UCT celebrates research tradition’s enduring excellence

18 December 2023 | Story Paul Lawrence. Photos Robin Thuynsma. Read time 9 min.
The annual Research Celebration left attendees in no doubt that the legacy of research excellence at UCT will endure long into the future.
The annual Research Celebration left attendees in no doubt that the legacy of research excellence at UCT will endure long into the future.

Through the annual Research Celebration, it was evident that the future of research excellence at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is in good hands. Four distinguished researchers with illustrious careers — the UCT Greats — were joined in conversation by four emerging researchers — the Future Greats under the theme ‘Building on UCT’s Greats towards Vision 2030’ on 5 December 2023. The result was an evening of intellectual synergy and inspiration in the form of a fascinating exchange of ideas and experiences.

Event host Dr Linda Mtwisha, UCT’s Executive Director: Research, extended a welcome noting the importance of the occasion, "We pride ourselves on the calibre of researchers we have at UCT and tonight it is appropriate that we celebrate the enduring excellence of the research tradition at our institution.”

UCT research highlights and achievements 2023

Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation, Professor Sue Harrison, shared some of the institution’s research achievements over the past year.

Rankings – the University continues to excel under various categories:

  • Top university in Africa (as per five major rating agencies)
  • Joint 50th in the world, Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) sustainability rankings 2024
  • 12th in the world for development studies (QS rankings 2023)
  • 9th in the world for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9, Clean Water and Sanitation, Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings 2023

Awards – UCT researchers won several highly internationally competitive awards and grants across a range of disciplines:

  • A particular strength was in the study of climate change which brought substantive funding that will provide our researchers with the ability to conduct truly innovative, African-led research in this field. Professor Mark New was the winner of the first Frontiers Planet Prize, a new global sustainability competition for research on nature-based solutions and climate change.
  • In health sciences, Professor Salome Maswime received the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Clinician-Scientist Award at the 2023 National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)-South Awards in the same week in which she was inducted as a professor.
  • UCT researchers won National Research Foundation (NRF) awards across a range of fields.
  • UCT has also been greatly privileged to host many Department of Science and Technology (DST)/NRF SARChI Chairs – an average of around a 5th of all the SARChIs in the country.
  • UCT is involved in various collaborations and partnerships geared at solving the challenges and leveraging the opportunities that exist on the African continent. This year saw the launch of the Africa Charter, an Africa-centred framework for advancing transformative research collaborations, co-created by the continent’s major higher education constituencies, with intellectual leadership from the Universities of Cape Town, Bristol and UNISA.

In her summary of the achievements for 2023, Professor Harrison noted that, “…we continue to produce impactful research that astonishes, pleases and makes a difference to people’s lives. We also continue to nurture and build incredibly talented people – staff and students alike – to drive towards their inspirational potential. And this is the big picture of the actual, the inspirational and the aspirational we remind ourselves of and seek every day to better.”

Passing the torch

Harrison introduced a panel of four distinguished academics who represent a broader community of peers whose impact is locally rooted and internationally renowned. The UCT Greats, professors:

  1. Valerie Mizrahi – her research interests are in areas of mycobacterial physiology and metabolism of relevance to TB drug resistance and drug discovery.
  2. Timm Hoffman – his focus is on African-centred research and postgraduate training that improves the ecological understanding of Africa’s biomes, the pressures facing them and the opportunities for conservation that benefit both biodiversity and people.
  3. Rajend Mesthrie – he has worked on language contact, variation and change, with special reference to South Africa.
  4. Carolyn Hamilton – a theorist of archives and a historian with research interests in both the history of discourse, debate and deliberation and of the southern African past before European colonialism.

They were joined on stage by four emerging researchers who shared their early-career experiences. The Future Greats were, Drs:

  1. Alisha Chetty – obtained her PhD in Clinical Sciences and Immunology in 2019 at UCT. She is a Junior Research Fellow in the Division of Immunology and is based at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine.
  2. Celiwe Ngcamphalala – obtained her PhD in Zoology from the University of Pretoria and is a lecturer based at UCT’s Department of Biology.
  3. Zamambo Mkhize – did part of her PhD in Pennsylvania as a Fulbright Scholar and is a lecturer at the African Gender Institute.
  4. George Mahashe – is a senior lecturer at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. Mahashe operates within the wider field of photography, particularly at the intersection of anthropology, archives and artistic practice.

A lively discussion ensued on the balance between teaching and research, guidance on how to attract funding and the importance of mentorship and interdisciplinary collaboration throughout a career in academia. The meaningful dialogue was the handing over of the torch of research excellence from one generation for safe keeping with the next.   

The audience was treated to a fascinating exchange of insights and career experiences as the UCT Greats and Future Greats engaged in conversation.

The Conversation Africa 2023 Awards

Caroline Southey from The Conversation Africa (TCA) and UCT Vice-Chancellor Interim, Emeritus Professor Daya Reddy, presented two awards. The first recognised Dr Sanya Osha for the most published titles in TCA between 1 November 2022 and 31 October 2023. Toby Rogers received the second for the most widely read article in the publication for the same period entitled, “South Africa’s great white sharks are changing locations – they need to be monitored for beach safety and conservation”.

The Alan Pifer 2022 Award

This award is the Vice-Chancellor’s annual prize in recognition of outstanding welfare-related research. It highlights UCT’s strategic goal of promoting socially responsive research, and honours UCT researchers whose outreach work has contributed to the advancement and welfare of South Africa’s disadvantaged people.

Emeritus Professor Reddy presented this year’s award to Shanaaz Mathews, a professor in the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health who served as the director of the Children’s Institute from October 2012 to March 2023. She has more than 30 years’ experience in the women and children’s sectors. She has worked within civil society organisations as an academic and technical advisor to government programmes, specialising in violence against women and children.


“The research agenda needs to include our voices in the dialogue around what works to prevent violence.”

Upon accepting the award Professor Mathews reiterated the need for urgency in ongoing research in this area, “It is important that we establish what works in the Global South and we must be able to lead the discussions because our forms of violence are shaped differently. And therefore, the research agenda needs to include our voices in the dialogue around what works to prevent violence.”

Research snapshot brochures launched

Dr Mtwisha formally handed over ‘A Snapshot of Research at UCT’ to the Interim Vice-Chancellor. This portfolio of brochures is a showcase of the innovative and ground-breaking research conducted at UCT.

They are aimed at engaging potential collaborators, funders, donors and prospective postgraduate students by highlighting UCT’s research expertise across the strategic research focal areas, namely: Our Southern Location, Advancing Africa, Building a Healthy Africa, On Being Human and Resource-efficiency and Nature-based Solutions for Sustainable Development.

In his closing remarks, Reddy said: “This evening we’ve celebrated that part of academic life without which a university is not a university. Celebrated those who excelled as researchers – contributors to a better understanding of our world and its people, towards solving its problems and enriching our lives culturally.”

The evening concluded with a palpable sense of optimism in the auditorium, leaving no doubt that UCT is set fair for continued excellent in research, with a bright and dynamic cohort of emerging researchers steering the course toward achieving the Vision 2030 goals.

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