Honouring science that works

These science, engineering, technology and innovation (Seti) accolades are the only national awards that address areas beyond pure research, such as management, communication and research for innovation.

Nominations are open and not restricted to National Research Foundation (NRF)-rated scientists and Academy of Science of South Africa (Assaf) fellows. Anyone from the public can make a nomination. In addition, the criteria also consider the potential to commercialise research.

"The awards are very inclusive," says Jansie Niehaus, executive director of the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF), which plays a consultative and lobbying role on behalf of its Seti members.

Niehaus says that the awards don't "belong" to any one organisation but are co-ordinated among numerous stakeholders. Particular award categories are sponsored by the NRF, Eskom and the Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (Thrip) of the department of trade and industry. The event and publicity are predominantly sponsored by BHP Billiton, NRF, South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancements (Saasta), Eskom, Thrip, the department of science and technology, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Mail & Guardian and Business Report. In addition, NSTF member organisations sponsor tables at the gala dinner, making it a community event.

The adjudication panel is also inclusive and members are elected from various constituencies within the Seti community, including the science councils, business, civil society, higher education, professional associations and representatives from the individual award sponsors.

The objectives of the awards are to celebrate, acknowledge and promote excellence in the South African research and design community by cutting across sectors, levels, gender and race, and also recognise both individuals and teams. Listed below are the winners who are practicing scientists, engineers and technologists who have made outstanding contributions to research across the system of innovation:

Lifetime achievement award

Professor David Glasser professor of chemical engineering and founder and director at the Centre of Material and Process Synthesis (Comps) at the University of the Witwatersrand, is internationally recognised for groundbreaking research in design and reactor theory, and synthesis processes that produce energy from waste. He and his team have made a major contribution to the way chemical plants are designed, have developed the attainable region method showing the best specific use for a type of chemical reactor and have worked on the column profile map method for energy-efficient distillation design. The latter is considered one of the most important developments in distillation over the past decade.

TW Kambule NRF-sponsored Outstanding senior researchers awards
Professor Leon Dicks from the University of Stellenbosch's department of microbiology researches lactic acid bacteria. The work has contributed to a better understanding of the microbial properties of the various species of bacteria. Further exploration into antimicrobial peptides and pro­biotics has led to the development of various products, including a world-first nanofibre wound dressing.

Professor Heather Zar is the head of paediatrics and child health at both the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital and the University of Cape Town. As a clinician scientist, her research addresses the leading causes of childhood illness and death: tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV-associated respiratory illness and asthma. The output from this research has influenced child health globally, improving diagnostic, preventative and management strategies.

TW Kambule NRF-sponsored Distinguished young researchers awards
Dr Amanda Weltman senior lecturer in the department of mathematics, University of Cape Town, has made highly significant contributions to theoretical cosmology. She has worked on the development of the chameleon mechanism, a novel theory that may explain dark energy. The theory responds to one of the major unresolved problems of cosmology: What is causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate?

Professor Yahya Choonara designs new and innovative ways of delivering drugs into the human body with the intention of reducing side effects and improving patient compliance. He is the associate professor of pharmaceutics in the department of pharmacy and pharmacology at the University of the Witwatersrand and the research manager of the Wits advanced drug delivery platform. His designs are commercially viable with a number of patents pending.

Management and related Seti activities (other than R&D) award

Professor Bongani Mayosi has been building capacity for health research in South Africa for the past 10 years. Mayosi works by creating a multi­modal framework that moves research through to capacity and programme development and then to influencing policy. He is currently chief specialist physician at Groote Schuur Hospital and heads up the departments of medicine at both the University of Cape Town and the hospital.

Saasta-sponsored Science communication for outreach and public awareness award
Professor Valerie Corfield chief medical scientist and associate professor at the University of Stellenbosch and independent science communication consultant, has developed innovative science and technology-based public engagement activities. Corfield translates science-speak into digestible language using a variety of innovative and participative methods. Besides engaging with the public, she also assists science communicators by holding training workshops and providing print, electronic and DVD resources.

Eskom-sponsored Research capacity development awards

Professor Jolanda Roux's research focuses on the health of trees, mainly on the African continent and in particular the diseases caused by fungi and associated insects. Hers is a story of advancing tree health and human capacity through research, postgraduate student training, extension and collaboration with forest scientists across Africa. She is a professor in the department of microbiology and plant pathology at the University of Pretoria, a member of the management committee of the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute at the university and manager of the Tree Protection Co-operative Programme's field and extension services.

Professor Jakobus Eloff is the founder and head of the multi­disciplinary and collaborative research programme the phyto­medicine programme at the University of Pretoria. The programme investigates therapeutically useful compounds found in plants that grow in South Africa. The multidisciplinary nature of the work means that the phytomedicine programme caters to a diversity of students. Over the past 10 years he has delivered 22 PhD and 27 MSc students. Nearly 84% of the students were black, 35% were female and 39% were from outside South Africa, particularly the African continent.

Research for innovation awards

Dr James Maina and his team at the Pavement Design and Construction Group in the Built Environment Unit of the CSIR enable road owners to do improved pavement design and planning that allows for timely rehabilitation and maintenance. Maina, chief engineer and research group leader, has formulated a suite of software packages that translate data to show how a pavement will respond under the action of traffic loading. These packages have been used in Japan and will form the engine of a new South African pavement design method. The CSIR team has also developed a world-first system, called Stress-in-Motion, which captures the actual three-dimensional contact stress distribution.

Ecologist Dr Peter Carrick's Namaqualand restoration initiative uses ecological methods to restore biodiverse ecosystems to previously mined and degraded landscapes. Its focus is on the rehabilitation of the Namaqualand coastline. The initiative, with its supporting organisation (Nurture, Restore, Innovate), has incubated restoration businesses to generate livelihoods for members of the surrounding communities. Mining companies are also integrated into the business and restoration system.

CapeRay a spin-off company from the University of Cape Town, has developed an innovative system for breast cancer diagnosis. The PantoScanner combines digital X-rays and ultrasound images in a patented device that enhances early diagnosis of breast cancer.

Focusing on the youth
The NSTF Brilliants programme is run by the NSTF in collaboration with BHP Billiton, the department of basic education and provincial departments of education. The initiative is linked to the awards and recognises 18 top performers in mathematics and science from the previous year's grade 12 exams. Selections are made from all public schools in the nine provinces.

"The idea is to show the students what Seti can offer them, from the awards recognition to the status and success that a career in this field can bring," says Niehaus. The performers are acknowledged at a pre-ceremony at which the deputy minister of basic education and the BHP Billiton board chairperson addresses them. Students attend the awards and are acknowledged during the event. The following day, the performers attend a speakers' programme that focuses on personal and professional development.

The Thrip bursary programme is also linked to the awards. Thrip is funded by the department of trade and industry and administered by the NRF. The bursary fund is for undergraduate students in engineering and the sciences, with recipients announced and recognised at the NSTF-BHP Billiton Awards. This year four of the Brilliants programme top performers received bursaries.

The NSTF also runs the Share'n Dare programme, which allows award-winners to engage with the youth as role models in the Seti community. Various media are used, including radio, public talks and the internet. "With government policy driving South Africa towards a knowledge economy, awards like this and their associated programmes raise the profile of one of the core groups to affect the knowledge economy. This is imperative as knowledge and science will determine growth in the future," says Niehaus.

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