Underhill picks up major national accolade

04 June 2012 | Story by Newsroom

UCT's Emeritus Professor Les Underhill received the prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award for 2011 at a ceremony in Johannesburg last week, in so doing becoming the fourth UCT and twelfth overall recipient of the award.

Dr Les Underhill Dr Les Underhill
Then: The then Dr Les Underhill is capped in 1973 by then UCT chancellor, Harry Oppenheimer. Now: Emer Prof Les Underhill receives his Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award for 2011 from Mary Slack, chairperson of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.

The Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Awards were established by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust in 2001 to commemorate the Trust's founder, and especially to recognise his efforts to support human and intellectual development, to advance scholarship and encourage ideas. The award is described as a very special investment to encourage and acknowledge excellence in scholarship in all its forms, and has been called the top award for research on the African continent.

The honour comes with some special memories for Underhill '“ when he graduated with his PhD in mathematical statistics in 1973, it was Oppenheimer who capped him.

It is a great honour and privilege to be linked to this amazing person once more, in this remarkable way," said Underhill.

Having "drifted far from" his roots in mathematical statistics into a new discipline known as statistical ecology '“ "where we put statistics into biology and biology into statistics" '“ Underhill is now director of UCT's internationally acclaimed Animal Demography Unit (ADU).

The Oppenheimer award, which carries a monetary purse of up to R1 million, will go towards setting up early warning systems for biodiversity in South Africa, reports Underhill. The "big idea" is to contribute towards the development of a toolkit for biodiversity monitoring.

The measurements taken by ADU team members and its thousands of citizen scientists can now be used to index biodiversity on an annual basis, he explains. For example, the ADU is turning its bird atlas project, a collaboration with the South African National Biodiversity Institute and BirdLife South Africa, into annual maps of bird distribution, so that scientists can be alerted to problems as they arise.

This way, says Underhill, they can monitor the range expansion of the Common Myna and the range contraction of the Secretarybird.

The award is, if anything, a testament to the work of many partners, he adds.

"I am hugely grateful to the people who have facilitated this process: my postgraduate students and staff, and the citizen scientists of the ADU."

Professor Danie Visser, deputy vice-chancellor responsible for research, sang Underhill's praises, highlighting the ADU's philosophy of community involvement.

"We are extremely proud of, and thankful to, Les Underhill," said Visser. "Not only has his vision of 'citizen science' shown how the broader community can become seriously involved in the work of the university, but it has produced data sets that are indispensable to the future of our continent."

Through his work, Underhill has also made the ADU a sought-after destination for young researchers.

"His interdisciplinary approach and huge enthusiasm for his work has enabled him to attract a very large number of highly talented master's and PhD students," noted Visser, "making him one of the heroes in our quest to produce the next generation of scientists."

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