UCT researchers honoured at ‘Oscars of science’

30 June 2017 | Natalie Simon
Top row (R-L): Professor George Ekama, Professor John Ele-Ogo Ataguba. Bottom row (R-L): Professor Martin Wittenberg, Dr Robyn Pickering
Top row (R-L): Professor George Ekama, Professor John Ele-Ogo Ataguba. Bottom row (R-L): Professor Martin Wittenberg, Dr Robyn Pickering

Four UCT researchers were honoured in the annual NSTF-South32 Awards which took place in Johannesburg last night. The awards, known in the South African research community as the ‘Oscars of science’, recognise and reward excellence in science, engineering and technology, and innovation in South Africa. If the calibre of finalists recognised at the awards is anything to go by, South Africa has a great deal to celebrate.

“The NSTF-South32 Awards offer us an annual opportunity to really celebrate the world-changing work South African researchers achieve,” says UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price. “Every day, without much fuss and fanfare, these researchers conduct work that changes people’s lives for the better.”

“We are particularly proud of all our six finalists and four award winners,” says Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalisation at UCT.

“These winners and finalists do not operate in a vacuum. That our researchers performed so well in these awards reflects positively on the entire research endeavour at UCT, especially the great work done by our postgraduate researchers and the research support staff.”

UCT’s winners were:

NSTF-TW Kambule Award for an emerging researcher

Professor John Ele-Ogo Ataguba is based in the Health Economics Unit of the School of Public Health and Family Medicine. Through his work he has made a great contribution to our understanding of health inequalities, social determinants of health and health system equity in Africa. When accepting his award Ataguba said: “I come from very humble beginnings and know what it is like to live in real poverty. In accepting this award I would like to recognise all those who, despite their hard work, are unable to break the bonds of poverty.”

Dr Robyn Pickering, an isotope geochemist in the Department of Geological Sciences, has successfully adapted uranium-lead dating techniques to provide the first set of direct ages for the South African caves in which early human fossils were found. “My dream since undergraduate days was to date local cave sites, and I had to go away (to Europe and Australia) to learn how to do that,” Pickering told the Mail & Guardian. “But I’m excited to be back and help train and inspire a new generation of scientists. Married and with two small children, I am aware that I can be a positive role model for young women. I also want to help ensure that expertise and funding come to South Africa and stay here.”

NSTF-GreenMatter Award

Professor George Ekama is professor of water quality engineering in the Department of Civil Engineering. He has spent over 40 years researching ways to keep South Africa’s water clean and running. Today his work continues to provide much-needed solutions to our country’s serious water problems, while also inspiring the next generation of researchers to pick up the clean-water baton.

Data for Research Award

Professor Martin Wittenberg of the School of Economics is head of DataFirst, which is the leading social science data archive in Africa. It provides researchers with online access to survey and administrative microdata from a number of countries across Africa. “I am proud that DataFirst has made it much easier for young academics to obtain data in a form that is usable for research,” he told the Mail & Guardian. “The data that we distribute is at the core of many of the debates about transformation and development. Furthermore, we run numerous courses to give researchers the skills to be able to do high quality work.” In his acceptance speech, Wittenberg thanked the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) for recognising the importance of data for research.

“We have shown the world we can compete with the very best in science, technology and innovation,” said Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor in her keynote address at the event. She praised the South African research community for their great work, noting that when it comes to innovation, South Africa punches above its weight.

Images of researchers by Michael Hammond

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