Rite of passage for young UCT scholars

24 October 2005

In a venture to further inspire and inspirit burgeoning researchers, the university has announced a new incentive for young scholars, the UCT Fellows' Award. The first five recipients were announced formally at last Thursday's dinner for the UCT Fellows, a cohort of senior scholars.

The five are: Dr Natasha Distiller (English language and literature); Dr Tania Douglas (human biology); Associate Professor Bongani Mayosi (medicine); Dr Justin O'Riain (zoology); and Associate Professor Fiona Ross (social anthropology)

The annual conferment, which will be presented by Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Njabulo Ndebele, recognises young academics - preferably younger than 40 - who have made a significant independent contribution to research in their field.

The five (up to six nominees may be accepted each year) were selected by a committee of current UCT Fellows, representing a broad range of academic disciplines, and the chair of the University Research Committee, Professor Cheryl de la Rey.

Distiller was honoured for her impressive body of publications, including her recent book South Africa, Shakespeare and Post-Colonial Culture, which the committee believes represent a substantial intervention into a number of cognate disciplines: post-colonial studies, Shakespearean adaptation and transmission, and culture politics.

She welcomed the award, particularly in the light of an academic's wider responsibilities. "It's three very demanding jobs in one, juggling teaching, research and the administrative and bureaucratic demands of the university, so it's very valuable to have something like this fellowship available to young academics."

Douglas concurred. "It is an honour to have my research recognised by this group of eminent scholars. Interdisciplinary research is not an individual undertaking, hence I would like to acknowledge the stimulating and supportive environment created by my colleagues in the MRC/UCT Medical Imaging Research Unit."

In nominating her, the committee referred to her "significant" contribution to science, engineering and technology at UCT over the past five years. Her research addresses major public health problems like foetal alcohol syndrome and TB.

Mayosi's work in identifying the genetic basis of certain cardiomyopathies and cardiovascular risk factors is well document and led to his National Research Foundation P-rating last year. This award is probably his most important one since.

"It is said that the prophet is not recognised by their people. So getting this type of recognition from your local community of scholars takes some doing and the recognition from the UCT Fellows, who arguably represent the leading edge of the intelligentsia of South Africa, is particularly pleasing."

O'Riain's ground-breaking research into the social organisation of naked mole rats saw him follow the life trajectories of hundreds of these mammals, which have a eusocial system akin to bees and termites, proving that a small percentage are programmed to leave their natal burrows and infiltrate the defence systems of foreign colonies.

He says he has been in a building phase since joining UCT in 2002, with four PhD and four master's students in his first three years here. "I have had precious little time to write my own papers, but spend most of it helping them design their research and write their own papers. So I would say that this award represents an acknowledgement of what I have already achieved and a vote of confidence that with my current retinue of workers I am building towards future successes."

Ross was nominated for her expertise in ethnographic enquiry and research around domesticity and housing as well as for her representations of political activism with a focus on gender issues.

"It's a great honour to be included among UCT's research fellows: I little imagined when I came to UCT as an undergraduate that such an honour might be mine. It's a little daunting! I really care about social anthropology and doing the kind of research this discipline makes possible. It's wonderful that that's recognised in this award, and I'm grateful for the nomination and to my very supportive colleagues and research participants."

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