parker was awarded the senior black researcher (men) during the past five to 10 years. His work has focused on squamous cell carcinoma of the oesophagus, a disease with a high incidence rate among black males in South Africa. His group identified the Human Papillomavirus present in 48% of cases examined. Their attention turned to the development of a non-invasive PCR-based brush biopsy technique to detect the presence of the virus in normal individuals who can thus be monitored. Work on the medical treatment of the cancer is also taking place as part of the broader research programme into carcinogenesis and tumour metastasis. Parker agreed that the award generated pride. "It's a great feeling that your research is being recognised by your peers. Most of us do our research in our own quiet way and this opportunity also served to showcase the work we're doing on cancer of the oesophagus."

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