University of Pretoria boasts five finalists in 2019/2020 NSTF-South32 ‘Science Oscars’

Posted on June 05, 2020

Five academics from the University of Pretoria (UP) are finalists in the 2019/2020 National Science and Technology Forum’s (NSTF) prestigious NSTF-South32 Awards.

Known as the ‘Science Oscars’ of South Africa, these awards are the most comprehensive and sought-after national awards of their kind in the country and recognise outstanding contributions to science, engineering and technology (SET) as well as innovation by SET-related professionals and organisations. The theme for the 22nd year of the awards is Plant Health, in recognition of the 2020 International Year of Plant Health as declared by the United Nations.

The NSTF was launched as a broadly representative stakeholder body to ensure a democratic and inclusive national system of innovation. It promotes SET and innovation through public discussion and policy consultation, engagement with government, media and awarding and profiling professionals. Its vision is for a transformed country where SET and innovation contribute to a high quality of life for all.

The UP finalists are Professors Wanda Markotter, Josua Meyer, Walter Focke, Kerstin Krüger and Mike Wingfield. The awards are usually handed out annually at a gala dinner at Emperor’s Place, Johannesburg.  This year the event will take place online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Below are the categories that UP academics are finalists in:

TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Researcher

Professor Wanda Markotter – Department of Science and Innovation/NRF SARChI Chair: Infectious Diseases in Animals (Zoonoses); Director: Centre for Viral Zoonoses, Department of Medical Virology, Faculty of Health Sciences.

The current COVID-19 outbreak highlighted the spillover of novel viruses from an animal source into the human population, and scientific evidence points to a link to bats. Bats are known to host a diversity of viruses, and Prof Markotter’s research investigates this diversity in regions in Africa.

She said, “When nominated for this award it was before the COVID-19 outbreak reached South Africa. The research on bats as potential reservoirs of infectious diseases are now even more on the forefront due to the potential link with the outbreak. It is therefore an exciting time to also be nominated as a finalist and getting more opportunities to share this knowledge with the public and stakeholders.”

Engineering Research Capacity Development Award

Professor Josua Meyer – Head of Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering; and Chair: School of Engineering, in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology.

Prof Meyer’s research is on the technical aspects of clean energy, which includes renewable energy and the associated efficiency of heat transfer in heat exchangers. “The generation of clean energy and the consumption of it without contributing to environmental damage are some of the biggest challenges in South Africa, and this is an international grand challenge,” he explained. Efficient heat exchangers directly influence the efficiency and energy consumption of electrical power plants and the efficiency on the consumption side of industrial processes such as chemical process plants, manufacturing, transport, heating and the ventilation of buildings, refrigeration and electrical household items.

He said he is honoured to be nominated for this award. “I am grateful for the recognition I have received. To be nominated for this award would not have been possible without the inspiration I have received from my brilliant students who did most of the hard work. I have the deepest respect for them and admire their intellect, rigour, commitment and very hard work.”

Professor Walter Focke – Director: Institute of Applied Materials, Department of Chemical Engineering, at the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology.

Prof Focke’s core research expertise is in fibre polymers and chemical product formulation – the science and technology employed to design chemical products in order to satisfy market needs. His research groups focus on pyrotechnics for mining applications, clay and graphite nanoparticles as polymer additives, and controlled release of actives from polymer matrices. The latter research activity seeks to find safer applications in controlling malaria, specifically the vector mosquitoes that transmit the parasites that cause malaria.

Prof Focke strongly believes that his research should make a difference, and often his research translates findings from basic science to enhance human well-being. In the case of his malaria-related research, his focus is towards bettering the lives of the communities affected by malaria. However, his venture into contributing towards novel and innovative malaria vector control research started due to a personal incident involving malaria – his son-in-law and grandson contracted this deadly disease.

Working with the UP Institute for Sustainable Malaria Control, some of Prof Focke’s past and more recent innovative malaria vector-related intervention research include development of polypropylene bed nets, insecticide-impregnated polyethylene wall linings, and insecticidal “white wash” (all to protect people indoors), and reducing the volatility of mosquito repellents from nanostructured polymers to enable longer functionality (to protect people outdoors). The innovative polyethylene wall-linings were so successful at reducing mosquito bites during an efficacy and acceptance study in a malaria-endemic village in Vhembe District, Limpopo, which started in 2012 that residents requested to keep the intervention in their homes permanently. Five years later the linings were still proving to be 100% effective based on World Health Organization standards.

NSTF-Lewis Foundation Green Economy Research and Innovation Award

Professor Kerstin Krüger – Associate Professor: Department of Zoology and Entomology and from the Forestry, Agriculture and Biotechnology Institute (FABI) and the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being at the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. She is also a finalist in the 2020 Special Annual Theme Award: Plant Health.

Her research programme focuses on the management of agriculturally important insect vectors of plant diseases and other pest insects on crops. Prof Krüger’s studies have led to advanced knowledge on the relationship between plant diseases, insect herbivores and their host plants, as well as climate change.

She said, “I feel truly honoured and excited to have been selected as a finalist amongst so many outstanding scientists and for being recognised for my contributions to a greener environment and plant health. I genuinely believe that the awards lead to a greater recognition of scientists thriving towards sustainable food production in South Africa.”

Special Annual Theme Award: Plant Health

Professor Michael Wingfield – of FABI and Adviser to the Executive, UP; and also a finalist in the Lifetime Achievement Award.

He said, “it is an honour to be listed amongst the finalists for the NSTF awards. There are many gifted and highly accomplished researchers that are deserving of recognition and I was humbled to be amongst a very impressive list of nominees for the NSTF special annual theme award.” He added that he is passionate about plant health and am deeply concerned about issues such as global food security, which is linked to the health of trees – although this is not always fully appreciated.

“I am delighted that this field of science is being highlighted by the NSTF and happy to be part of this area of focus. I hope that my being a chosen as a finalist for this award will bring some recognition to my colleagues and students in FABI who have done some really fabulous work on plant health over a long period of time.”

- Author Primarashni Gower

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