This year’s NSTF champions span academia, business and civil society
NSTF executive director Jansie Niehaus says the quality of South Africa’s science, engineering, technology (SET) and innovation is superb and gives us cause to be proudly South African.
The National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) Awards has been celebrating excellence and societal contributions for a quarter of a century, with nearly 300 awards given. This year saw 46 finalists, of whom 21 are women and 19 are black.
“We are really proud, with our partners and sponsors, to have kept the Awards going as an NGO that is dependent on donations and sponsorships for everything we do,” says Niehaus.
“It is also heartening to have seen the transformation of demographics in the science sector, which is reflected in the Awards.”
Wilna Eksteen, chief operations officer at the NSTF, says there are some wonderful stories for science and the youth among this year’s winners. “Our young people should be top priority.” NSTF runs two youth outreach programmes — one to share the work and life stories of the winners with school learners, and the other to celebrate top achievements in matric.
Niehaus says the nomination and registration process went smoothly this year, with excellent entries from a wide range of provinces, sectors, disciplines and types of institutions.
“The Awards include a variety of categories and the call is open, so it does not have to be done through an institution,” she says.
“For the 25th anniversary of the event, a special NSTF Ukhozi Award is being made to Dr Philemon Mjwara, director general of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI).”
Niehaus is particularly happy that some of this year’s winners come from the social sciences, which has not often been the case previously. “How humankind handles the coming decades and beyond depends on the research and innovation done in all scientific fields, including the social sciences,” says Niehaus.
The NSTF is presenting a special award this year for an outstanding contribution to SET and innovation through research and innovation in ocean science, in support of attaining the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in South Africa.
There is also a new award for an outstanding clinician-scientist, and new sponsors for three categories.
The recipient of this award is an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to SET and innovation and the NSTF over many years. This year, the NSTF gave the award to Dr Philemon Mjwara in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the awards. He is recognised for his significant role in contributing to South Africa’s National System of Innovation and building the strong relations between the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the NSTF.
This award is made to an individual for an outstanding contribution to SET over a lifetime. The 2023 winner in this category is Prof Jonathan Jansen. He is a Distinguished Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University and the President of the Academy of Science of South Africa. Prof Jansen has contributed immensely to the advancement of education scholarship through advanced research and publication, scholarly teaching, innovative university management especially in times of racial disharmony, science leadership, school improvement, educational innovation, capacity development, public engagement and science advocacy.
Special Annual Theme Award: Ocean Science for Sustainable Development
This award goes to an individual or an organisation for an outstanding contribution to SET and innovation, in recognition of the ‘Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development’ as declared by the United Nations. Prof Andrew Green, a Professor of Marine Geology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), and the Visiting Professor at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, was the winner of this award. He was recognised for his excellent contribution in Marine Geosciences Research.
TW-Kambule-NSTF Researcher Award
For his contribution through research and its outputs over a period from six years up to 15 years of research work, Prof Novel Chegou, Professor in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at SU, won the award. He was celebrated for his life’s work, which has focused mainly on the immunology of tuberculosis, the development of new tools for its management and conducting research on new tests that can assist in the rapid diagnosis of tuberculosis. proSET (Professionals in SET), a sector of the NSTF representing almost 50 professional societies, is the prize sponsor of the award.
TW-Kambule-NSTF: Emerging Researcher Award (two winners)
With sponsored prizes from the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS), this award recognises two individuals who have contributed through research and its outputs over a period of up to six years of research work from the commencement of their research careers, predominantly in South Africa.
Prof Usisipho Feleni, Associate Professor and Thematic Area Leader in Applied Electrochemistry, Institute for Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability at Unisa, received the first award of the night, to recognise her contribution in electrochemistry, with emphasis on electro-analytical sensors and biosensors, which comprise new chalcogenide-based quantum dot materials, nanoparticles, nanorods and nanocomposites that contain unique and specific features for use in electrochemical sensing and signalling of diseases such as HIV, TB and cancer, as well as monitoring water contamination.
The second award was made to Dr Daniel Hart, Senior Research Fellow in the Zoology and Entomology Department in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at University of Pretoria (UP). He has made a contribution in the attempts to utilise concepts from evolutionary biology to address biological questions of health, biological, social and economic relevance to humans, which focus on using knowledge of evolutionary biology of mammals to improve treatments of human medical conditions and to predict future consequences of climate change.
Prof Paxie Chirwa, Chair and Director of Forest Postgraduate Programme at University of Pretoria, won the Management award for 2023. This recognises his contribution, centred on people, to future forestry development in South Africa and training future foresters, aimed at recognising the importance of communities in proximity to the forest resource in sustainable forest management and use.
Engineering Research Capacity Development Awards (two winners)
Sponsored by Eskom, this award is made to a male and female who have demonstrated outstanding leadership in increasing the participation of young engineers and technologists in further research in their chosen SET fields, over the past five to 10 years.
The female winner for 2023 is Prof Nosipho Moloto, the DSI/NRF/Nedbank SARChI Chair in Energy Materials, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). She was recognised for her contribution to capacity building through finding simple synthetic methods for semiconductor nanocrystals that can be used as essential components in the development of affordable solutions for the production of clean water, renewable and clean energy, rapid diagnostics of diseases and fast and easy to operate sensors.
For the second award, Prof Onisimo Mutanga, Professor of Remote Sensing, and SARChI Chair in Land Use Planning and Management, UKZN, was awarded for developing research capacity through the use of remote sensing techniques to support land use management.
NSTF-Water Research Commission (WRC) Award
Sponsored by the WRC, this award recognises an individual or an organisation for sustainable water management, knowledge generation and solutions over the last five to 10 years. This year, the award was made to the Centre for Water Resources Research at UKZN for providing a centre of excellence for cutting edge applied and interdisciplinary research and postgraduate training in water resources-related research and capacity building.
NSTF-SAMRC Clinician-Scientist Award
This is a new award category sponsored by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) to honour candidates with a degree in medicine (MBChB) or dentistry (BDS) who possess a PhD and who work in the South African academic, clinical and research sectors, and have demonstrated the ability to conduct high-impact research in biomedical areas and contribute to SET through such research. Prof Salome Maswime, Head of Global Surgery, an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at University of Cape Town (UCT), won the award for her contribution, through pioneering the field of Global Surgery in Africa as part of a drive for greater equity, and access to much-needed surgical care.
Green Economy Award
This award is sponsored by the Technology Innovation Agency and gives recognition to individuals who have contributed towards achieving biodiversity conservation, environmental sustainability and a greener economy over the last five to 10 years. For his work on extending our understanding of Human Factors Ergonomics or “green ergonomics” to consider the entire Earth system, this award was won by Prof Andrew Thatcher, a Professor in the Psychology Department, School of Human and Community Development at Wits.
Data for Research
This year, the award in this category was made to the Freshwater Biodiversity Information System (FBIS) team, Freshwater Research Centre (FRC) and Kartoza. They were recognised for their ground-breaking work in the development of a powerful, open-access system for hosting, analysing and serving freshwater biodiversity data for South Africa, in order to facilitate freshwater decision-making.
Innovation Award: Small, Medium and Micro Enterprise (SMME) (two winners)
LignOrganics has made an outstanding contribution to the South African economy through their biomass conversion technology that has turned chemicals from fossil fuels into products that can be commercialised and used by the public. For this contribution, LignOrganics was awarded an Innovation Award.
The other Innovation Award was won by Pegasus Universal Aerospace team. They were recognised for the design and development of a vertical take-off and landing aircraft, which is envisaged to create between 7 000 and 11 000 new jobs. The SMME awards are sponsored by the National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO), which includes prizes.
The communication award recognises an individual or team for an outstanding contribution through communication for outreach and creating awareness of SET and innovation. This year’s award was made to Prof Roger Deane, the Director of the Centre for Astrophysics at Wits and Wits Digital Dome Working Group and the Chair of the DSI/NRF SARChI in Radio Astronomy. He was awarded for his achievement of a R75 million digital upgrade of the Johannesburg Planetarium into a flagship science and technology engagement facility, where he has shared cutting-edge, clearly communicated astrophysics research with the public.
Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Award
In celebration of the exceptional contribution to SET and innovation including technology transfer, and education and training activities from an NGO, Community Keepers won the 2023 NGO award. They were recognised for their outstanding contribution to enhance resilience and promote mental health and wellbeing among South African learners, their parents, teachers and community through socio-emotional learning opportunities.
Renowned ‘public nuisance’ celebrated for four decades of academic leadership
A thinker at heart, Prof Jonathan Jansen spent many years overhauling and overseeing higher education institutions in South Africa in management positions.
But after leaving his most recent indelible mark on the Free State University as its vice-chancellor, he was overjoyed to return to his first love of doing research. “I couldn’t wait to just be a normal professor. That is, I sit, I think, I research, I write, I think.”
Jansen is now a Distinguished Professor of Education at Stellenbosch University. “I still don’t know why they pay me, because this is what I always wanted to do!” he jokes.
He says he does his thinking and writing with a team of people that he mentors, mainly post doctorates and the Future Professors Programme.
The Future Professors Programme is a R65 million project funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training to prepare especially young black and women scholars for the professoriate.
Jansen is an A1 NRF-rated researcher, and is also the president of the Academy of Science of South Africa. He is widely known for his groundbreaking work in curriculum theory and the politics of knowledge, as reflected in his books Knowledge in the Blood (2009) and The Decolonisation of Knowledge (2022).
Over the last four decades he has contributed immensely to the South African science, technology and innovation landscape through research, scholarly teaching, science leadership, educational innovation, capacity development, public engagement, and science advocacy.
“What drives me is the thrill of deep thinking, and I get enormous intellectual stimulation and personal fulfilment out of turning those ideas, questions and thoughts into books.”
His most recent works include, Racial logics and the politics of medicine in South Africa (2023), Corrupted: A study of chronic dysfunction in South African universities, (2023), and The problem with decolonization: Entanglements in the politics of knowledge (2023).
He says people need to know about levels of corruption, about how to fix our schools, and about the reading crisis in South Africa. “So you’ll notice all of my research has been concerned with real issues and real struggles in educational development.”
This is also why he writes in a way that isn’t academically pretentious, and he actively communicates with the public through the media.
”As a renowned ‘public nuisance’, public engagement is incredibly important to me.
I do a lot of work on radio and television and print media every single week, as a way of bringing interesting and important research to the public’s attention,” he says.
Prof Jonathan Jansen won the Lifetime Award for an outstanding contribution to science, engineering, technology and innovation in South Africa over a lifetime (15 years or more).
SU Prof’s rapid TB test is in field trials abroad
TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Researcher
Prof Novel Chegou’s nine patents and 99 publications is a tall stack of science on paper, but he’s actually working for the five-year-old child, suffering on a hospital bench because of a diagnosis that came too late.
“The way those children were sitting,” he says, recalling a recent hospital visit, “with tubes inserted all over their bodies. It’s disheartening.” These children had meningitis related to tuberculosis (TB).
Unfortunately, getting that diagnosis can take up to six hospital visits, wasting valuable time that could have been used to treat the condition as soon as something serious was suspected.
Chegou, a full Professor at Stellenbosch University (SU), is developing rapid TB diagnostics that can be used at the point of care. His team already devised a finger-prick test that’s undergoing field trials in Africa and Asia, and he’s working with medical specialists on tests for conditions like TB meningitis.
His trajectory towards quicker TB testing in the African context took off around 2008, during a conversation with his PhD supervisor. TB diagnostics did exist, but Chegou figured that there must be other TB markers they could look at that were not detected by those tests.
They soon found what they were looking for, and he remembers thinking, “this is so simple, why has nobody done this before?
“That was a moment that will remain with me for a long time, and that was the beginning of all the other things we are doing now,” says Chegou.
Besides the students he directly supervises on these projects in the Medicine and Health Sciences faculty, Chegou also provides full bursaries and research resources to four postgraduate engineering students at SU.
The prototypes they are creating together, and those devised in collaboration with others, are promising and gaining global recognition.
“The interest shown by the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND) and other major companies so far, attests to the potential impact that these tests will have in the management of TB disease globally,” says Chegou.
Prof Novel Chegou won the TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Researcher, for an outstanding contribution through research and its outputs over a period from 6 years up to 15 years of research work from the commencement of the research career, predominantly in South Africa.
Prize sponsor: proSET (Professionals in science, engineering and technology), a sector of the NSTF representing almost 50 professional and learned societies. — ScienceLink
Talk to the trees, but don’t forget the people who rely on them
On a long drive from Cape Town to his birthplace in Malawi, Prof Paxie Chirwa can’t help but notice just how much plant life has been lost.
“This loss is not from natural calamities. It’s mostly due to human impact,” he says. “So to me, the idea is to understand why it is so, and how we can actually help people use this resource sustainably.”
As the chair and director of the Forest Postgraduate Programme at University of Pretoria (UP), he believes in a participatory approach to protecting forests.
He says previously, the focus was heavily on regulation for conservation. “Don’t touch this, don’t do that. But now, I think there’s a turn around — if you want to improve conservation, you have to bring people in at the centre of it all,” says Chirwa.
“In the past when I did research it was very much that you go and talk to the trees, so to speak,” he says. Scientists would study the ecology, measuring tree responses and so on, but they did not always engage communities or incorporate their indigenous knowledge about an area.
He says participatory management and adaptive resource management means that forestry researchers must work together with policy regulators, community leaders, scientists and other forestry professionals to prolong resources.
Chirwa has had a strong hand in training many of these forestry professionals.
He says the growing University of Pretoria programme has attracted several students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Besides contributing knowledge to the field as students, many have taken up management positions or joined industry. Others have taken their learnings to international universities as career academics.
Under Chirwa’s leadership, the programme continues to work on public-private partnership models to engage communities in sustainable development, particularly in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.
He says conserving natural resources is in some cases directly linked to climate change mitigation, and that communities can also benefit financially from conservation activities.
Prof Paxie Chirwa won the Management Award for his outstanding contribution through management of science, engineering, technology and innovation and related activities over the last 5 to 10 years.
Water and health sensors for Africans, by Africans
TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher
Prof Usisipho Feleni, an associate professor in electrochemistry at UNISA, began her career with a mind to help people living with HIV.
“I had lost an aunt at a very young age who was taking this medication,” she says. Now, she wants to find ways to monitor the concentration of any drug that would affect humans.
During her PhD studies, she developed a sensor prototype to detect a breast cancer drug in patients. This technology could help doctors determine how quickly the drug metabolises in an individual for better personalised care.
Feleni shared this innovation with the public through many media interviews in 2016, and has gone on to win several local and international awards and fellowships since.
Her team is currently working on technologies that could be used to monitor drug contaminants like antibiotics and painkillers in wastewater, and she is tackling other sensing technologies around HIV, cholera and Covid-19.
With her first patent submitted, Feleni says it is critical to develop such technologies locally. She hopes to support the Africa Agenda 2063 by producing materials that are cheap but highly sensitive, eventually resulting in marketable products and skilled jobs.
“Not everybody is interested in being in academia, but people want to be in innovation.” she says. “So it is very important for us to start generating data that lead to patents, so that we could open companies that will be focusing on diagnostics in South Africa.”
She adds that we need in-house diagnostic centres to train the next generation, and that developing her own students’ skills is a key driver for her. She currently supervises several master’s and doctoral students, as well as postdoctoral fellows.
“I want to ensure that my students are also gaining some experience, and making connections at a young age, so that they can be very competitive in future,” she says.
Feleni herself has spent time at several universities abroad, including in the United States and Spain, and will soon be heading to China. She collaborates widely and is also a visiting lecturer at the University of the Western Cape.
Prof Usisipho Feleni won the TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher for an outstanding contribution through research and its outputs over a period of up to 6 years of research work from the commencement of the research career, predominantly in South Africa, prizes sponsored by the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS). — ScienceLink
From rugby player to UP’s young evolutionary biology star
TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher
When Dr Daniel Hart first entered university, he was only there to play sport. Gradually though, he was drawn further and further into biological research by excellent mentors, who helped him hone his knack for finding patterns where others miss them.
“I was a brutish rugby player, walking around with no shoes,” he says. “But every single time I spoke to a senior academic it always piqued my fancy. When I met Prof Nigel Bennet it just went from zero to 100%, and I’ve been able to work and collaborate with some of the top people in the world.”
Bennet is a world-renowned zoologist based at the University of Pretoria, and Hart is now a senior research fellow in Bennet’s African mole rat research lab.
Hart studies how mole rats evolved abilities that humans might call super-powers. These abilities include slower ageing, surviving in low oxygen conditions, preventing pregnancy in a natural way, and being insensitive to pain.
“Discovering patterns where there shouldn’t be a pattern is my ‘wow’ moment,” says Hart.
For example, a few years ago when he was catching mole rats for colleagues in Germany, he kept being bitten by ants sharing the underground burrows. The bites were rather painful, so he wondered why the mole rats appeared unaffected.
Upon further research he realised that the ants inject formic acid when they bite, which attacks the nervous system of mammals.
After further testing on the mole rats, Hart and his colleagues discovered that these creatures had evolved unique genes to bypass the pain response.
That research led to Hart’s first publication in one of the top international journals, Science, in 2019. More publications in Science and Nature journals are expected soon on various mole-rat ‘super-powers’.
He says that discovering the underlying biological mechanisms that drive such unique abilities and behaviours could help inform how humans adapt to climate change and treat diseases like cancer.
Hart has already had several of these ‘eureka moments’ that all scientists dream of, despite being only at the start of what promises to be an impactful career.
“I’m not a very artistic person, but … I find it beautiful to look for patterns and the processes that appear in nature. What drives me and what keeps me up at night is being able to put together pieces of information that seem to be unrelated, but actually form this complex web of what keeps an animal going and keeps the ecosystem going,” says Hart.
Dr Daniel Hart won the TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging Researcher for an outstanding contribution through research and its outputs over a period of up to 6 years of research work from the commencement of the research career, predominantly in South Africa, prizes sponsored by the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS).
Wits Prof a ‘big sister’ to young, black, female researchers
Engineering Research Capacity Development Award
Black women engineers are thriving at Wits under the leadership of their ‘big sister’, Prof Nosipho Moloto.
Moloto, an inorganic chemistry professor, is the DSI/NRF/Nedbank SARChI Chair in Energy Materials. Her projects include creating technologies for faster wound healing and renewable energy.
Globally, only 22% of materials science and engineering researchers are female, but Moloto’s ‘Nanoweb’ group of principal investigators are 83% black women, and more than half of the group’s postgraduates are female.
“We are few creatures … in this male-dominated sector,” says Moloto. She knows how hard it is for women to work as female engineering academics, and yet women bring different perspectives that can be very valuable. She says women can often be more meticulous, thoughtful and caring.
She cares especially about the impact new technologies she’s working on would have on an ordinary South African, such as a homemaker, or someone who did not have access to good education. “What would be the point of making complex technologies that nobody can understand how to use?”
One of the technologies Moloto is piloting is wound dressing for people who suffer from chronic wounds, such as those living with HIV or diabetes. It uses silver particles that promote faster healing and does not have to be changed. The dressing is also made using local raw materials, and it is biodegradable and non-toxic.
She says her work considers local conditions and what ordinary people need, and she actively builds expertise within historically disadvantaged communities to do the same.
Moloto very intentionally recruits black females to her group, and has created an environment sensitive to their wellbeing. “I think they naturally gravitate towards another female, and they feel I can relate to balancing things like studying and starting a family.
“They see me as a big sister, so in that sense it is easy, and I’m happy they are doing well.”
Her team is currently working on commercialising products and services for energy and biomedical applications.
She says she was lucky to progress so quickly academically, to lead such a successful group, and to develop useful technologies. But her work and mentorship hints instead at an innate brilliance and long-term vision.
“What I would like to see is that we don’t think of gender; we don’t think of race. We just think: these are all scientists; these are good engineers.”
Prof Nosipho Moloto received the Engineering Research Capacity Development Award for an outstanding contribution by an individual or a team over the last 5 to 10 years, sponsored by Eskom since 2003. — ScienceLink
It’s all about the ululating families at graduation, says UKZN Prof
Engineering Research Capacity Development Award
Three things motivate Prof Onisimo Mutanga: creating new knowledge; bridging the gap between science and action for the common people; and training tomorrow’s problem solvers.
He wins an NSTF-Eskom award for ‘Engineering Research Capacity Development’, largely in honour of the many previously disadvantaged students he has managed to attract to postgraduate studies.
So far, he’s helped 32 PhD’s and 58 MSc’s walk across the stage with qualifications in the field of spatial sciences. “I feel so happy and satisfied … when I see them ululating at graduation with their families, brothers and sisters,” he says.
His lab uses remote sensing technology to support farm, rangeland and forest management, by monitoring things like vegetation quality, invasive species and crop health.
Mutanga began focussing on this research, and on training students, when he was appointed as the SARChI Chair in Land-use Planning and Management at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) five years ago. “I feel that I have a calling for research more than administration,” he says.
Indeed, he’s made several advancements in remote sensing science since, especially on approaches and products that work for poorer countries in the Global South. The global community is taking note — Mutanga is often invited to speak internationally, to serve on various boards and to edit high profile journals.
He says his students gain skills in sensor design, data analysis, fire detection, and burnt area mapping, among many others. Some of their skills are also valuable to electricity producers like Eskom for monitoring power lines.
“My approach to research and training of PhD students via the paper publication route has inspired a strong research culture,” he says. He also trains his postdoctoral team to supervise MSc and PhD students.
“By the time they leave my lab, they will have acquired thought-leadership skills, developed skills in funding applications and established international collaboration links,” says Mutanga.
Mutanga is an NRF B-rated scientist with more than 300 scientific publications. “The quest for new knowledge is the primary driving force behind my work,” he says. “The thrill of pushing the boundaries of understanding and contributing to the advancement of remote sensing fuels my passion.”
Prof Onisimo Mutanga won the Engineering Research Capacity Development Award for an outstanding contribution by an individual over the last 5 to 10 years. — ScienceLink
eThekwini’s water experts want to plug demand and supply gaps
NSTF-Water Research Commission (WRC) Award
A contribution to new knowledge, skilled graduates and tools for better water management flows from the Centre for Water Resources Research (CWRR) at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
“I think all of us recognise that water is probably the most critical resource in South Africa,” says the Director of the CWRR, Prof Jeff Smithers.
“We have for a long time been living with demand for water exceeding the supply and availability, and this has been exacerbated by deteriorating water governance and maintenance of water infrastructure, such as distribution networks and waste water treatment works. At the CWRR we are trying to narrow that gap, by developing improved water management practices and governance,” says Smithers.
As agriculture is the biggest user of water in South Africa, the CWRR puts significant resources into modelling water systems related to agricultural production, such as irrigation. They assess how land-use, climate change and catchment management impact on water availability and quality.
Smithers says that through research and innovation, we can make improvements in water use efficiency, for example in irrigation, which would make water available to meet other demands.
The CWRR has done detailed modelling of water systems to estimate the impact of different tree species on runoff, and on the amount of water that fills up dams. “This estimate of the impacts of afforestation on runoff is currently being used by the Department of Water and Sanitation to determine charges for stream flow reduction caused by the forest industry.”
They’ve also looked into the potential impacts of climate change on crop yields and on the amount of water available from catchments. “There’s a lot of uncertainty given the range of predictions that are coming from different climate change models,” he says, “and the consequences vary across the country.
“What we really aim to do is to make sure we are generating new knowledge and improved understanding, in order to develop tools and data information systems that can be used by industry.”
Since 2012, a total of 63 Honours, 59 Master’s and 33 PhD students working on CWRR projects have graduated, with expertise in hydrology and related earth and engineering sciences.
“In terms of human capacity development, I think we’ve made a significant contribution,” says Smithers. “There has been a lot of new knowledge generated and capacity developed with postgraduate studies, giving us a new understanding of hydrological processes and water resources management.”
The Centre for Water Resource Research won the NSTF-WRC award for a contribution by an individual or an organisation towards sustainable water management, knowledge generation and solutions over the last 5 to 10 years. The award has been sponsored by the WRC since 2017.
Global praise for SA’s freshwater biodiversity tracker
Data for Research Award
huge amount of scientific data about local freshwater species is now freely available on an online platform known as the Freshwater Biodiversity Information System, or FBIS.
This platform, which was built by the Freshwater Research Centre (FRC), in partnership with Kartoza and the South African National Biodiversity Institute, wins the ‘Data for Research’ award.
Dr Helen Dallas, executive director of the FRC, says before they built FBIS, data collected by researchers and students over the years would often “get stuck on a shelf”, or in a spreadsheet on someone’s computer.
“That shouldn’t be the end of the journey,” she says. “We wanted to create a space that brought all of this information together; all of these huge and valuable data records, to be reused multiple times for different purposes.”
Having been in this field for over 30 years, Dallas says many people had approached her informally for information about freshwater biodiversity.
She says many also struggled to easily find such information elsewhere, and so her team quickly realised that there is demand for a formal, easy-to-use ‘dashboard’ to access all of the scientific data we have about freshwater biodiversity in South Africa.
Her team first consulted with end-users to get their exact requirements, so that they could build FBIS in a way people would actually use.
Users can, for example, punch in the name of a critically endangered species, and the platform will provide what we know about that species’ distribution and threat status, and whether or not it is endemic.
“Data from the FBIS platform is already being integrated into the environmental impact assessment (EIA) screening tool of the Department Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE),” says Dallas. In practice, this could mean that when a new development is planned on a wetland or near a river, the FBIS platform will be part of the mandatory process to assess the impact on biodiversity.
The platform has received high praise locally and internationally. Dallas says she felt particularly proud when their original vision come to life through the dashboards created by their technical partner Kartoza.
“It feels like I’ve raised a child and it’s extremely rewarding,” she says, adding that the project has already gone “way beyond the borders of South Africa”.
“We’ve got colleagues in Europe that just love what we’ve done,” says Dallas. “We’ve also got a system in Rwanda and Okavango, and you can see the excitement on the platform.”
She says talks are underway for a global repository of freshwater biodiversity based on the South African FBIS.
FBIS can be accessed at freshwaterbiodiversity.org.
The Freshwater Biodiversity Information System (FBIS) Team, Freshwater Research Centre (FRC) and Kartoza won the Data for Research Award for advancing the availability, management and re-use of research data.
Surgery will be safer for African mothers, says UCT Prof
NSTF-SAMRC Clinician-Scientist Award
Prof Salome Maswime wants to see the African community as a whole receive safe and timely surgical care, especially pregnant women.
She is an obstetrician, gynaecologist and Head of Global Surgery in the Department of Medicine at the University of Cape Town.
‘Global surgery’ combines several disciplines to provide better and equitable surgical care. This is critical in Africa, where maternal mortality remains high.
When Maswime was a junior doctor, she lost a patient to anaesthetic complications, because she and her team did not have the skills to help. “These are skills that can be taught to medical officers and junior doctors — you don’t need to be a specialist,” she says.
She says global surgery is about how to capacitate healthcare workers looking after patients, to make better and timely decisions. “These are simple, system issues,” she says.
Maswime turned to research to improve outcomes for mothers who undergo caesarean sections. She went on to become one of the first experts to establish global surgery as its own discipline in Africa.
A key turning point for her was during her first few international meetings at the World Health Organization (WHO). “Suddenly I found myself in rooms where healthcare in Africa was being discussed, with hardly any people from the African continent in the rooms,” she says.
Maswime realised then that there’s much to be done on health leadership and science in Africa. She says there are two key areas that the surgical community needs to do better on: understanding the patient, and engaging with the communities they serve.
“It’s one thing to operate on a woman with cervical cancer, to remove the uterus and to do all the major things. But has anyone stopped to ask patients, ‘how much do you know about pap smears?’ or ‘do you do pap smears routinely?’,” she says. Pap smears can help detect cervical cancer early, and earlier treatment can improve patient outcomes.
“Even within the hospital space, there’s a lot of things that we can do to improve the flow of work and to make our services accessible to many more people,” says Maswime. “But we often don’t tap into that because we are used to just using what is there.”
Maswime hopes the success of her ongoing work will one day be measured by concrete impacts on our complicated health systems, and by how much the surgical outcomes and life expectancy of African patients improve.
Prof Salome Maswime won the NSTF-SAMRC Clinician-Scientist Award for her contribution through research and its outputs over a period of up to 6 years of research work from the commencement of the research career, predominantly in SA, and focussed on work to enhance life and to improve the health of the community. This award is sponsored by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC). — ScienceLink
Alex residents co-create natural solution to sewage spills
Green Economy Award
A psychologist by training, Prof Andrew Thatcher is today one of the leading global experts in a field called ‘human factors and ergonomics’, or HFE.
Simply put, HFE is a holistic discipline that looks at how our wellbeing is affected by the systems around us.
“We are not just the thinking-feeling part,” says Thatcher, a professor in cognitive ergonomics at Wits. “We are also made up of an anatomy and a physiology, that engages within an environment.”
In South Africa, that environment was shaped by the political and socio-geographic consequences of apartheid, with many people still living in extreme poverty because of it.
Thatcher says the poorest of the poor in South Africa live in constantly changing environments, where many complex and dynamic systems interact to affect their well-being.
In the Setswetla informal settlement of Alexandra (Johannesburg) for instance, Thatcher’s team looked into nature-based solutions to collect and treat grey water as part of the URBWAT project. But, they quickly had to adapt their thinking as new houses went up every couple of weeks, and the sewerage system kept breaking.
“We were trying to fix a grey water problem but you’ve got raw sewage running through people’s houses.”
Thatcher’s team then worked with, and learned from, the community to design and build small wetlands for greywater treatment, but also to redirect sewage away from people’s houses. The intervention addressed other community needs too, like flood water protection, raised pathways, and cleaning areas that were more ergonomically suitable.
The City of Johannesburg was excited about how much the URBWAT project improved residents’ lives, says Thatcher. He adds that with the risk of further human displacement due to climate change, more informal settlements should get involved in creating such low-cost, nature based solutions.
Thatcher has already started working towards URBWAT:2, which will work with the Setswetla community to develop a black-owned business to design, construct and maintain these systems.
His team is also looking at applying a similar co-design strategy for nature-based treatment solutions to deal with acid mine drainage, while extracting rare earth elements from this hazardous mine waste.
It is innovative projects like these that have led to several job offers from international universities over the years, but Thatcher has turned them all down.
“The type of work I would be doing in another country … wouldn’t have the type of impact on people and society that it could have here,” he says.
Prof Andrew Thatcher won the Green Economy Award for an outstanding contribution towards achieving biodiversity conservation, environmental sustainability and a greener economy over the last 5 to 10 years, sponsored by the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA). — ScienceLink
Maverick chemist has the Midas touch
Innovation Award: Small, Medium and Micro Enterprise (SMME)
Never before have humans been able to turn plant waste in its entirety back into something of value.
Call it alchemy or the Midas touch, but young Tshepo Mangoele first knew he was onto something in 2017, lying on his kitchen floor, watching a chemical reaction in a glass beaker.
“I found a way of doing this dual lignin extraction — there’s lignin and it precipitates out with the carboxylic acid. I know it’s very maverick — like how I started doing this science,” says Mangoele.
As a nature lover, he at first saw this chemical reaction as a way to create something useful from the fibrous waste of alien invasive plants at Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo, for instance.
The lignin he precipitated in his kitchen is indeed very valuable, with applications in UV-resistant cosmetics, fuels, construction and agriculture.
Today, his company LignOrganic is the first sulphur-free lignin producer in Africa, and the first in the world to achieve ‘total biomass valorisation’.
“In simple terms, this means taking plant material and being able to use every part of it,” says the 28-year-old Mangoele.
He explains that typically, a company that makes paper from wood, for example, only creates value from 33% of the plant biomass. The rest is burned or thrown away as waste.
Besides high-purity lignin, LignOrganic uses 100% of its biomass waste inputs to produce other products. This includes bio-surfactants used in their ‘O’phyll’ skincare soaps (ophyll.co.za), and lignin-free wood sugars.
“Our work is important as we are helping the world move from using fossil fuels to using more plant-based products,” says Mangoele.
He says the Department of Science and Innovation and the Technology Innovation Agency assisted with funding to get the company off the ground. LignOrganic also collaborates with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the University of Witwatersrand on research, and has established partnerships for industry trials.
“The next step now is building a bigger facility. We’re also increasing the team size and getting more investors on board. But the biggest challenge now that we are working on day and night, is to get distribution for our products,” says Mangoele.
LignOrganic won the Innovation Award for an SMME for innovations and their research and/or development for their contribution over the last 5 to 10 years. This award is sponsored, including prizes, by the National Intellectual Property Management Office (NIPMO). — ScienceLink
Futuristic jet prototype preparing for takeoff
Innovation Award: SMME
A local medical doctor has developed a prototype aircraft that could be used for tricky rescue airlifts and emergency air transportation, by combining the best features of a helicopter and a business jet.
This ‘Pegasus’ aircraft looks just like a small jet, but doesn’t need a runway. “It’s the first time that a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) vehicle can match a business jet when it comes to things like speed, range, and payload, as well as number of passengers,” says Dr Reza Mia, chairman and founder of Pegasus Universal Aerospace (PUA).
He says it will also be safer than either a helicopter or a plane. “A plane is able to stall and possibly fall out of the sky. If that was to happen to Pegasus, the wings would open, the fans would turn on and you’d be in vertical takeoff mode.”
Primarily self-funded, PUA is currently testing quarter-scale models that have a wing-span of four metres. They’ve also just partnered with an automation and robotics company to take things forward.
“The thing that excites us most is what we’ll be doing next with them, which is building a full-scale, manned aeroplane that will do the full job of vertical-takeoff-and-landing transition to forward flight, then transition back to vertical-takeoff mode, and then land like a helicopter,” says Mia.
Mia says his ‘entrepreneurial bootstrapping’ approach is something that could make a big difference in the South African science and technology space, so this project is about much more than an aircraft.
He explains that unlike in the US and Europe, there is little funding available here for ambitious projects that still need to go through technical feasibility studies. His team thus adopted a more unique development approach.
“I think there’s nowhere else in the world that anybody could have really made the progress we’ve made with the little money we’ve used.” Mia attributes their success since 2012 to tapping into knowledge that exists, creating what didn’t exist, and identifying what they didn’t know yet.
“Through that process of uncovering new ideas and new channels, we were able to do things that people in other countries would not have expected us to be able to do.”
Mia hopes that his unusual journey as an inventor will inspire the youth in our country. “You know, I’m a doctor. I’ve studied business but I’ve never studied engineering. So when I wanted to learn about it, I bought books. I went on the internet and I studied the materials and the aerodynamics.”
The Pegasus aircraft concept was recently featured in the futuristic blockbuster The Lost City by Paramount Pictures.
Pegasus Universal Aerospace won the SMME Innovation Award sponsored, including prizes, for a contribution by an individual or a team in an SMME over the last 5 to 10 years. — ScienceLink
Wits prof sees stars in our eyes for planetarium revamp
Exploring the unknown and sharing what we find with others has always been a very human endeavour, says local astrophysics celebrity, Prof Roger Deane.
Deane was one of several scientists across the globe who in 2022 shared the very first image of the black hole at the centre of our galaxy, called Sagittarius A*.
“I hosted a press conference in the planetarium … and we had a live stream synchronous with press conferences in Washington DC and in Munich, Germany,” he says.
“It was just incredible to feel the sense of history in the 62 years that the planetarium had been in operation,” says Deane, “but also this historic moment in sharing this first image of the Milky Way black hole with the community.”
He is of course referring to Johannesburg’s treasured Wits Planetarium, which is currently being transformed into a flagship science engagement facility, the Wits Anglo American Digital Dome.
The revamp is one of Deane’s priorities as director of the Centre for Astrophysics at Wits, and will see new ways of immersing the public, especially youth, in space exploration.
Deane is also the national Research Chair in Radio Astronomy. He sees his roles as a researcher and as a science communicator as “completely intertwined and overlapping”.
Astronomy is one of the oldest scientific disciplines when it comes to exploring the universe, he says, yet it relies on the latest technology in equipment, algorithms, data and artificial intelligence.
“So there is a bigger mission; it’s not just about astrophysics,” says Deane. “There’s been a very high level of strategic investment in astronomy in South Africa to build up high tech skills and to build up expertise within young people.”
This strategic capacity building in STEM fields that go far beyond astrophysics is a key reason why Deane communicates so well with the public, and so often.
Besides finding novel ways to excite the public about the potential of the Digital Dome, he’s shared science with society via hundreds of public lectures, national and international media interviews, and popular articles.
A critical measure of success for Deane will be how the public’s engagement with South African astrophysics research grows. “I think the Digital Dome is definitely an important step towards that, especially in strengthening the network of planetariums, and more broadly astrophysics engagement in the South African community.”
Professor Roger Deane won the Communication Award for contributing to outreach and creating awareness of science, engineering, technology and innovation by a team or individual over the last 5 years. — ScienceLink
Western Cape kids say ‘I can’ despite trauma
Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Award
It is a victory, however small, when a distressed child makes a pact with their therapist that they will not take their own life this month, when yesterday they would only commit to this week.
An anti-suicide contract sounds extreme and graphic, but that is the level of distress many South African children find themselves in, says Gerrit Laning. He is the CEO of Community Keepers (CK), a non-profit organisation that creates safe spaces in schools in the Western Cape, reaching over 30 000 learners each year.
He says many kids are living in survival-mode, meaning they’re carrying trauma that triggers a near constant fight-flight-or-freeze response that prevents learning. “This is a scientific and neurological fact. Their higher brain function has been bypassed,” says Laning.
”And sadly, that’s where we get the narrative that says kids from underserved communities or from low income communities are stupid or that they are slow, or that they are lazy — all of those are untrue.”
Unfortunately, mental health services are generally more accessible in the private sector or to well-resourced people who can pay for it, says Laning. The innovation behind CK is that by being physically present at schools, children in need have immediate access to services that can help prevent or treat mental health crises.
“When a child knocks at the door, they should be able to access our service immediately or as soon as possible. That’s one of the things that we hold very, very dearly,” says Laning. “We are serving a range of needs, not just from a reactive perspective, but also from a preventative or an early-intervention perspective.”
He says that when CK staff manage to nurture an “I can” attitude to life, the children are better able to transcend their physical circumstances and reach their full potential. The staff are a blend of professional mental health workers, supported by younger community members trained as Mental Health First Aiders.
Their work and learnings also feed back into the academic knowledge system through research collaborations with the University of Stellenbosch and the University of Cape Town.
Together they’ve produced many peer-reviewed publications, including several on their successful ‘Four Steps to My Future’ group-work intervention, which helps reduce anxiety in children.
Community Keepers won the NGO Award for their contribution, including technology transfer and education and training activities over the last 5 to 10 years. — ScienceLink
The Green marine geology machine
Special Annual Theme Award: Ocean Science for Sustainable Development
In South Africa, the geological sciences are often associated with mining on dry land. However, with rising sea levels and a wealth of off-shore minerals to explore, the demand for marine geologists is growing.
“There’s very few of us,” says Prof Andrew Green.
After years of advocating for marine geology to support governance and management in South Africa, he now heads Africa’s first and only marine geology research unit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is set to co-manage the unit with his former student, Dr Nonkululeko Dladla, who was the first black woman to graduate with a PhD in marine geology in South Africa.
Marine geology looks at the ocean’s ancient past. It shot to prominence in South Africa a few years ago when Green linked increased storminess in the southwest Indian Ocean to warming sea surface temperatures.
“That opened a whole dialogue with all sorts of local and national governmental agencies, agencies further afield in Mozambique and in Tanzania, and even beyond Africa,” says Green. His data on extreme wave events, cyclones and storm threats are now being incorporated into provincial, local and cooperative governance planning.
Green says some of his research has also changed how we understand the way dunes and barrier islands respond to sea level rise. “Those have gone on to form the underpinnings of global policy, in terms of establishing whether or not you withdraw from rising sea levels or whether you defend against them.”
Unfortunately, South Africa is still lagging behind when it comes to coastal geological mapping and the management of marine natural resources and mineral wealth, says Green. “All of these things are the fundamental role of a marine geologist, but we just don’t have the critical infrastructure to meet those needs.”
He says the Marine Geology Research Unit at UKZN needs more staff and resources to graduate high-calibre students who will take up employment within the blue economy. Marine geology degrees are in demand in industry, and are needed at the Council for Geoscience, says Green.
He is grateful that he’s been able to grow the field in South Africa with the support of international experts and mentors, and he now serves on editorial boards alongside them.
“It’s been a fantastic peak in my career — the kindness of people who took me under their wings,” he says. “I finally got my little place in the sun where I’ve gotten that thumbs-up from my international colleagues, which just really tickles me absolutely pink.”
Prof Andrew Green won the Special Annual Theme Award for research and development in ocean science for sustainable development in South Africa. This is in recognition of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. — ScienceLink
Mjwara celebrated as ‘black eagle’ for taking SA science to new heights
Special NSTF Ukhozi Award: Silver Jubilee – NSTF Awards
South Africa’s national science, technology and innovation (STI) trajectory has been in the charge of Dr Philemon Mjwara since 2006.
He was appointed as Director-General (DG) of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in April that year. He’s helped drive the idea that STI should be a key national priority alongside South Africa’s many pressing socioeconomic challenges, since we can’t fix one without the other. As DG of the Department, Mjwara has been supportive of the NSTF as the STI stakeholder body since his appointment.
He is awarded the special NSTF Ukhozi trophy. ‘Ukhozi’ means ‘eagle’ in isiZulu, and here especially refers to the Black Eagle, or Verreaux’s Eagle. This eagle is indigenous to South Africa and the continent, and symbolises flying high and seeing the bigger picture.
“The day that I see it is natural and instinctive for the government of South Africa, the private sector and civil society, to think we can find a solution from the national system of innovation, I am the happiest man,” says Mjwara.
That day is just beginning to dawn, he says, because South African scientists are making more and more significant contributions to global governance.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic it was very pleasing to hear the president of the country asking our Minister of Science and Innovation, ‘what does science say about this?’.”
The country’s scientists were able to undertake genomics surveillance and advise on vaccines, thanks to investments the government made in biotechnology in the early 2000s, says Mjwara.
Later in the 2000s, the government also started building capacity in universities around green hydrogen, so Mjwara was glad when a billion dollar green hydrogen fund was announced recently, in partnership with the Netherlands and Denmark.
“We are beginning to have a sound system that is looked upon to drive investments of the order of billions of rand with international partners. I couldn’t be happier,” he says.
He is also particularly proud to see our scientists prominent on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and to have been part of South Africa’s bid to host the world’s biggest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).
“We were convincing and showing the international community that even though we might be a small country on the tip of the African continent, we can deliver as much as any other country anywhere in the world.”
He says the MeerKAT telescope, a smaller array in the Northern Cape that will form part of the SKA, is currently the best performing and most sensitive radio telescope in the world.
“It’s not what I’ve done, but it’s the efforts of all in the science system that has made this country proud,” says Mjara.
He is now looking forward to working with other government departments to build South Africa’s science knowledge enterprise. “They will work with us in committing resources to take some of the investments and some of the ready solutions that we have developed over the years, and embed them in their programmes.
“I hope even when I’m gone, this should become the way that South Africans do things,” he says.
Dr Philemon Mjwara won the Ukhozi Award in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the NSTF Awards, and for an essential contribution to STI in South Africa, as well as to the NSTF over many years. — ScienceLink