UCT academic wins inaugural funding award

13 June 2024 | Story Kamva Somdyala. Photo Supplied. Voice Cwenga Koyana. Read time 4 min.
Dr James Keaveney (right) with Oppenheimer Memorial Trust chair, Rebecca Oppenheimer.
Dr James Keaveney (right) with Oppenheimer Memorial Trust chair, Rebecca Oppenheimer.

Senior lecturer in the Department of Physics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Dr James Keaveney last month received the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust’s (OMT) inaugural New Frontiers Research Award. This award is designed to support and reinvigorate South Africa’s reputation for research excellence.

The total award amounts to R7.5 million, and the winner will receive R1.5 million in research funding each year for five years. The New Frontiers Research Award targets early- to mid-career researchers, filling a critical gap in research funding. Of the 101 initial applicants, Dr Keaveney was one of only eight who were called to be interviewed. Applications came from all corners of South Africa and a range of subjects, from English to astrophysics.

“When I got the news that I was the inaugural recipient of the award, I immediately felt humbled; humbled because I felt small in comparison to the huge opportunity that the OMT has provided me, small in comparison to the confidence they have shown in my vision, and small in comparison to the responsibility to deliver a major and crucial technological innovation for South Africa,” Keaveney reflected.

Keaveney – who is a UCT College of Fellows Young Researchers awardee – shared that he is an experimental particle physicist: “I study the inner workings of nature at the most fundamental level, and I’m specifically interested in an elementary particle called the top quark. Particle physicists like me believe that by better understanding the top quark, we will shed light on the fundamental laws that govern our universe.”


“Studying physics gave me the sense of pursuing absolute truths without a care for interpretation, dogma, or subjectivity.”

He continued: “I analyse data from the ATLAS experiment situated at the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN lab, Geneva, Switzerland. The ATLAS experiment is an enormous international collaboration of over 3 000 scientific members in which UCT plays a significant role. Participation in ATLAS puts UCT at the forefront of technological progress and hence leaves us well disposed to apply our technological skills to society’s most pressing problems.

“My curiosity led me to a general science degree at the University of Galway [Ireland] and by the end of my first year I knew physics was the subject for me. I loved its clarity and elegance. Studying physics gave me the sense of pursuing absolute truths without a care for interpretation, dogma, or subjectivity.”

Passion for science

Teaching was a natural career direction as a means of passing on his passion for science to new generations, he said. “Hence even as I spent seven years purely in research as a postdoctoral researcher, I always felt teaching was in my future. My teaching began in earnest upon my arrival at UCT in 2019 as a lecturer. Lecturing at UCT has been a transformative experience. I’m moved by the enthusiasm and humanity of UCT’s students. To them, education in fundamental science is no luxury but an essential tool to develop themselves and South Africa.”

Turning his attention to the award, Keaveney labelled it a “game-changer” for his research.

“I simply can’t wait to put together the project’s most crucial element: its people. I’m looking for a dynamic and ambitious set of individuals with the highest levels of scientific integrity – the kind of people UCT produces in spades. A mid-career academic like myself has typically taken on major responsibilities in teaching and academic administration. This often makes the pursuit of an ambitious research programme extremely difficult,” the particle physicist explained.

“This award buys me the most precious commodity of all: time. This award affords me a singular focus and the crucial resources with which to make my vision a reality. I have always been excited about pursuing research at UCT – we have amazing students, impressive academic pedigree, and an unwavering commitment to excellence at the heart of our institution. Now with the New Frontiers Research Award in hand, there is nowhere else I’d rather be.”  

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