Meet UCT’s 2021 ‘Science Oscar’ finalists

09 June 2021 | Story Staff writer. Photo Libby Young. Read time >10 min.

On 29 July 2021, the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) will host its 23rd annual awards gala in partnership with South32. This year, eight researchers and research groups from the University of Cape Town (UCT) have been nominated for awards.

Also known as the ‘Science Oscars’ of South Africa, the NSTF Awards were established in 1998 to recognise outstanding contributions to science, engineering, technology and innovation by professionals, teams and organisations in South Africa.

The theme for 2020/2021 is creative economy in the 2021 International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development as declared by the United Nations (UN). A special theme award will go to the researcher who has made an outstanding contribution to this field.

The UCT finalists and their respective categories are:

Dr Sharief Hendricks, Division of Physiological Sciences, Department of Human Biology, Faculty of Health Sciences

TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Researcher

Hendricks is a senior lecturer at UCT and a visiting fellow at Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom (UK). His primary research interests are injury prevention, sport performance and athlete welfare, working with populations ranging from community sport to professional athletes. His work aims to promote an active and healthy lifestyle through sport. Physical activity and participation in sport are key counter-measures to an array of major health issues facing society, such as non-communicable diseases and childhood obesity.

 

To improve participation in sport, reduce the risk of injury and enhance performance, Hendricks has produced innovations for researchers and practitioners to study human movement.

To improve participation in sport, reduce the risk of injury and enhance performance, Hendricks has produced innovations for researchers and practitioners to study human movement.

In South Africa, his recommendations have arguably reduced the risk of injury and particularly serious injury in all South Africans playing rugby – from junior/youth levels, through to senior levels (including professional). He has also helped educate coaches and trainers to better design their training plans and training sessions, which have led to better standards of training and competition.

Dr Laura Heathfield – Division of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology

TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher

Heathfield is a senior lecturer and forensic geneticist based at UCT. Her research uses advanced DNA sequencing to investigate the molecular cause underlying sudden deaths, focusing on a vulnerable and sometimes-forgotten group of infants whose deaths remain unexplained after an autopsy. She has explored new genes and has already identified novel genetic markers which are locally relevant and could explain death in these cases. While these changes in the DNA sequence are rare, they have important implications for family members (e.g. siblings) who may be carriers of the same mutation and therefore at an increased risk for sudden death as well.

When Heathfield started this project, there were no resources, experts or funding grants in this field of research in South Africa. Essentially, she started a new project in a transdisciplinary field, which was made possible by her combined knowledge of human genetics, skills in forensic biology and experience in a forensic mortuary. She founded the Molecular Forensics Research Group and laboratory at the age of 25 years and has successfully led this group without a discipline-specific expert or mentor.

Prof Salome Maswime – Division of Global Surgery, Obstetrics and Gynaecology

TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher

Because African women were 50 times more likely to die from caesarean sections than women in high income countries, Maswime’s research has focused on finding measures to reduce the maternal mortality from caesarean sections in South Africa. She established that the majority of deaths were avoidable and could be prevented through strengthening surgical health systems.

 

Because African women were 50 times more likely to die from caesarean sections than women in high income countries, Maswime’s research has focused on finding measures to reduce the maternal mortality from caesarean sections in South Africa.

This has led to championing research across a new discipline known as Global Surgery, which aims to increase access to surgery and improve surgical outcomes particularly in Africa, where there is an unmet need for surgery. Subsequently, Maswime founded and now heads up the Division of Global Surgery at UCT.

She chairs the South African Governance committee for the National Surgical Obstetric Anaesthesia Plan Technical Working Group, which was created to develop and implement a new policy on surgery for the National Department of Health. The training of students in this area and collaborations across the country also have a direct impact on the future of surgical and maternal outcomes in South Africa.

Prof Sheetal Silal – Department of Statistical Sciences

TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher

Silal is an Associate Professor in the Department of Statistical Sciences and director of the Modelling and Simulation Hub, Africa (MASHA). Going beyond theoretical mathematics, her work combines knowledge from biology, clinical medicine, public health and economics to develop mathematical models for predicting the dynamics of infectious diseases. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these models played a crucial role in assisting decision-makers and informing policy around prevention.

From advising on hospital beds required to projecting mortality rates, disease models have been implemented globally and in South Africa during the pandemic to the benefit of the population.

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

Prof Michael Claeys – Department of Chemical Engineering

Engineering Research Capacity Development Award

Claeys is a professor in Chemical Engineering at UCT and director of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Catalysis (c*change). His 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. It is also a technology playing an increasingly important role worldwide in the production of green future fuels and chemicals from sustainable resources such as CO2 and hydrogen.

Catalysis significantly shapes modern society and is indispensable in 90% of production processes for chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals.

 

Catalysis significantly shapes modern society and is indispensable in 90% of production processes for chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals.

Through his research, which has been supporting a large number of postgraduate students and young researchers, Claeys seeks to understand catalyst stability and improve these for energy applications using specifically developed unique tools that allow characterisation at harsh industrial conditions.

Vimal Ranchhod - The National Income Dynamics Study, Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey Team

Data for Research Award

Ranchhod is a professor in the School of Economics and the Deputy Director of the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU). He was also the labour team lead for The National Income Dynamics Study – Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM).

NIDS-CRAM follows a sample of several thousand adults in South Africa through the COVID-19 pandemic and documents how people have struggled, survived and, in some cases, recovered.

The same people are contacted every few months and asked a range of questions about their income and employment, household welfare, receipt of grants, and knowledge and behaviour related to COVID-19. Five waves of the study are planned for 2020/2021.

The study is unique due to its high frequency, longitudinal data on multiple key welfare indicators during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will also enable researchers to support evidence-based policy making during these rapidly changing and unprecedented times.

Dr Rein Weber – Chief Executive Officer (CEO): Cape Catalytix (Pty) Ltd

Innovation Award: Small, Medium and Micro Enterprise (SMME)

Cape Catalytix (Pty) Ltd was established as a UCT spinoff company that creates functional, custom-made, turnkey laboratory products to suit each client’s performance expectations and provide greater veracity and quality of research data.

Among other devices, they have commercialisation an in-situ x-ray reaction chamber (iKEY® Reaction Cell). It is also this device that led to their nomination for the NSTF-South32 2020/2021 awards.

Standard commercial X-ray chambers offer limited environmental capabilities without the rigorous control of reaction flow path necessary for proper catalyst development. The iKEY® Reaction Cell facilitates real-time characterisation of materials and permits the rapid structural changes to be observed as they happen, increasing understanding of the changes which they undergo during exposure to different environments.

It is well-suited to controlled-environment studies of engineering materials and heterogenous catalysts.

Drs Jacinta Delhaize and Daniel Cunnama - producers and hosts of The Cosmic Savannah podcast, SAAO and University of Cape Town

Communication Award

The Cosmic Savannah is a new podcast about astronomy research and technology in Africa, created and hosted by Dr Jacinta Delhaize from UCT and Dr Daniel Cunnama from the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

As a host to telescopes such as SALT, MeerKAT and the upcoming Square Kilometre Array (SKA), Africa is a leader in astronomy research. The Cosmic Savannah was created to share these remarkable achievements with the public.

The fortnightly episodes introduce listeners to the telescopes, instrumentation, researchers, discoveries and public engagement efforts on the African continent. In particular, the podcast features a diverse range of young African researchers who serve as role models for the next generation.

This year, the NSTF Awards Gala Event will take place as a hybrid event broadcast from both Johannesburg and Cape Town. The usual Gala Dinner will be reintroduced with the addition of a celebration in Cape Town livestreamed via the NSTF YouTube channel.

 


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