Eight academics from the University of Pretoria (UP) and Sci-Enza, a science centre and non-governmental organisation at UP, have been selected as finalists in the 2020/2021 National Science and Technology Forum’s (NSTF) NSTF-South32 Awards.
The theme for this year’s awards is ‘Creative Economy’, and is in recognition of the 2021 International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development as declared by the United Nations.
The NSTF awards are not only the first science awards in South Africa, they are also the largest, most comprehensive and sought-after national awards of their kind in the country – so much so that they are also known as the “Science Oscars”. The awards were established in 1998 to recognise outstanding contributions to science, engineering and technology (SET) and innovation by SET-related professionals, teams and organisations in South Africa. This includes scientists, engineers, innovators, science communicators, engineering capacity developers and organisational managers/leaders, as well as data and research managers.
“Congratulations to all the UP scholars who have made the final list,” said UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe. “At UP we strive to be a future-focused university, not to push our international ranking but to help transform our country, continent and world with high-impact research and innovations. The University is proud of you and your achievement and we hope you will scoop all the awards in your respective nominated categories.”
The awards will take place on Thursday 29 July 2021 as a hybrid event broadcast from Johannesburg and Cape Town. The finalists will be hosted in their respective cities.
The UP finalists are Professor Jan Eloff, Professor Marietjie Venter, Professor Lyn-Marie Birkholtz, Dr Vukosi Marivate, Professor Ncholu Manyala, Professor Tessa Marcus, Professor Stephanie Burton, Dr Ellenore Meyer and UP’s Sci-Enza.
Prof Jan Eloff is a full professor in Computer Science at UP and Deputy Dean: Research and Postgraduate Studies of the University’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology. As a cybersecurity researcher, Prof Eloff, who also holds the Dynamic Recovery Services Chair in Cybersecurity, has contributed to safeguarding South Africans from cybercriminals, especially in the time of COVID-19. Minimising the spread of the virus resulted in accelerated dependence on advanced technological platforms, and while these platforms provided many advantages, they also opened up new opportunities for cybercriminals. Cybersecurity strategies must now address not only technological but societal challenges as well. “I’d like to take this opportunity to motivate the next generation of cybersecurity researchers to focus on searching for sustainable solutions that contribute to the safeguarding of society in cyberspace and South African society at large,” Prof Eloff said.
Prof Marietjie Venter is Head of the Zoonotic Arbo- and Respiratory Virus research programme at UP’s Centre for Viral Zoonosis in the Department of Medical Virology. She has made a significant contribution to solving the pathogenesis of emerging and zoonotic respiratory- and vector-borne viruses over the past 15 to 20 years, contributing to pandemic preparedness and championing the One Health approach in Africa and beyond. “This is such an honour and completely unexpected; I feel humbled, especially considering the quality of the other finalists in this category,” Prof Venter remarked.
TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Researcher
Prof Lyn-Marie Birkholtz is the DSI/NRF SARChI Chair in Sustainable Malaria Control. In light of emerging infectious diseases, the ability to eliminate age-old scourges such as malaria has become even more important. This requires tools that can target the disease-causing malaria parasite. Prof Birkholtz’s work as the foremost researcher on malaria parasite biology promises to improve human health and well-being. By working at the interface of parasite biology and drug discovery, she has gained new biological insights and uses these as a catalyst for drug discovery to deliver health innovations. With her research, Prof Birkholtz aims to block malaria transmission and, as such, contribute new tools to malaria elimination strategies. “It is a great honour to be identified as a finalist in this category,” said Prof Birkholtz. “I acknowledge this on behalf of my team of extraordinary young scientists, and the massively supportive collaborators I have had the privilege of working with over the years.”
TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher
Dr Vukosi Marivate holds the ABSA Chair of Data Science and is working on developing machine learning/artificial intelligence methods to extract insights from data. His research group, Data Science for Social Impact (https://dsfsi.github.io/), primarily works on how to improve low-resource language tools, especially for African languages. This has included creating new software libraries, new research approaches and encouraging the development of datasets for African languages. “I am interested in data science for social impact, using local challenges as a springboard for research,” says Dr Marivate, who has also worked on projects in science, energy, public safety and utilities.
Engineering Research Capacity Development Award
Prof Ncholu Manyala is a Professor of Physics and the SARChI Chair in Carbon Technology and Materials at UP’s Institute of Applied Materials in the Department of Physics. He leads the research group Carbon-Based Nano-Materials, which focuses on carbon-based materials at nano-structured levels for renewable energy applications, specifically super-capacitors, which form part of energy storage devices like batteries with high-power and moderate-energy density. Super-capacitors effectively act as alternative energy storage devices for the batteries, which have applications in transportation, such as hybrid electric vehicles, as well as electronic equipment and renewable energy such as wind turbines. Prof Manyala’s group focuses on identifying easily available materials, including activated carbon, from different biomasses as electrode materials for super-capacitors. Electrode materials research for super-capacitors is a niche area worldwide.
Prof Tessa Marcus: Over the past five years, Prof Marcus has produced unique, scientifically informed outputs that are designed to support the knowledge and skills development of healthcare providers, patients, families, communities and the public. COVID-19 has placed healthcare systems and healthcare providers at the front and centre of national and international responses. It has also elevated the importance of developing public understanding and general population health literacy. Prof Marcus developed the Community Oriented Primary Care (COPC) guide and the Health is in Our Hands COVID-19 awareness project to mobilise the best available scientific understanding of critical health issues in a way that is accessible and practically applicable.
Prof Stephanie Burton is a Professor of Biochemistry, an accomplished academic and a leading player in higher education organisations. She is also an internationally acclaimed researcher and an NRF B-rated scientist. Prof Burton previously held the position of Vice-Principal: Research and Postgraduate Education at UP. In this leadership position, she was responsible for the oversight and management of all aspects of the development of research at the University. Her role required high-level strategic leadership and she gained extensive experience in top-level management of activities in a research-focused institution, as well as deep insight into the national science, technology and research enterprise. She has managed facilities, finances, activities and people at many different levels, from senior academics involved in institutional and policy development, international and industrial collaborators, and national representatives in strategic policymaking forums to senior postdoctoral fellows conducting frontier research and junior students just beginning their academic careers.
Non-Governmental Organisation and Special Annual Theme Award: Creative Economy for Sustainable Development
Dr Ellenore Meyer’s work as a senior medical officer and community developer leading an inter-disciplinary team in four informal settlements in Pretoria has produced holistic health sites that contribute to vulnerable communities, enabling residents to access healthcare, nutrition and education. Her work links tertiary education to research, local infrastructure and human-capital development within communities that are able to address the needs of individuals in a holistic, sustainable fashion. Her work and that of her team, in partnership with NPOs, business and local government, has enabled over 35 000 people living in these four informal settlements to access care, and improve their health and livelihood.
Sci-Enza was established in 1977 by Prof Lötz Strauss, who recognised the need for interactive, hands-on science experiences outside of classroom. The science centre has continued to find innovative ways to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics relevant and accessible, and has received several awards in this regard. “The Sci-Enza team is excited to have made it on to the list of finalists, and we look forward to the awards evening with great anticipation.”