Research and Internationalisation

30 October 2023 Read time >10 min.
Prof Sue Harrison, DVC: Research & Internationalisation <b>Photo</b> Lerato Maduna.
Prof Sue Harrison, DVC: Research & Internationalisation Photo Lerato Maduna.

The immense changes we are facing in the 21st century make it even more imperative that we build up our knowledge resources to respond as quickly and effectively as possible to the new scenarios facing us in addition to building new knowledge to underpin future innovations. This is necessary for South Africa, for the African continent and throughout the wider world. The effects of resource constraints, climate change, health issues, increasing informality in cities, gender-based violence and femicide, inequality, warfare, the fourth industrial revolution – to name just a few – have a global impact, no matter where a particular event originates.

Alongside this, mitigating regional impact requires understanding of local context. Together, this positions the University of Cape Town (UCT) to have potential for substantial impact in helping humanity to move forward in this century of change. Long before the African Union’s adoption of Agenda 2063 and the United Nations’ adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in January and September of 2015 respectively, UCT research was already focused on developing research-based responses to these very issues.

The university’s Vision 2030 commits us to “unleashing knowledge in, for and from Afrika to redefine and co-create a sustainable global future”. On-the-ground investigation can contribute to this aspiration in many ways, creating the rich matrix of research at UCT. Within this plan, we have identified five clear focal areas for research that bring related fields together so that they can complement and feed off one another in new ways. Those focal areas are:

  • building a healthy Africa
  • resource efficiency and nature-based solutions for sustainable development
  • on being human
  • advancing Afrika
  • our southern location.

Building on these and our desire to extend impactful inter-and transdisciplinary research tackling pressing societal issues, in 2022 we launched a call for the Vision 2030 Grand Challenges Programmes and Pilot Projects. This initiative aims to leverage our unique strengths in a way that will enable and enhance UCT’s capacity to contribute to generating new knowledge relevant to, and for the benefit of, our city, our country and our continent. At the same time, and just as importantly, we will contribute to the world knowledge base from our Global South perspective. UCT researchers presented some 40 impactful proposals to tackle just such issues, and we are pleased to have supported six through UCT funding and a further two through donor funding to date.

In addition to this initiative, UCT research in 2022 speaks to the Vision 2030 core themes in many ways. For instance:

  • Professor Marianne Vanderschuren, of the Transport Planning and Engineering unit in the Department of Civil Engineering, won the Special Annual Theme Award: Basic Science and Sustainable Development, at the National Science and Technology Forum-South 32 awards, for her research to improve sustainable transport approaches in Africa with a special focus on road traffic, pollution and the gender inequity and safety of women.
  • Longstanding initiatives to boost cardiac health led to the award of UCT’s highest research honour for socially responsive research, the Alan Pifer award, to two heart-health pioneers, Professor Liesl Zuhlke and Professor Karan Sliwa, both of the Health Sciences Faculty.
  • Water and food security was headlined with the award to Professor Jill Farrant of the German Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s coveted Georg Forster Research Award for her life’s work in drought-resistant resurrection plants.
  • AfricaBP, a pan-African initiative that includes Professor Nicola Mulder on its advisory board, recently published a position paper in the journal Nature highlighting the goals, priorities and roadmap of the impressive Africa-led effort to sequence the genomes of plants, animals, fungi and protists that are endemic to Africa. The project aims to build capacity for African-based genomics and bioinformatics.

UCT researchers earned a range of other prestigious awards and rankings in 2022 for their progress in key research areas and recognition of their longstanding integrity and innovation.

In all five major international university rankings, UCT continued to rank best in Africa, taking the continent’s top place in the Centre for World University Rankings, Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings, the World University Rankings published by Times Higher Education (THE), ShanghaiRanking’s Academic Ranking of World Universities and US News & World Report Best Global Universities Rankings 2022–2023. For the first time, UCT was also ranked among universities with the highest global reputation in research and teaching in the THE 2022 World Reputation Rankings. While maintaining our ranking in the top 10 for development studies, we ranked 9th in the THE Impact rankings for SDG 6, focused on clean water and sanitation.

As always, UCT’s research achievements are the result of world leadership among our researchers, including their team members, support staff and postgraduate candidates. I thank each of them for their unique contributions to world knowledge through research, outreach and capacity building across Africa.

Professor Sue Harrison
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation

Farrant’s life’s work recognised with coveted German award

Professor Jill Farrant, the world’s leading expert on resurrection plants and University of Cape Town (UCT) A-rated researcher, has been named as a recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s coveted Georg Forster Research Award. The award, which totals €60 000 (approximately R107 000), is granted annually to six academics from developing and transition countries whose research has had a significant impact and holds the potential to produce solutions for specific challenges facing the developing world.

Diversity and inclusivity: mainstays of research integrity

As the world becomes increasingly complex and diverse, universities and research institutions must clearly define and promote inclusivity as cornerstones of research integrity from the leadership levels down, said University of Cape Town (UCT) Chancellor Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe. Dr Moloi-Motsepe’s address at the opening plenary of the 7th World Conference on Research Integrity (WCRI) from 29 May to 1 June in Cape Town was delivered on her behalf by UCT Deputy-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation Professor Sue Harrison. It is the first WCRI to be held in Africa.

C3SA to launch the first SADC study on cybersecurity maturity

The Cybersecurity Capacity Centre for Southern Africa (C3SA) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) will launch a regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) study on cybersecurity maturity. The study will be launched virtually with C3SA’s constellation partners including the Global Cybersecurity Capacity Centre from the University of Oxford, and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, and institutional partner, the International Telecommunications Union.

Full professorship for UCT’s behavioural finance expert

To most people, drama and accounting may seem like two poles at opposite ends of the academic spectrum. However, for Professor Gizelle Willows the pursuit of both these passions has led to finding a niche in behavioural finance as well as attaining a number of career highlights. Most recently, she was promoted ad hominem to full professor at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) College of Accounting. This promotion means that, apart from Emeritus Professor Alex Watson, Professor Willows is currently the only professor in the college.

The next frontier for African genomics – safeguarding biodiversity

Professor Nicola Mulder, the head of the Computational Biology division at the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the principal investigator of H3ABioNet is on the advisory board of the African BioGenome Project (AfricaBP) – a coordinated pan-African effort to build capacity (and infrastructure) to generate, analyse and deploy genomics data for the improvement and sustainable use of biodiversity and agriculture across Africa. AfricaBP recently published a position paper in the journal Nature highlighting the goals, priorities and roadmap of the impressive Africa-led effort to sequence the genomes of plants, animals, fungi and protists that are endemic to Africa.

Inspirational PhD grad: New findings on managing phantom limb pain

A University of Cape Town (UCT) doctoral study by Katleho Limakatso has broken new ground on pain management for amputees experiencing phantom limb pain. Katleho completed his doctorate in only three years. And when he is capped on 22 July, he will become UCT’s first black PhD in Anaesthesia and Perioperative Medicine. It will be a high-five moment for Katleho, his family and supporters (flocking to the Mother City from as far as Lesotho) and his “amazing” supervisor, Professor Romy Parker, of the department’s Chronic Pain Management Unit. Together, they had planned this milestone with Professor Parker championing his development from day one of his postgraduate studies in 2016, Katleho said.

UCT professor wins award for her commitment to safe and secure transport

University of Cape Town (UCT) Professor in Transport Planning and Engineering at the Department of Civil Engineering, Marianne Vanderschuren, has won the Special Annual Theme Award: Basic Science and Sustainable Development at the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)-South 32 awards. Also known as the ‘Science Oscars’, the NSTF awards recognise outstanding contributions to science, engineering and Technology (SET) and innovation in South Africa. Professor Vanderschuren, who holds a PhD in intelligent transport systems and an MSc in systems engineering and policy analysis, says her passion for transport started from the young age of six when she would help her father – who owned a driving school – wash his car.

Kalahari site points to water-rich periods that attracted early humans

The Kalahari is an arid region, its name derived from a Setswana word kgala or “great thirst”. But tufa rock formations on Ga-Mohana Hill in the southern Kalahari show that waterfalls, flowing streams and pools once attracted early humans to this dry plateau. Until recently, most evidence for early human development in southern Africa has stemmed from the country’s southern coast. Evidence of a wetter Kalahari has been published in the journal PLOS ONE by University of Cape Town (UCT) PhD candidate Jessica von der Meden of the Department of Geological Sciences and UCT’s Human Evolution Research Institute (HERI).

H3D to boost drug discovery research capacity at University of Limpopo

The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Drug Discovery and Development Centre (H3D) has partnered with the University of Limpopo (UL) on a project to boost drug discovery research capacity at this historically disadvantaged institution (HDI). The project titled “TB Drug Discovery Hit to Lead Optimization” aims to contribute to finding solutions for Africa’s tuberculosis (TB) epidemic through cutting-edge research. It will expand on existing work focusing on the synthesis of novel compounds active against Mycobacterium tuberculosis (M. tb), the causative agent for TB.

Merging economic behaviour and nature-based solutions

Transdisciplinary research at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is set to get a boost with Professor Martine Visser’s recent appointment as the South African Research Chairs Initiative’s (SARChI) Chair in Governance and Economics for Ecological Infrastructure. The chair is designed to support and expand the South African scientific research base focusing on the development of policies related to ecological infrastructure and nature-based solutions. It is co-funded by the Department of Science and Innovation, the National Research Foundation, the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Water Research Commission’s

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