Research and Internationalisation

21 September 2020 Read time >10 min.

Q&A Professor Sue Harrison
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation

The year has seen a changing of the guard within the research portfolio.

Yes, in several ways, and I’m most grateful to Professor Kevin Naidoo, who stepped in as acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation until the end of April and did a wonderful job during challenging circumstances, including serious research-funding challenges. Also to members of the executive who shared items within the portfolio until I could take up the post full-time in August. Sadly, we also said farewell to Dr Marilet Sienaert, Executive Director of Research, who did so much to grow our research endeavour, and so ably led her team, for almost two decades. We will miss her.

You mention funding challenges. What was the national environment like for research support?

The year was marked by a national funding crisis in the research environment. In the face of this, we were especially grateful for a R30-million boost as part of UCT’s strategic spend. This was also part of a move to shift our dependency on the National Research Foundation to international funding sources. It has been used in growing our researcher cohort funded by external and international grants, building our early career researchers and research active young staff, and contributing to the productivity of our established research groupings, while providing mentorship opportunities in research. There were other important initiatives during 2019, such as the Vice-Chancellor’s Research Scholarship, launched to retain and fully support our top young researchers. They are our lifeblood. The first 100 awards were made in May.

Transformation of UCT’s research endeavour is key to equity, growth and sustainability. How did we fare?

We’ve made some significant strides, having identified that we need to grow our cohort of women researchers, particularly women of colour, and research in areas where women are scarce. A key initiative was launched by the vice-chancellor in 2018 under the banner Advancing Womxn: A call for change, and the first five of these generous scholarships were awarded in 2020. In our Emerging Researcher Programme and Researcher Development Academy, transformation is nurtured in a holistic way and UCT has been fortunate to take an active part in national transformation initiatives as well.


“30% of South Africa’s NRF A-rated scholars, who are international leaders in their fields, are at or affiliated to UCT.”

What were some of the research highlights?

There are so many, some of which are covered in the pages that follow. But what has been particularly impressive for a research-led institution like ours – in a developing country with immense competition for resources – was the accolade UCT received as the most influential global institution in the field of HIV/AIDS research. This was based on our global field-weighted citation impact. It’s a truly remarkable testament to our researchers, across the disciplines, and their work in this critical area.

Reviving the history of great African composers

Internationally recognised cellist, composer and researcher Dr Thokozani Mhlambi shed light on the rich history of great African composers, which he hopes will spark a revival in music that has been hidden for years.

Thokozani Mhlambi

For his Early African Intellectuals as Composers of Music project, Mhlambi has been digging deep into the archives and looking at musical scores and sound samples of some of South Africa’s great compositions.

“The whole concept behind the project is to revive interest in the archive of the early works of composers, such as unknown female composer Nokutela Dube, as well as the composer of our national anthem, Enoch Sontonga, and many others whose visibility was erased by our history,” he said.

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Life-long benefits of breastfeeding

According to a Science Advances study published by an international team of scientists led by researchers at UCT, mothers can transfer lifelong protection against infection to their infants by breastfeeding. This protection is driven by the transfer of immune cells and is completely independent of antibodies.

Life-long benefits of breastfeeding

The lead and corresponding author of the study was Dr William Horsnell of the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine and the Division of Immunology.

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TB risk of common contraceptive

A breakthrough study conducted by Professor Keertan Dheda and Dr Michele Tomasicchio, at UCT’s Centre for Lung Infection and Immunity, has revealed that one of South Africa’s most commonly used injectable contraceptives could potentially increase women’s chances of contracting tuberculosis.

“It’s an important topic from a women’s healthcare point of view, especially considering the fact that Depo-Provera is still extensively administered in clinics throughout South Africa,” Tomasicchio said.

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Breaking barriers to a cure for HIV

An international collaborative study involving UCT researchers revealed an unexpected finding that could lead to better therapies towards reducing the HIV reservoir – a major barrier to developing a cure for HIV. The HIV reservoir consists of viral DNA that survives hidden in the body even after indefinite treatment with antiretrovirals.

“We hope reducing the size of the reservoir will take us a step towards achieving our goal of enabling people to stop treatment without the virus rebounding,” said Professor Carolyn Williamson, head of UCT’s Division of Medical Virology, who led the study with Professor Ron Swanstrom of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Best little (sustainable) house in Africa

A solar-powered, “green” house designed and built by staff and students from UCT and Stellenbosch University was awarded second place in the architecture category of the continent’s first Solar Decathlon Africa in Morocco. The entry went by the name of Team Mahali – the only sub-Saharan team chosen to participate in the competition.

Team Mahali

The team’s fully functional, modular, net-zero-energy house was erected and completed in a solar village of 18 houses in Ben Guerir, north of Marrakesh. It was just one of the creations by teams from competing universities around the world, all vying for the title of best sustainable house powered solely by the sun.

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Researchers without Borders

Researchers without Borders

UCT has partnered with the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom to launch a novel Researchers without Borders PhD programme that Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng has described as a “profound collaboration”.

The two universities have developed a framework agreement for operating Cotutelle, or co-tutored PhDs, providing opportunities for students to work on research projects that exploit the strengths and capabilities of both institutions.

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Safeguarding the judiciary

A new set of principles and guidelines on the selection and appointment of judges was published to safeguard the independence and integrity of the judiciary in Africa. These principles and rules were published by the Democratic Governance and Rights Unit (DGRU) at UCT and the Southern African Chief Justices Forum.


“It is the first document of its kind that deals with best practices for judicial selection.” – Chris Oxtoby, senior researcher for the DGRU

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Award-winning plastic pollution research

Takunda Chitaka, a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering, has been combing five Cape Town beaches since 2016 to estimate the amount of litter that flows into the marine environment – and to figure out where it comes from.

The research forms part of Chitaka’s PhD thesis, which argues that litter should be included in the lifecycle management and assessment of plastic products, which uses a ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach for holistically describing a product’s environmental impact.

Nominated by her supervisor, Professor Harro von Blottnitz, Chitaka became one of 10 emerging scientists to receive the Blue Charter fellowship from the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the first recipient of the Excellence in Academia PETCO Award for her research work.

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Women taking science to the streets

An array of dynamic women scientists in white lab coats shared their various areas of research with passersby at the V&A Waterfront on 28 September 2019.

Women taking science to the streets

The very first event of its kind in South Africa, Soapbox Science offers scientific researchers a platform to connect with and educate the general public about their work. What makes Soapbox Science even more noteworthy is the fact that it focuses specifically on the work of women in science. UCT contributed five of the nine presenters at the Cape Town event.

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Preparing Africa for 5G

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) becomes part of our future, UCT’s Dr Joyce Mwangama is leading the way with the development of Africa’s first 5G testbed.

5G can be viewed as an enabler of the 4IR, which has been described by the World Economic Forum as a “fundamental change in the way we live, work and relate to one another”.

The service not only amplifies the speed of technology, but also creates the potential to use it to improve livelihoods.

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Fair work principles

Two months after launching the first-ever international ranking of working conditions and standards in the platform economy, Fairwork – a collaboration between UCT, the University of the Western Cape and the universities of Oxford and Manchester – released four new ratings for South African digital labour platforms.

As part of a 30-month project funded by the Global Challenge Research Fund, UCT’s Professor Jean-Paul van Belle and Dr Paul Mungai (Department of Information Systems) measured digital labour platforms’ levels of adherence to five Fairwork principles: fair pay, fair contracts, fair conditions, fair management and fair representation.

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Baleka, Africa’s first two-legged robot

Africa's first two-legged robot

This jumping bot is setting the stage for the future of robotics research, led by Dr Amir Patel’s team at UCT’s Department of Electrical Engineering.

“There is so much being done in robotics that can inspire future researchers, but much of it focuses on steady-state or constant-velocity motion,” said Patel. “The new frontier is transient, rapid movement – and we are one of the first groups looking at that.

“The hope is that our work will not only result in novel robotic applications, but also serve as platforms for biomechanics to better understand the way humans and animals move.”

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One Ocean Hub

Researchers from UCT’s departments of environmental and geographical sciences, biological sciences, and commercial law are part of a new multinational, interdisciplinary project called the One Ocean Hub, which aims to transform global responses to urgent challenges facing our oceans.

While many people, institutions and organisations have dedicated themselves to turning the tide on ocean degradation, they are losing ground, in part due to a lack of collaboration and integration.


GBP20 million was provided by the United Kingdom Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund to establish an innovative hub focused on ocean health.

The five-year One Ocean Hub project aims to bridge the disconnections between law, science and policy in addressing global ocean challenges. It will do this through transdisciplinary and innovative research and by integrating governance frameworks to balance ocean uses with conservation.

The hub will investigate how to share fairly and equitably the environmental, socio-cultural and economic benefits of ocean conservation and sustainable use, focusing on developing nations in Southern Africa and the South Pacific: Fiji, Ghana, Namibia, Solomon Islands and South Africa.

The programme comprises 24 research partners, including UCT, and 35 partner organisations.

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Shark-eating killer whales

Broadnose sevengill sharks have long occupied the apex of the food chain in False Bay – along with great white sharks – but the discovery of several dead sevengill sharks by scuba divers indicated that this might be changing.

The cause of death initially remained a mystery because no dead sharks were recovered for examination, but Alison Kock, an honorary research associate at the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild) at UCT, and Tamlyn Engelbrech, a PhD student in marine biology at iCWild, hypothesised that the attacks were possibly indicative of a new sub-group of killer whale. This after reviewing the literature on killer whale behaviour, dietary specialisation and population delineation globally and locally.

The arrival of two new killer whales in the bay in January 2015, and the death of five great white sharks further up the coast in Gansbaai in 2017, supported their theory. The increased presence of these particular killer whales in False Bay could have profound impacts throughout the ecosystem.

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UCT’s role in R5 billion settlement

Dr Shahieda Adams and Professor Mohamed Jeebhay were part of a team that played an integral role in providing technical medical input to the legal arguments in South Africa’s historic R5 billion settlement for the gold miners who contracted silicosis and/or pulmonary tuberculosis at work.


“It’s a significant leap in terms of accepting liability for a disease that, historically, has ravaged this country. … [UCT] is there to … protect human rights, protect the environment, assist with social security issues and with health. … We see it as our role as engaged scholars to be dealing with these big issues.” – Professor Mohamed Jeebhay

The settlement marked an important milestone in the fight not only against TB, but also for workers’ rights and for improved industry exposure standards.

“It’s a significant leap in terms of accepting liability for a disease that, historically, has ravaged this country. … [UCT] is there to … protect human rights, protect the environment, assist with social security issues and with health. … We see it as our role as engaged scholars to be dealing with these big issues.”  – Professor Mohamed Jeebhay

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The Weddell Sea Expedition

The Weddell Sea Expedition

UCT was one of only a handful of institutions that participated in the Weddell Sea Expedition 2019. This joint venture between organisations in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, South Africa and New Zealand planned to survey the underside of the Larsen C ice shelf, document the marine wildlife of the Weddell Sea ecosystem and find the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which sank there in 1915.

The scientists who made up the expedition travelled to the Weddell Sea at the edge of Antarctica aboard the South African vessel R/V SA Agulhas II during January and February 2019. Among the glaciologists, marine biogeochemists and archaeologists were UCT oceanographers Dr Sarah Fawcett and Dr Katherine Hutchinson.

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