UP Vice-Principal becomes first female president of the Royal Society of South Africa

Posted on October 10, 2019

The University of Pretoria’s Vice Principal for Research and Postgraduate Education, Professor Stephanie Burton, has been elected President of the Royal Society of South Africa, the first woman to hold the position in the organisation’s 111-year history.

The Royal Society of South Africa (RSSA) is an affiliate of the Royal Society of London and is one of South Africa’s premier organisations of expert scientists. The RSSA, which was formed in 1908, works to foster and advance pure and applied science in South Africa through science education, by facilitating the exchange and development of scientific ideas and knowledge, especially in the interdisciplinary context; recognising and rewarding excellence in research and scholarship; promoting international contacts and collaboration; and providing independent expert advice on significant issues that require scientific analysis.

Prof Burton, who said she was deeply honoured by her election to the position of President, explained that she hopes to contribute, through this position, to advancing science in the country. Under her leadership, the Council of the RSSA will seek to inspire scientists, to influence scientific progress, and to promote excellence in science.

UP’s Professor Armanda Bastos, Professor Don Cowan, Professor Stephanie Burton and Professor Tjaart Krüger.

At the RSSA Annual Awards Gala Dinner, held on 8 October, Prof Burton delivered a lecture entitled “Merging ways – research and professional pathways in an academic career”, in which she outlined her views on the current important issues in science, and how the RSSA can contribute to addressing them.

“As the Council, we will seek to ensure that the Royal Society of South Africa stays up to date with national and global trends in research, adapting to 21st-century approaches to science, as well as working to increase the visibility of the Society and its activities, and to expand and diversify the membership. We also intend to become a voice for ethics and integrity in research, something we feel is an important aspect of science research, especially in this digital, information-rich era,” she said.

Prof Burton is herself a leading scientist, with research interests in biochemistry. She is a Fellow of the RSSA, and has held and continues to hold other senior positions in local and international organisations working toward the advancement of science in South Africa and on the continent.

In addition to Prof Burton’s election as President, three of the five awards presented at the RSSA Annual Awards and Gala Dinner were presented to UP staff members, with Professor Don Cowan, Professor Tjaart Krüger and Professor Armanda Bastos being honoured.

Prof Cowan, who is the director of the Genomics Research Institute and the Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics at UP's Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS), received the highly prestigious John FW Herschel Medal for his outstanding achievements in a field of research that straddles disciplines. Prof Krüger, a lecturer and researcher who specialises in Biophysics in UP's Department of Physics, was awarded the Meiring Naudé Medal, which recognises outstanding early career scientists who have already made a mark in their field and who are poised to become scientific leaders. Prof Bastos, the Head of Department for Zoology and Entomology in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at UP, was inducted as a Fellow of the Society, in recognition of her research achievements and academic standing.

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe said Prof Burton’s election and the recognition of other UP academics is a testament to the high quality of scientists and research at UP.

“I wish to congratulate Professor Burton on her election and breaking the proverbial glass ceiling that seems to hover over the heads of women scientists. It is no small feat that after 111 years of the Royal Society of South Africa’s existence Prof Burton has been elected as President. It speaks to her value as a scientist, but it is also a very important move by the science community to transform itself.

“We are especially proud of Prof Cowan, who was again honoured for his achievements, so soon after the recognition he received from the National Research Foundation (NRF) with his A1 rating last month. Our other UP academic staff –  Prof Bastos and Prof Krüger – are also deserving of our highest praises for not only playing the important role of contributing to society through their research and education, but also for flying the UP flag high. These four researchers are proof of the quality of the researchers and academics that UP has to offer to the country and the world,” Prof Kupe said.

- Author Masego Panyane

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