Two UCT researchers awarded ‘Science Oscars’

01 October 2021 | Story Staff writer. Read time 3 min.

In recognition of their outstanding contributions to science, engineering, technology and innovation in South Africa, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Professor Sheetal Silal and Professor Michael Claeys received awards at last night’s NSTF-South32 event.

Professor Sheetal Silal
Professor Sheetal Silal. Photo Robyn Walker.

Professor Sheetal Silal
TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher

This award is in recognition of Silal’s contribution through combining knowledge from biology, clinical medicine, public health and economics to develop mathematical disease models to help shape health policy and improve the health of the people.

Silal, an associate professor in the Department of Statistical Sciences at UCT and director of the Modelling and Simulation Hub, Africa (MASHA), is an expert in the development of mathematical models for predicting the dynamics of infectious diseases. Her work has become a crucial part of evaluating the potential of control programmes to reduce morbidity and mortality, as well as supporting policy development around public health systems.

In January 2020, she was invited by the World Health Organization (WHO) to join an international taskforce of mathematical modellers to study the dynamics of a novel coronavirus outbreak in China. In March 2020, when the first COVID-19 cases were reported in South Africa, Silal was well placed to respond to the South African National Treasury’s request to develop a mathematical model to investigate the dynamics of the local outbreak.

She and her team at MASHA joined other researchers to form the core modelling team of the South African COVID-19 Modelling Consortium. Responsible for projecting the spread of the virus to support the South African government’s policy and planning, the consortium created a COVID-19 dashboard alerting the public to infection rates and providing analyses of the various waves at a district and provincial level.

Prior to COVID-19, Silal’s work largely focused on developing models to track the successes and failures of, as well as the challenges facing, the fight against malaria in Africa. Her

models synthesise data to create a cohesive computer-based representation of malaria, which can then be used to test the impact of interventions such as new drugs or prevention methods in silico, at no further cost.

Professor Michael Claeys
Professor Michael Claeys. Photo UCT.

Professor Michael Claeys
Engineering Research Capacity Development Award

Claeys, a professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and director of the South African national DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Catalysis, known as c*change, was recognised for his lifework on the development of capacity and research capacity in catalysis, which lies at the heart of 90% of production processes for chemicals.

An A-rated researcher, Claeys’ research focuses primarily on catalysis for energy applications including the Fischer-Tropsch process, a technology which lies at the heart of South Africa’s synthetic fuels and chemicals industry and one that is playing an increasingly important role worldwide in the production of green future fuels and chemicals from sustainable resources such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and hydrogen.

A large portion of this research is conducted as part of industrial collaborations including a longstanding partnership with energy and chemical company Sasol’s Research and Development division. Claeys leads a team of high-level researchers from both UCT and Sasol in harnessing Fischer-Tropsch catalysis to address industrial problems in this field.

The team recently made advancements in the use of commercial iron catalyst, produced cheaply and at large scale, a significant step towards the implementation of CO2 hydrogenation technology in South Africa.

About the awards

Each year, the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) – a representative non-profit stakeholder body for all science, engineering, technology and innovation organisations in South Africa – hosts the awards in partnership with South32, a resources company established after the demerger of BHP Billiton.

The 23rd NSTF-South32 Awards’ theme and Special Annual Theme Award is Creative Economy for Sustainable Development. This is in recognition of the 2021 International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development as declared by the United Nations (UN), as well as to promote related outstanding contributions to innovation by South African individuals and organisations.

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