On 30 May, the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the AXA Research Fund presented a joint event that showcased the projects and accomplishments of two AXA Chairs focusing on climate risk and health outcomes. The event, which was also accessible online for those unable to attend in person, took place at UCT’s Wolfson Lecture Theatre. It specifically highlighted the work of two UCT academic staff members: Professor Lara Dugas, the AXA Chair in Non-Communicable Diseases Epidemiology, and Professor Mark New, the AXA Chair on African Climate Risk.
Associate Professor Lionel Green-Thompson, the dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, welcomed everyone in attendance to the event. Associate Professor Green-Thompson’s welcome was followed by opening remarks from Vice-Chancellor (Interim) Emeritus Professor Daya Reddy.
Emeritus Professor Reddy said that UCT is a research-intensive university and that “not only is research core to our existence and is totally integrated into everything else that we do but it is intensive in the extent to which it is pursued and also with regard to the impact that we make in the university, the country and beyond”.
Professor Sue Harrison, the deputy vice-chancellor for Research and Internationalisation,
said that UCT was the first African university to receive the prestigious award of an AXA Research Chair and one of only a few institutions to host two such Chairs.
AXA Research Fund
The AXA Research Fund is an initiative by the AXA Group, a worldwide leader in insurance and asset management. The fund supports academic research that addresses major societal challenges, including climate change, healthcare, and socio-economic risks. Through partnerships with leading research institutions, the AXA Research Fund aims to foster scientific progress and contribute to the development of innovative solutions to global challenges.
“Research [is] core to our existence and is totally integrated into everything else that we do.”
Isabelle Bergeron, the head of communications for the AXA Research Fund, joined the event online from France. She said that the AXA Chair is the premium funding scheme of the AXA Research Fund and that an AXA Chair aims to create a dedicated full-time senior academic position in an institution and support a significant acceleration in the development of a research field. Since the establishment of the AXA Research Fund in 2008, she said, “AXA has dedicated €250 million to support scientific research in 38 countries and a total of more than 700 projects.”
Professor Debra Roberts, the president of the AXA Research Fund board, who also heads the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives function in eThekwini Municipality, spoke thereafter, where she introduced the research conducted by Professor New.
Professor Mark New
In addition to holding the AXA Research Fund Chair in African Climate Risk, New is also the director of the African Climate & Development Initiative (ACDI), based at UCT. He had just recently won the prestigious Frontiers Planet Prize, which celebrates breakthroughs in sustainability science.
New’s tenure as AXA Chair on African Climate Risk started in 2017 and is about to come to an end. The AXA Chair on African Climate Risk has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of climate change and its implications for Africa. The programme fostered ground-breaking research, facilitating the development of strategies to mitigate climate risks and protecting vulnerable populations.
The focus of New’s research as AXA Chair was the “full causal chain from human influence on climate through to what it actually means on the ground”. This involves “untangling human and natural causes of climate change”. He said that the funding has enabled a cohort of 30 career scientists from master’s to PhDs to postdoctoral junior research fellows to pursue their research. “One of the most exciting and rewarding things of the AXA Chair is actually being part of a cohort of younger researchers who are now establishing themselves as leading researchers in their own right.”
Professor Lara Dugas
Based in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the School of Public Health at UCT’s Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Dugas holds the AXA Chair in Non-Communicable Diseases Epidemiology. She presented her current body of research. Her work focuses on studying the epidemiology of non-communicable diseases and identifying strategies to mitigate their impact on public health.
Dugas said that the AXA Research Chair “really gives you an opportunity to take the next step”. She touched on the history of her research and introduced some of the findings. She presented all her data from over 10 years of research in international global health.
She then outlined a fresh study which is being done in collaboration with New. This project, known as the Heat Adaptation Benefits for Vulnerable Groups in Africa (HABVIA) study, brings together the research interests of the two scholars in a novel way. In this study, they, together with other colleagues, attempt to monitor the effects that adaptations in the home environment, in response to climate change, have on human health. The research project looks at how increased temperatures as a result of climate change affect health behavior, including sleep patterns. “Disrupted sleep,” said Dugas, “sets you up for poor cardiometabolic outcomes. There is evidence to show that being exposed to hotter temperatures raises your blood pressure and heart rate, as well as [increases] our risk for chronic dehydration, which itself is a risk factor for chronic kidney disease and type two diabetes.”
A large part of the research is focused on simple and affordable interventions that can be made to dwellings to mitigate the effects of climate change. These interventions include things such as cooling roof paints, fans, and insulation. The researchers have partnered with Shack Dwellers International to draw on people within communities to identify and implement adaptations.
The event served as an excellent opportunity to acknowledge and appreciate the longstanding partnership between UCT and the AXA Research Fund. The collaboration between these two institutions has enabled the pursuit of innovative research in areas of critical importance, such as climate risk and health outcomes.
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