The University of Cape Town’s top scientific minds dominated at this year’s National Research Foundation (NRF) Awards ceremony, accounting for 11 of the 37 academics honoured at the prestigious annual event.
Together with fellow Western Cape academic institutions Stellenbosch University and the University of the Western Cape (UWC), which scooped three and one award respectively, the province took nearly half the total number of honours at the ceremony in Port Elizabeth on 26 September.
The NRF Awards, which recognise and celebrate South African research excellence, are presented in two categories. These include ratings-linked awards, in terms of which researchers qualify for either an A or P rating following evaluation through the peer-review-based NRF-rating system, and special recognition awards.
The latter provide a platform to honour researchers for career achievements and contributions to knowledge creation and dissemination, as well as capacity development and transformation.
In the Special Awards category, Dr Mohlopheni Marakalala, a senior lecturer in the Health Sciences faculty’s pathology department, took one of two Emerging Researcher awards. This award recognises outstanding research excellence by current beneficiaries of Thuthuka grants, a key NRF intervention to support emerging researchers.
Marakalala’s research focuses on understanding immune factors associated with the pathological progression of tuberculosis (TB), with a view to developing new therapies to augment current treatment protocols.
Boosting research capacity
In her nomination, UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said Marakalala aimed to increase educational opportunities in Africa to help address local challenges. He also intended boosting research capacity on the continent by training MSc and PhD students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Hamilton Naki Award also went to UCT, with Associate Professor Edmund February, from the biological sciences department in the Faculty of Science, being honoured for “achieving world-class research performance despite considerable challenges”.
“His research record is impressive by any standards but is astounding given that he did not get to complete his PhD until the age of 42, mainly because his early attempts to gain tertiary education were scuppered due to his involvement in the 1976 student uprisings.”
Endorsing February’s nomination, Phakeng said he had overcome significant difficulties in his life to rise through the academic ranks and become an international leader in the field of plant ecology.
“His research record is impressive by any standards but is astounding given that he did not get to complete his PhD until the age of 42, mainly because his early attempts to gain tertiary education were scuppered due to his involvement in the 1976 student uprisings,” she wrote.
He also faced further difficulties due to poor mathematics education during high school, and lack of access to funding, both direct consequences of the apartheid system, all of which was compounded by his dyslexia.
“He has produced over 60 publications and graduated 14 MScs and four PhD students,” Phakeng added.
P ratings go to upcoming researchers younger than 35 who have held a doctorate or equivalent qualification for less than five years at the time of application, and who are considered potential future leaders in their fields internationally. Three went to UCT scientists at this year's event:
A ratings, which demonstrate unequivocal support by their peers for scientists as leading international scholars in their fields of expertise, and for their high quality and impact of recent research outputs, were awarded to:
Acquiring an NRF rating, a world-respected benchmark based on peer reviews, generates considerable acknowledgement and respect for the individual researchers, as well as for their institutions, according to the NRF.
NRF chief executive Dr Molapo Qhobela said the work of these researchers was assessed for, among other things, the quality and impact of their contributions in their fields of study.
“The awards recognise and celebrate the efforts of these outstanding women and men who, through their work, are advancing knowledge, transforming lives and inspiring a nation.”
“The awards recognise and celebrate the efforts of these outstanding women and men who, through their work, are advancing knowledge, transforming lives and inspiring a nation. These are men and women whose work is helping transform South Africa into a knowledge-intensive society where all derive equitable benefit from science and technology,” he said.
Among the other Special Awards winners were Dr Bernard Fanaroff, special adviser and former director of the Square Kilometre Array South Africa (SKA-SA), who got the NRF Lifetime Achievement Award; Natalie Benjamin-Damons (Wits University) and Edward Netherlands (North-West University), who each got Research Excellence Awards for Next Generation Researchers; and Dr Rehana Malgas-Enus (Stellenbosch University), who got the Excellence in Science Engagement Award.
One other P rating was awarded, to Dr Gareth Hempson from the Ndlovu Node at the South African Environmental Observation Network.
Other A-rated researchers for 2018 were Wits University professors Jillian Adler, Lewis Ashwal, Lawrence Hamilton, Andrew Forbes, Linda Richter, Beric Skews and Roger Sheldon; Professor Glenda Gray from the SA Medical Research Council; University of Johannesburg professors Jan Dirk Kramers and Anthony Onwuegbuzie; Professor Barry Lovegrove (University of KwaZulu-Natal); Professor Roy Maartens (UWC); Professor Curtis Marean (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University/Arizona State University); professors Josua Meyer and Robert Millar from the University of Pretoria; professors Anthony Reddie and Alan Weinberg from the University of South Africa; and Stellenbosch University professors Michael Samways and Simon Schaaf.
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