The bold pursuit of his academic ambitions and a strong desire to produce research stemming from interrogations of his own world view has paid off doubly for Dr Ryan Nefdt, a senior lecturer in the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Philosophy, who was recently awarded a P-rating by the National Research Foundation (NRF) as well as the 2020/21 Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) Emerging Researcher Award.
Working in the broad area of cognitive science, Nefdt has carved out a niche for himself in the philosophy of linguistics. His research is centred around the study of language, its scientific underpinnings and philosophical import.
With a desire to move beyond mere theory, his recent work has pivoted towards making a real-world impact amid the coronavirus pandemic. He is currently collaborating with a NRF A-rated researcher on the nature of scientific modelling in epidemiology and is also set to launch a project looking at African bioethics and COVID-19 later this year.
“I was studying about five to eight languages at various moments and getting the immediate grounding and the philosophical puzzles.”
The NRF P-rating is considered a rare achievement for early-career researchers who, on the basis of exceptional potential demonstrated in their research outputs, are considered likely to become future international leaders in their field. Researchers considered for this rating are normally under the age of 35 and have held a doctorate or equivalent qualification for less than five years at the time of application.
Nefdt is the only P-rated researcher in Humanities at UCT and one of only two in South Africa.
Within weeks of the news of his P-rating, Nefdt was also recognised with the HSRC Emerging Researcher Award. Presented in partnership with Universities South Africa (USAf), the award has similar criteria to the NRF P-rating with a growing track record of academic excellence, potential to become a leader in their field and sustained public engagement being priorities. This year, however, researchers were also expected to prove their contribution to the social sciences and humanities in responding to COVID-19.
Carving out a niche
“I had two early experiences of languages on opposite ends of the spectrum,” says Nefdt. “On the one hand, I was doing philosophy which was all these semantic abstract puzzles with relation to language and, sometimes, quite removed from real-world languages.”
“On the other, I was studying about five to eight languages at various moments and getting the immediate grounding and the philosophical puzzles.”
Naturally, these experiences may have led him to follow a career in linguistics. However, while deciding on a PhD programme to enroll for, the draw towards philosophy was ultimately stronger.
“Even in theoretical linguistics, there are certain moments where you just have to accept the canon in some way,” explains Nefdt. “With philosophy, I felt there were fewer restrictions on the questions I could ask and more opportunities to explore, innovate and maybe even develop something new.”
Over the past five years, for instance, Nefdt has bridged an important gap by creating a body of work that places South African languages at the centre of international debates in linguistics and philosophy.
Not only has he introduced many global scholars to the specific structures found in Southern African languages, he also uses the structures found in these languages to create hypotheses and theories concerning the general human capacity for language.
A bold approach
When asked which aspect of his research he thought may have stood out to the NRF committees, Nefdt is initially reluctant to hazard a guess, but soon relents to some philosophical speculation.
“I took a different path that was a little bit fraught, but for the moment seems to have been successful.”
“I think it’s relatively uncommon for a younger scholar to try to develop a systematic way of thinking. We normally tend to be a bit more opportunistic,” he muses.
Nefdt goes on to explain that the tendency for most early-career academics is to follow closely in the footsteps of their supervisors, writing on similar topics and joining projects where they may be able to find a niche idea.
“I took a different path that was a little bit fraught, but for the moment seems to have been successful,” he says.
“Early on already, I wanted to find the best explanation for the phenomena I’m interested in. And if that view wasn’t developed, I’d try to develop it myself.”
While there is, of course, no way of knowing for sure, Nefdt believes that this bold pursuit of his academic ambitions may be something that sets him apart.
An international footprint
Although he still in the early stages of his academic career, Nefdt has already established himself as a thought leader in his field both locally and abroad.
In 2016, he completed his PhD in a record time of two years and six months at the University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom.
Prior to this, Nefdt became the second South African to be accepted into and complete the Master of Logic programme at the world-renowned Institute of Logic, Language and Computation (ILLC) at the University of Amsterdam in 2011.
He holds two Masters degrees and a PhD, completed and has received 22 fellowships, scholarships and awards so far. These include an Oppenheimer Postdoctoral Fellowship at UCT as well as an Andrew Mellon Lectureship at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). He recently started a permanent position as a senior lecturer in philosophy at UCT.
“I always joke in my classes that my grandmother wanted me to be an electrician.”
During the course of his career, Nefdt has conducted research at seven international institutions and published 11 high-ranking peer-reviewed journal articles, three book chapters, four book reviews, and acted as a referee for 16 international journals.
For Nefdt, the latest acknowledgements of his academic prowess usher in a new era for his research, especially in terms of publications.
“I think I’m ready now to collect my thoughts into monograph form,” he says.
“What led to these awards was a lot of different projects and articles. But now I think I want to take the next step and actually write something that I can produce as a book and put out there for credible scrutiny.”
What makes Nefdt’s achievements even more remarkable is the fact that he is a first-generation university student.
Initially, his decision to pursue something as theoretical as the philosophy of languages and linguistics was met with a measure of scepticism.
“I always joke in my classes that my grandmother wanted me to be an electrician,” he laughs. “I think even after a lot of these achievements, she still wasn’t convinced and sometimes I’m not convinced either.”
He has, however, stayed the course and continues reaping the rewards.
“My family has been extremely supportive,” he says. “They’ve allowed me to explore and, for that, I’m extremely appreciative.”
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