Four academics from the University of Pretoria (UP) have been awarded co-funded Chairs under the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), bringing the total of Chairs awarded to the University to 20.
SARChI is a government programme led by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) that seeks to significantly expand the scientific research base of South Africa in a way that is relevant to national development and in support of making the country a globally competitive knowledge economy.
Artificial intelligence specialist Professor Nelishia Pillay of the Department of Computer Science in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology was awarded the Chair in Machine Learning for Sustainable Development; Professor Zodwa Dlamini, inaugural Scientific Director of UP’s Pan African Cancer Research Institute (PACRI) in the Faculty of Health Sciences, holds the Chair in Precision Oncology and Cancer Prevention; and Professor Thulani Makhalanyane of the Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences was awarded the Chair in Marine Microbiomics.
Furthermore, Professor Chris Changwe Nshimbi, Acting Director of UP’s Institute for Strategic and Political Affairs and Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences in the Faculty of Humanities, was awarded a research Chair in the Political Economy of Migration in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.
From left: Professor Nelishia Pillay, Professor Zodwa Dlamini, Professor Thulani Makhalanyane and Professor Chris Changwe Nshimbi.
Following engagements between UP and the NRF, a memorandum of agreement signed in 2021 outlined the terms and conditions for the University to host UP-NRF co-funded Chairs, which Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe described as an exciting development full of promise. He said that UP was delighted to be awarded the four Chairs. “The awarding of these prestigious Chairs is a recognition of UP’s leading role in the fields of machine learning, precision oncology, cancer prevention, marine microbiomics and the political economy of migration in the SADC region.”
Emphasising the significance of the SARChI imperative, Prof Kupe said UP was committed to increasing the number of world-class researchers in South Africa, and eager to play a role in helping to retain and attract qualified black research scientists to the higher education sector. “While stimulating strategic research across the knowledge spectrum, this also boosts the level of excellence in research areas of national and international importance,” Prof Kupe said.
Professor Sunil Maharaj, Acting Vice-Principal of Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Education at UP, explained that the host institution of the co-funded SARChI Chairs should have secured or be willing to contribute 50% of funding towards the Chair, while the NRF is expected to contribute the other 50%. This investment by UP demonstrates its commitment to being a research-intensive, globally competitive university. Each party’s minimum duration of the contribution is five years.
In line with SARChI objectives, Prof Maharaj said UP remains deeply committed to creating research career pathways for young, highly skilled mid-career researchers who effectively address historical racial, gender and age imbalances. “Above all, we want to ensure that we are part of the solution, improving and accelerating the training of highly qualified personnel through research,” he said.
The four SARChI recipients were delighted to have this honour bestowed on them and outlined how they plan to make use of the funding that accompanies each Chair.
“Being awarded this Chair has given me the privilege to do what I love doing every day,” said Prof Pillay. “It feels surreal to use something that I am so passionate about – artificial intelligence – to help improve the quality of life of others.”
She explained that the Chair will involve researching and developing new artificial intelligence approaches and improving existing ones to meet the challenges posed by sustainable development problems in agriculture, health, education and industry, and in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion.
“The overall aim is for our group to be leaders in the relevant artificial intelligence areas internationally, while at the same time harnessing the benefits of these approaches to improve the quality of life and contribute to sustainable development,” Prof Pillay explained. “The most exciting part of the job is supervising postgraduate and postdoctoral students, which allows me to work with young, vibrant minds to realise this impact and help them realise their dreams.”
“It has been a long journey, but I am delighted that our group has been awarded this recognition,” Prof Makhalanyane said. “This national recognition allows our group to scale up our activities by training more students and producing high-quality, peer-reviewed outputs. We look forward to this exciting new phase!”
He said the SARChI Chair in Marine Microbiomics would focus on understanding microbiomes in geographically strategic oceans, including the Southern Ocean. “We will train students, produce research outputs and serve as a crucial engagement point with industry and government,” Prof Makhalanyane explained.
Prof Dlamini, who is also the Director of the UP/South African Medical Research Council’s Precision Oncology Research Unit, said, “This SARChI Chair is already enhancing the implementation of UP’s newly launched Pan African Cancer Research Institute and its vision to be a world-class institute dedicated to pushing the boundaries of precision oncology, cancer prevention and control. The funding makes it possible to advance our collaboration with local and international partners, government, and biotech and pharmaceutical industries to support clinical trials, both for cancer vaccines and cancer immunotherapy treatment, and cancer prevention and control. This is through screening for early detection to improve and provide personalised care to patients and to reduce health disparities.”
The fourth recipient, Prof Nshimbi, said the initiative would increase the quality of the training of postgraduate students and contribute to national development. “The DSI and NRF have given the Department of Political Sciences this privilege and rare opportunity to help strengthen the capacity of UP to produce high-quality, impactful research,” he said, adding that the funds will support research with a particular focus on migration.
“We are proud of all the recipients and look forward to their contribution to strengthening the higher education landscape and making a difference in society,” Prof Kupe said.