Excellence redefined in complex times
On 30 September 2021, the prestigious NSTF-South32 Awards took place. This, the 23rd celebration of South African excellence, stood out not just for the exceptional array of talent, skills and success stories, but the complex times in which this talent had to work. As the Covid-19 pandemic continued to complicate working environments and access to information and materials, many of those recognised today managed to achieve the almost impossible. Some stood in airport cargo storage, refusing to leave until critical, life-saving materials were released; others continued to push the envelopes of innovation in spite of external pressures and complexities.
As Jansie Niehaus, Executive Director of the NSTF points out: “Awards for scientific research are more important than ever. Researchers are working under increasingly constrained conditions. They are teaching online, juggling incredible workloads, and doing all this while dealing with severely cut research funding in South Africa. It’s so important that we recognise people who have risen above these constraints and achieved excellence nonetheless.”
The people of South Africa withstood the onslaught of the pandemic with bravery and commitment, and the Awards this year reflect this across every category. “These Awards are designed to shine a light on the incredible work undertaken by the winners, and their consistent commitment to research, studies and their work,” says Niehaus.
“We want to highlight the talent in this country and ignite further research and investment. We need more opportunities for medical research, especially in epidemiology and vaccines, and we need more people to look at careers in the sciences. These fields of study and research have never been more important than they are today. And many of the advancements made in science, technology and health are thanks to the decades of research that have gone before. I want to urge researchers to continue with their work, because everything they do makes a difference to our future.”
The NSTF-South32 Awards not only reflect South Africa’s scientific achievements but a positive transformation in the sciences as a whole. There is participation in the Awards by people from a variety of backgrounds and institutions during an unprecedented time in human history.
The NSTF is the non-profit stakeholder body for all science, engineering, technology (SET) and innovation organisations in South Africa. Representing SET as a single body, it is an independent, collaborative platform that advances and embodies continued conversations around science.
The NSTF-South32 2020/2021 Winners
All awards are for an outstanding contributions to SET and innovation:
Professor Raymond Durrheim is the South African Research Chair in Exploration, Earthquake and Mining Seismology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). He has applied his extensive expertise in geophysics and seismology to learn how the Earth works; to find ore bodies and energy resources; and how to make mining safer and more efficient. Throughout his 40-year career in academia, industry and contract R&D with different organisations, he has tackled problems, provided practical applications, and resolved ethical issues concerning mineral exploration, geohazard mitigation and sustainable resource extraction.
Special Annual Theme Award: Creative economy for sustainable development
Dr Tegan Bristow built the Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival as a joint project between Wits University and the Tshimologong Innovation Precinct. The focus of the event is to support and develop multi-sector work in the digital creative industries in Africa, and it has subsequently been recognised by the British Council Commission as one of the most important festivals for art, culture and technology in Africa.
TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Researcher
Professor Bruce Mellado from Wits University won the award for his contributions to the discovery of the Higgs boson with the Large Hadron Electron Collider and the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
TW Kambule-NSTF Award:
Dr Boitumelo Innocent Ramatsetse from Wits University won for his research on modelling and performance evaluation of reconfigurable vibrating screens through field and laboratory experiments. He designed and developed an innovative beneficiation solution called the “Reconfigurable Vibrating Screen”, a first of its kind solution that is locally manufactured in South Africa and is used to separate mineral particles according to sizes.
Dr Sheetal Silal from the University of Cape Town (UCT) won for her mathematical disease modelling that moved beyond theoretical mathematics to combine knowledge from biology, clinical medicine, public health and economics to develop models that shaped health policy and improved public health. From advising on hospital beds to projecting mortality, these disease models are implemented globally.
Professor Stephanie Burton won the Management Award for her work at the University of Pretoria (UP). After a successful career as an academic, she became the deputy vice-chancellor (Research and Postgraduate Education) at UP, and over nine years she has been responsible for the management of all aspects of strategic research development, creating a significant increase in the university’s research productivity and national and international standing.
Engineering Research Capacity Development Awards
Professor Michael Claeys from UCT was given this Award for his work in catalysis. Catalysis significantly shapes modern society and lies at the heart of 90% of production processes for chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals. Claeys focuses on understanding catalyst sustainability and improvements.
Professor Philiswa Nosizo Nomngongo leads the analytical environmental chemistry group in the department of applied chemistry at the University of Johannesburg. Her research focuses on organic and inorganic pollutants in environmental, biological and other matrices. She won the Award for ensuring that the environment and water are safe for a sustainable future.
NSTF-Water Research Commission Award
This Award was made to Professor Paul Oberholster from the University of the Free State to recognise his scientific contribution to water resource management in South Africa over the past 10 years, with special reference to the field of biological passive wastewater treatment. His research focuses on using algae to treat acid mine drainage and domestic wastewater to facilitate the effective removal of pollutants.
Data for Research Award
The School of Geosciences at Wits University won the Data for Research Award in recognition for the techniques developed to use legacy data to explore for mineral resources, to support safe and efficient mining, and to assess and mitigate geohazards. Because geological, geophysical and geochemical data is expensive to collect, but essential to the wellbeing of South African mining, the methods developed make a significant difference to data collection, analysis and geohazard mapping.
Innovation Award: Corporate Organisation
The Biomimicry Diagnostic Verification Controls team from Wits University, represented by Professor Bavesh Kana, won this award for their use of biomimicry to verify the accuracy of diagnostic tests for Covid-19 and other infectious diseases. The team’s work significantly reduced the risk burden on testers and improved test verification procedures, enabling the verification of Covid-19 diagnostics in South Africa, and is now being deployed in 14 other countries.
Innovation Award: Small, Medium and Micro Enterprise (SMME)
ROC Water Technologies, funded by THRIP (DTIC), WRC and the Innovation Hub, with support from postgraduate students at the University of Limpopo, Tshwane University of Technology and UP, developed a series of technologies that allow the processing of liquid and solid wastes from the mining, power station and fertiliser industries to recover water of drinking quality and saleable products.
Professor Carolina Öddman from the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) won for her outstanding promotion of academic research and teaching in science for development. She made significant contributions to the multi-disciplinary research into building a scientific vocabulary in African languages at UWC.
The Outlook Foundation won this Award for organising and rolling out empowerment activities to the youth in disadvantaged areas where resources are poor and young people have limited exposure to future or available opportunities and development programmes. — Tamsin Oxford
The Lifetime Award
Earth science challenges tackled head-on
Africa’s rich mining history and community, its stark landscapes, remarkable geology and its unique elevations and geological considerations make it the ideal setting to investigate critical scientific questions. And this is precisely what Professor Raymond Durrheim, the South African Research Chair in Exploration, Earthquake and Mining Seismology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), set out to do, spending more than 40 years in academia, industry and contract R&D tackling earth science problems with passion.
It is this passion, and his commitment to this field of study, that has seen him walk away with the prestigious NSTF-South32 Lifetime Award, an award that recognises an outstanding contribution over a lifetime by an individual for 15 years or more.
Over his 40-year career, Durrheim has looked at challenges that span curiosity-driven research in geodynamics and practical applications to mineral exploration, mining and geohazard mitigation; and he has examined ethical issues around the sustainable extraction of resources — a body of work that really does underpin the lifeblood of South Africa and Africa. It also captures his passion for this work and what it could mean for the country.
“Back in school I always enjoyed the sciences, arts and the outdoors, but I couldn’t afford to go to university and needed a bursary, so I opted for science and geology,” he explains, when asked how he set foot on this geological path. “One thing led to another, and because I didn’t really have a long-term plan, I initially started working for a mining company. I enjoyed parts of the job; I was travelling all over the world and seeing places that I don’t think I really appreciated at the time, but I missed people. I was sitting around the fire with a depressed driller and an alcoholic geologist and I missed my friends and family.”
On the cusp of switching his entire career to psychology and changing the course of history, Durrheim was contacted by his previous head of department and offered a job — teaching for a year. This is where his passion for his work and people came together to create the perfect storm.
“I found campus wonderful, with so much variety, and I still had the option to go out into the field if I wanted to. But now I could choose to go into the field in summer, not winter, and had more control over my life,” he adds. “I found it incredibly interesting, but after about 10 years I moved to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and got involved in research related to mine safety.”
It was a field that proved critical. On this continent, mineral resources are the cornerstone of economies but they will only continue to generate employment and financial value if new ore bodies and energy resources are found. The development of deep mining technology and improved mine safety are essential in our country, which has the deepest mines in the world. At the CSIR, Durrheim conducted research into the causes and control of mining-induced seismicity, and led a task team that conducted forensic investigations into rockbursts. From 1998-2002, the team also managed the DeepMine and FutureMine programmes that developed technology to mine at ultra-depth.
“Because our mines are so deep, we have a significant death toll due to rock bursting and rockfall, which made my research socially relevant,” says Durrheim. “I was going into the heart of the earth with my geophysics and I really enjoyed the drama of nature — the volcanoes, the ability to go into the heart of an earthquake and see the fractured earth.”
Part of Durrheim’s work with the team at the CSIR included investigating the risks posed by large seismic events in gold mining regions and investigating the physics of earthquakes. The reality is that while large earthquakes are rare in South Africa, there remains a risk of the recurrence of the M6 1809 Cape Town earthquake – which could become one of the greatest disasters faced by the country. Durrheim assessed the risks that these earthquakes pose to nuclear power stations, the electricity grid, and gas pipeline networks, as well as those who live close to the East African Rift, where earthquakes occur regularly.
“My work has evolved and works at the interface between science and society, doing the things that I believe are relevant, helpful and important,” says Durrheim. “We are world class when it comes to mining in this country, and we really are considered a centre of excellence. People come from all over the world to work here, as they can’t do this overseas. In our rockburst research, we work with people from as far afield as Japan — our underground mines are underground laboratories.”
His work has given Durrheim the opportunity to work with some of the best rock engineers in the world, and alongside students whose development and growth inspire him. He says: “I enjoy working with students and watching them develop. As a research chair I focus on people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, and they are remarkable.”
Over the past 40 years, Durrheim has contributed significantly to the field. The research and development processes employed by Durrheim have evolved due to huge advances in sensor technology and computing power, making it possible to address increasingly complex research questions. He has contributed to incremental improvements in research techniques and been involved in several notable research programmes.
In the 1980s, Durrheim and his students used reflection seismics to probe the crust across the Limpopo Belt, Wits Basin and Cape Fold Belt profiles. In addition, AfricaArray was co-directed by Durrheim from 2005 to present day, and its backbone network comprises 50 stations in 20 countries, with another 100 stations in temporary arrays. Durrheim also collaborated on the pioneering of digital processing and semi-automatic interpretation of gravity and magnetic data in South Africa, and a research facility was established at Wits in 1986. The facility was revived in 2007 by Durrheim after his South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) appointment and has subsequently undergone significant growth.
“One of my most satisfying achievements is seeing that the group I took over when I was appointed to the research chair 15 years ago go from nearly no activity in terms of seismological research to a group of 40 post-docs, associates, honorary lecturers and PhD and Master’s candidates,” he says. “I have a brilliant successor who got his PhD in 2013; he is an extraordinary researcher and really good with people — Dr Musa Manzi. It is, at this point in my life, amazing to see how this has grown and flourished and to see young and enthusiastic people grow and go forward.”
In the arena of deep mining and mine safety and health, Durrheim collaborated in the Japan-South Africa project Observational Studies in South African Mines to Mitigate Seismic Risks and installed an exceptionally sensitive system at the Cooke #4 shaft. He also worked with CSIR colleagues to pioneer the measurement of site effects that amplified ground motions on tunnel sidewalls and slopes; and in 2018 he was invited to participate in the Economics and Infrastructure Expert Panel of the Covid-19 Country Report. The latter was an initiative to assess the effectiveness of government interventions within the sector.
“South Africa is a country where earth resources are essential for modern society and mining is the river of our economy in terms of wealth creation, but it has a negative impact on the environment and health and safety,” says Durrheim. “I want my work to help get the best out of people and ensure we get the most benefit with the least harm. We have huge disparities in our country, and massive unemployment with social challenges, and so we need to do what we can to keep the economy going.”
Durrheim also leads a community of practice in oil and gas to support the transition away from coal-burning power stations towards renewables. He has made significant discoveries and his role is to develop high-level skills in this area, particularly in previously disadvantaged universities.
“Going forward, I want to work less and focus on the things that bring me joy and have an impact,” he concludes. “We are mentoring the next generation of academics and building a future that’s more diverse and inclusive. I want to open more doors for people, and help them build their networks and become top class academics and leaders.” — Tamsin Oxford
Special Annual Theme Award: Creative economy for sustainable development
Magic lies where culture and technology collide
Dr Tegan Bristow started her studies in art at Rhodes University, but one morning she accidentally walked into the wrong lecture hall, and ended up sitting in on a computer science class where students were demonstrating 2D games they had made as an exercise for the class.
“It basically blew my mind and I developed a huge passion for technology, which changed my path forever,” Bristow says. “I became fascinated with the intersection of culture and technology, and after teaching the subject at Wits as a young academic I saw an enormous gap in scholarship and research on Africa’s cultural relationship to technology.” It was from there that she embarked on her PhD, in which she explored philosophies and cultures of technology both pre and post colonialism, with a focus on South Africa and Kenya.
“It was at this time that I worked with Professor Doherty and Professor Dwolatzky to develop the Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival and the work that surrounds it,” she says.
Fak’ugesi is a joint project of the University of the Witwatersrand and the Tshimologong Innovation Precinct, which supports and develops multi-sector work in the digital creative industries in Africa. The project is a flagship on the continent and serves as a model and reference for regional and international organisations that support and develop the digital creative sector.
Such is its reach that the British Council named it the most important festival for art, culture and technology after commissioning an impact report. It emphasised the importance of this unique platform that advocates for sector sustainability and brings visibility to gaming, virtual reality, animation, and critical digital cultures on the African continent.
“At its most fundamental level, I hope this work solidifies the importance of the intersection of culture and technology in Africa, not only in allowing for a socio-cultural criticality in technology, but to further a claim by African societies for the effective use of contemporary technologies,” she says. “I hope this lays a foundation for a future where already emergent forms such as Artificial Intelligence, data-led computing and other future constructs are in the service of African societies, not exploiting them and their resources,” Bristow says.
Over the next two years she will be leading a research and ecosystem development that focuses on developing intermediaries such as publishers, distributors, aggregators, markets and innovation entrepreneurs for the digital creative sectors in Africa.
Beyond this work, she still has her passion for creative work and has an ongoing collaborative project titled “A School for Vernacular Algorithms”, which brings together maths and computing with cultural art forms such as music, beadwork and basketry in South Africa and beyond.
“I am very pleased that the NSTF has taken up the special theme of sustainability for the cultural and creative industries, as it is often an overlooked location for technology and the sciences,” she says. “I hope this focus will open up more opportunities both for cultural practitioners and the sciences going forward.” — Kerry Haggard
TW Kambule NSTF Award: Researcher
Fundamental science provides the answers to life, the universe and everything
If you were wondering what the Covid-19 pandemic and particle physics have in common, look no further than Professor Bruce Mellado, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, who has made significant contributions to the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, the proposal of the Large Hadron Electron Collider, and the application of artificial intelligence (AI) for the management of the Covid-19 pandemic in Gauteng.
“Fundamental sciences are important for society, and we need to invest in developing these skills,” he says. “We look at the fundamental interactions and matter in the universe, which entails solving complex problems.”
“While AI has become a bit of a buzzword, we need a clear path to developing human capacity so that we have people to implement algorithms to meet challenges in science and elsewhere,” he adds.
Mellado adds that his team has had to learn to be dynamic in its approach to mathematical modelling around the pandemic, as it has been surprisingly difficult to model the adoption of social distancing, and to predict the scale of vaccine hesitancy.
“We also use AI to gauge sentiment on social media, and it’s become clear over time in how people express themselves on these platforms that they have become indifferent to the problem of transmission, which makes managing the pandemic more complicated,” he says.
It’s the development of AI skills that’s one of the driving imperatives behind the Wits Institute for Collider Particle Physics, where Mellado’s students are trained in the Big Data Problem and Artificial Intelligence — skills that are invaluable in South Africa.
The production — in South Africa — of the most complex 16 layer electronics board to date, hints at the sophistication and impact of the institute, and the sheer volumes of data that this electronics project can process.
While the team that works on the Large Hadron Collider is vast, his work on the project is frequently cited by senior members of the international research community, who note that “Professor Mellado has contributed seminal works that demonstrate the feasibility of precision Higgs physics in electron-proton collisions”.
Furthermore, a number of electronics boards designed, developed and fabricated at the Institute under his supervision are used by the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) for various tasks.
Mellado, who holds a PhD from Columbia University, is a Research Professor at Wits, and senior scientist at iThemba LABS; director at the Institute for Collider Particle Physics at Wits; chairperson of the Institutional Board of the Tile Calorimeter of the ATLAS experiment at European laboratory CERN; a member of the Institutional Board of the Circular Electron Positron Collider; co-president of the Africa-Canada Artificial Data Modelling at York University; co-chair of the Nuclear Particle and Radiation Division of South African Institute of Physics and a member of the Gauteng Premier Covid-19 Advisory Committee.
This is truly a remarkable set of achievements in particle physics research, with more yet to come — from a man who originally contemplated studying medicine but chose not to because he realised that his thinking was not suited to memorising facts, but rather to using logic to solve problems. — Kerry Haggard
TW Kambule-NSTF Awards: Emerging Researcher
Small-scale miners get a leg-up to the big time
Using his passion for engineering, Dr Boitumelo Ramatsetse designed and developed a new beneficiation solution, known as a reconfigurable vibrating screen (RVS), through his field and laboratory experiments. The RVS helps small-scale miners to gradually scale their production at an affordable cost, and addresses their safety, efficiency and productivity challenges.
The screen separates mineral particles according to various sizes and volumes demanded by customers in the mining and mineral processing industries. Ramatsetse and his team also developed a predictive maintenance application that can be used to monitor the sub-components of the RVS machine in real time.
The solution was created through a mathematical modelling process that measured the machine’s performance to identify its optimal operating parameters in different configurations. He also established a theoretical evolution model that clearly displays historical development, and an automated control system with an approachable user interface.
It addresses many of the challenges of conventional screening technologies, which lack full maintenance monitoring systems and are plagued with various control challenges, including the under- or over-loading of material. High structural loading can lead to high rates of vibration, which can in turn lead to structural damage or failure.
“The entire experience can be described as bittersweet, with low and very high moments that will remain in my memory for years to come,” he says. “One of the most memorable moments in this journey was having this, which was only an idea at the start, as a working prototype, becoming a first-of-its-kind solution manufactured in South Africa.
“The patent registration was a significant milestone that added to the excitement of having the innovation operational. The number of publications and its acceptance within the scientific community as a clear contribution to the body of knowledge has also stood out,” he adds.
With the patent for the RVS registered in South Africa and China, the solution responds to other challenges too: more than 90% of its components are locally manufactured, creating jobs and reducing down time while business owners wait for spare parts. It’s also cheaper than the alternatives.
The project was a subject of interest among a significant group of engineering and postgraduate students, with two experiential learning opportunities, three Master’s dissertations, two Doctoral theses and three functional prototypes completed during its development.
Ramatsetse intends commercialising the solution and collaborating with other prominent scholars in engineering to create more design solutions.
“These partnerships and engagements will benefit my country and my institution, but they will also create opportunities to work on large scale initiatives that will impact on the issues facing our communities, such as poverty, unemployment and inequality,” he says.
“I want to continue inspiring and empowering young aspiring researchers in engineering and education technology courses, and I want to investigate remote metering solutions principles such as modularity, integrability, customisation, scalability, convertibility and diagnosability.
“Finally, I would like to establish an interdisciplinary research group that will focus on academic and industrial research that addresses societal problems through discoveries in the field of advanced manufacturing systems.” — Kerry Haggard
TW Kambule-NSTF Awards: Emerging Researcher
Maths is used to save lives: it adds up
There has never been greater potential for infectious diseases to spread than right now. Professor Sheetal Silal’s previous body of work using mathematical modelling to create and support strategies dealing with malaria, TB, HIV, syphilis and pertussis provided the perfect backdrop for her work over the last 18 months in modelling the spread and management of Covid-19.
As Associate Professor in the Department of Statistical Sciences and Director of the Modelling and Simulation Hub, Africa (MASHA), in the Faculty of Science at the University of Cape Town, and Honorary Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford University, Silal explains that the application of mathematical disease modelling goes beyond theoretical mathematics.
“It combines knowledge from biology, clinical medicine, public health and economics to develop models to assist decision-makers with controlling disease,” she says. “The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of these models in supporting government policy, from advising on the number of hospital beds required to projecting mortality. Mathematical modelling is fast becoming an invaluable tool in shaping health policy and saving lives.”
Silal founded MASHA in 2017, to co-ordinate her modelling research activities, and to facilitate networking and training among African modellers. In 2018, Silal and MASHA were asked by the National Department of Health to partner with the Malaria Elimination Initiative (MEI), the San Francisco Global Health Group and the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI). They had to develop an investment case to estimate the cost of eliminating malaria in South Africa, and to generate economic evidence highlighting the benefits of doing so.
With the work funded by MEI, CHAI providing data collection, and MEI providing economic analysis, Silal synthesised the data to provide scenario modelling to demonstrate the cost and benefit of eliminating malaria. In the following year’s budget, then Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni allocated funding towards the elimination of malaria, including cross-border work in Mozambique, to ensure the project’s efficacy.
MASHA was also asked to support the Department of Health’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic through the development of mathematical models, and is a member of the South African Covid-19 Modelling Consortium, a group of experts that provides technical support to decision-makers responding to the pandemic.
“While all members of the consortium contributed to the conceptual development and evaluation of models, my primary role has been to develop the foundational model and programme, run the current model and present modelling findings,” she says. “I have also extended the suite of models to include demographic stratification and spatial complexity. MASHA has also developed several user interfaces to present our output and analysis in more universally accessible ways.”
Looking to the future, Silal emphasises the need for investing in developing greater capacity for disease modelling in developing countries, as diverse contexts and cultures play a significant role in its outcomes.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how few disease modelling professionals operate on the African continent, just as much as it has emphasised how important it is that health policy be informed by local culture. I’m looking forward to finding ways to develop that capacity,” she says. — Kerry Haggard
Burton boosts UP’s local and international standing
There is immense value in ensuring that education becomes a legacy; one that recognises the importance of scholars, professors, research and studies, and that looks to inventive ways of ensuring that these pursuits are recognised, valued and supported. This is the work that Professor Stephanie Burton, until recently Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Postgraduate Education at the University of Pretoria, set out to do since her appointment in 2011. Over the past nine years, she’s been responsible for the management of the development and implementation of policies and strategies to enable the university’s research performance and development across all disciplines in nine faculties. The results speak for themselves.
Since she took on the role, the University of Pretoria (UP) has significantly increased its research productivity and its national and international standing as a research-intensive institution. The university showed measurable increases in research outputs and related metrics over her nine-year tenure and has remained consistently ranked as among the top six South African universities. In addition, UP has moved into the top 500 in the QS and ARWU rankings over the past few years. In 2019, 56 UP scientists were positioned in the top ESI category compared with 35 in 2017.
Burton also undertook numerous research initiatives throughout her tenure. The Research that Matters campaign was initiated in 2014 and was put at the heart of the university’s research strategy, particularly research that addresses complex societal challenges. She also introduced the Fly Higher@UP programme in 2017 that provides academic, administrative and financial support to postgraduate students, from recruitment to graduation.
“Working with the university and getting to know the community and what they are trying to achieve has been remarkable,” says Burton. “It has underscored the importance of building capacity and recognising performance, and ensuring that everything we do is ethical and done with integrity. We need to remain innovative and at the forefront of leading research, and we need to ensure that we help people understand how to build their own careers and research programmes by giving them the mentorship they need.”
Burton believes that if an institution is going to be a leader, it has to look to both national and international influences and ensure that goals and objectives are strategic and agile.
“You have to look at the whole picture and understand your environment, and how this is impacted by the international stage, and how to remain strategic,” concludes Burton. “This is underscored by the UP2025 strategic plan which has, as one of its primary goals, to build the university’s research reputation and expand the impact of this research. When I took on the role, we started with a relatively small number of PhDs and postdoctoral fellows and researchers, and now we have almost doubled these numbers and our output. We have the highest number of PhD qualified academics in the country, and we are doing the same for our research output.”
This approach has not only meant that the objectives outlined in Burton’s mandate were achieved; it has made the University of Pretoria possibly the most progressive in the country. — Tamsin Oxford
NSTF-Water Research Commission Award
A transformative solution that facilitates the effective and efficient removal of pollutants from wastewater
Professor Paul Oberholster, Director of the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State, was nominated for the NSTF-Water Research Commission Award for an outstanding contribution to sustainable water management, knowledge generation and solutions over the last five to 10 years. His 10-year scientific contribution to water resource management in South Africa has special reference to the field of biological passive wastewater treatment. His research is centred upon the use of algae to treat acid mine drainage and domestic wastewater.
“The sustainable development and global move towards a more circular use of resources where waste is reduced and resources recycled, has driven a paradigm shift within the scientific community with regards to wastewater solutions,” he explains. “In this context I started exploring algae as a possible low-cost passive treatment technology to treat domestic wastewater for reuse, to improve the service delivery of local government, and to significantly reduce the risks of acid mine drainage on the health of communities.”
It’s a critical body of work, particularly in light of increasing climate change and the intensity of both droughts and storm events. Alternative water resources will become increasingly critical, such as water reuse, as well as moving towards more holistic and integrated approaches to water management to meet the country’s needs.
Under the leadership of Oberholster, a passive treatment plant was constructed near the town of Carolina while another hybrid system was implemented on the Zaalklapspruit near the town of Balmoral in Mpumalanga. The latter system, developed in collaboration with the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), Working for Wetland Program, Coaltech and the Water Research Commission, has been running for more than six years.
“The current passive algae treatment technology not only plays a role in the treatment of wastewater for reuse purposes, but the algae biomass forms part of the circular economy,” says Oberholster. “It will create desperately needed job opportunities through aquaculture activities, biofertiliser and bioenergy production in rural areas of South Africa. The passive treatment technology also improves the ecosystem services downstream of wastewater treatment plants and reduces the health risk to local communities.”
This innovative, low-cost, green technology ticks all these intelligent boxes while also providing a walk-away solution for the mining industry. The system is largely self-sustainable and uses no electricity or chemicals, and it can be maintained by a semi-skilled workforce. The work has led to numerous patents being registered, emphasising the value of the work and the potential long-term impact it can have on water resource management across the globe. The work undertaken by Oberholster has led to him being described as a “water warrior” by the Mail & Guardian, and the economic, social and environmental importance of his research and applications are recognised by people and organisations on multiple levels. — Tamsin Oxford
Engineering Research Capacity Development Awards
Catalysis cleans up our act – and our planet
There are systems and processes in our world that we don’t see, or that we take completely for granted, and one of these is catalysis, or the process of modifying the rate or outcome of a chemical reaction. This is not just the stuff of experimentation in laboratories: it’s essential to the success of 90% of the world’s production processes in which chemicals, fuels and pharmaceuticals are involved.
Michael Claeys, Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Cape Town’s Catalysis Institute, and Director of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Catalysis, c*change, believes that developments and improvements in catalysis are vital if we are to move towards a society that is not dependent on fossil fuels, and if we are to preserve and protect the environment.
“Catalysis is a very expensive undertaking, and achieving an economy of scale can only be attained via resource sharing, including personnel, data, ideas and infrastructure,” he explains. “Close collaboration is key, along with the participation of smaller research units, with this combination leading to the development of a large cohort of next-generation academics.”
His research has included the development and use of novel and unique characterisation tools, which include patented devices such as the in-situ magnetometer (developed with Sasol), and an in-situ XRD reaction cell, which has been successfully commercialised by Cape Catalytix, a spin-out company at UCT.
The establishment of the c*change Centre of Excellence, of which Claeys has been a director since 2008, has greatly enhanced the field of research and development in the catalysis field. Its multidisciplinary nature provides a national network in which large groups have been formed to collaborate on tough, long-term challenges, while developing technology that is relevant to South Africa and the world.
The greatest emphasis, however, has been on capacity development, and in the last 10 years, c*change has grown to a full capacity of 65 enrolled students, including an increase of black students from 55% to 75%, and a growth of female South African students from less than half the cohort to about 60%.
During this period, the annual publication output has increased from 14 to over 30, and nine academics from designated groups have been supported by the centre of excellence’s mentorship programme. External funding, previously just 20% of what was required, now makes up at least 50% of the targeted amount.
“While it is extremely pleasing to see that my research has made an impact on industrial applications, my greatest fulfilment comes from watching the careers of the students that the Centre has trained, along with others that I have supervised, and taking pride in their careers over time,” Claeys says.
“Many of them have become industry leaders or academics, with some having attained professorship. It’s also wonderful that more than 90% of them have stayed in the sector, which emphasises the importance of the work that we are all doing. Our collective work is making it possible for us all to transition to more efficient processes, a cleaner society, and although the role that catalysis plays is not widely known, it really is going to make the world a much cleaner, better place.” — Kerry Haggard
Engineering Research Capacity Development Awards
Nanotechnology makes SA’s rural drinking water safe
Growing up in Flagstaff in the Eastern Cape, Professor Philiswa Nomngongo was struck by how rural communities depended on water from rivers and streams for survival, but this water was a source of water-borne illnesses as much as it was a source of life. With that as a backdrop, her high school passion for chemistry inspired her to become an analytical chemist, with her undergraduate studies including a focus on environmental chemistry and chemical and environmental analysis.
She now leads the analytical environmental chemistry group in the Department of Chemical Sciences at the University of Johannesburg, and collaborates with other researchers in the Department of Chemical Sciences and Mechanical Engineering at the same university, as well as with researchers from the Vaal University of Technology and the University of Limpopo. She has also established international collaborations with various other groups working on water treatment methods in Germany, China, Sweden, Poland and Portugal.
Nomngongo’s research is across three disciplines: analytical chemistry, environmental chemistry and nanotechnology, with a focus on organic and inorganic pollutants in environmental, biological and other matrices. It also extends to the application of nanotechnology in environmental pollution monitoring, desalination and water treatment, among other areas.
“My research is motivated by the need to develop efficient methodologies for analysing heavy metals and other contaminants in water, especially in areas where drinking water is drawn from untreated rivers and boreholes,” she explains. “Toxic heavy metals such as lead and arsenic are increasingly present in our water, caused by various industrial and agricultural activities, as well as the inadequate disposal of electronic waste. Chronic exposure to pollutants — even in trace levels — can cause debilitating health conditions.
“Understanding water pollution allows us to understand the distribution of pollutants in soils and plants, and infer the risk of livestock poisoning and the health impacts on humans,” she says. “Once the pollutants are identified, treatment processes need to be developed, and the focus of my group’s research is the use of environmentally-friendly nanomaterials such as absorbents and fillers in membrane systems, as potential next-generation water treatment methods that can be used in rural areas.”
It’s not just the science that leads Nomngongo’s research: she is determined to boost awareness of all the issues around water pollutants in audiences as diverse as the academic and commercial environments, and among the rural people who are most vulnerable to the dangers of (invisibly) polluted water.
Human capacity development is also very close to her heart, centred on the systematic transfer of skills among postgraduate students, postdoctoral research fellows and research assistants.
“Seeing students under my supervision publish papers and graduate, and others winning national and international awards are standout moments for me, as much as seeing former students that I mentored excel in their workplaces,” she says.
The challenges related to water research and treatment are ongoing, and Nomngongo’s research goals include studying point and nonpoint pollution sources, using simplified analytical technologies and fingerprinting techniques.
“Our objective is also to develop simple treatment methodologies that can be used in rural areas where communities do not have water treatment systems,” she says. — Kerry Haggard
Data for Research Award
Data gathering to save lives, improve operations and reduce the environmental impact of mining in South Africa
The data for research award recognises the work of an individual or team for the generation, preservation and sharing or re-use of a valuable scientific output. The University of Witwatersrand (Wits) School of Geosciences was awarded for achieving precisely that. Their body of work has allowed for the development of techniques that use legacy data to explore for mineral resources, support safe and efficient mining, and assess and mitigate geohazards.
Crops grow in soil, clay is used to make bricks, limestone and aggregate are used for concrete, bitumen is used for roads. Metals are used to make cars and trucks, and concrete to build bridges and dams. South Africa is richly endowed in minerals that meet local needs and earn foreign exchange; mining contributes about 9% of the GDP. However, there is a need to mitigate its impact on the environment while ensuring that it achieves its economic goals. This is where the School of Geosciences’ work comes into play.
“South Africa is a country where Earth’s resources are important for modern society, and mining is the backbone of our economy,” Professor Raymond Durrheim from the School of Geosciences at the Wits explains. “However, mining does have a negative impact on the environment and poses risks to health and safety, so our work ensures that we derive the most benefit with the least harm.”
Geological, geophysical and geochemical data is vital for the discovery and mining of mineral resources and the provision of a safe and healthy environment, but producing it is expensive and time consuming. The geoscientists at Wits have developed techniques to extract new information from data that was collected decades ago by government agencies and companies to support mineral exploration, mining and geohazard mapping. The methods include using algorithms to automatically interpret gravity and magnetic data; to compute the attributes of reflection seismic data; and machine learning techniques to predict ore grades and geotechnical properties.
“Wits started out as a mining university, and people from virtually every faculty, from law to commerce to biology, are doing work that is related to mining,” says Durrheim.
There are five major fields in which significant contributions have been made by the Wits School of Geosciences team since 2000. The processing and interpretation of gravity and magnetic data; broadband seismic studies of the African continent; pre-stack processing of hard rock reflection seismic data and the computation of seismic attributes that have improved the resolution and information content of images of the subsurface; machine learning techniques to predict ore grades, facies, domains and geotechnical properties; and geochemistry. The work has received significant scientific recognition, some of the algorithms have been patented, and the methods have been widely applied by the industry, so it’s easy to see why this team received the Data for Research Award for this field in 2021. — Tamsin Oxford
Innovation Award: Small, Medium and Micro Enterprise (SMME)
Technology turns waste and solids into potable water in a country that needs it urgently
ROC Water Technologies is a project funded by The Technology and Human Resources for Industry Programme (THRIP), the Department of Trade Industry and Competition (DTIC), the Water Research Commission (WRC) and the Innovation Hub. It is supported by postgraduate students at the University of Limpopo, Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria. It has developed a series of technologies that allow the processing of liquid and solid wastes from the mining, power station and fertiliser industries to recover water of drinking quality. It has also led to the development of saleable products such as pigment and aluminium sulphate, sodium carbonate, calcium carbonate and sulphur.
“An unfortunate consequence of South Africa’s vital gold and coal mining industry is the formation of acid mine water that threatens to pollute scarce fresh water resources,” says Professor Johannes Maree, Director: ROC Water Technologies and Professor at the Department of Water and Sanitation at the University of Limpopo. “This development is of great value to South Africa as it can be applied to treat the approximate 350 megalitres of acid mine water formed per day in Gauteng at gold mining operations, and about 200 megalitres per day in Mpumalanga at coal mining operations.”
The team believes that mine water can be treated to not only recover drinking water, but the pigment is now being exported by South Africa and is selling for about R40 per kg. The income generated by the sale of the water and the pigment, as well as the other saleable products, covers the cost of the treatment and neatly bypasses the disposal costs of solid and liquid waste. This aligns neatly with current legislation that demands zero waste — a mandate that means waste streams have to be transported and disposed of at toxic waste disposal sites at a cost of R2 000 per tonne.
This technology is also of value to coal power stations, where SO2 (sulphur dioxide) emissions have to be controlled. Calcium carbonate is used for the removal of SO2 from flue gas by forming gypsum, and can be recovered from the gypsum using thermal treatment.
“The ROC — reverse osmosis/cooling — process can treat acid mine water to recover these elements across various stages of these processes,” says Maree. “The main focus of ROC Water Technologies is to protect the environment in a cost-effective way. The focus is on economic growth and the environment, not one or the other.”
The ultimate goal for this extraordinary project was to implement innovative technical solutions that provide cost-effective answers to waste stream problems. ROC Water Technologies has achieved this goal with the help of postgraduate students, organisations, and government bodies. It overcame significant challenges in the process of transforming acid mine water into drinking water and various other components, but it ultimately succeeded, and this has significant value for the mining, fertiliser and power industries. — Tamsin Oxford
Innovation Award: Corporate Organisation
Fast and accurate mass testing of infectious diseases made possible
The battle against diseases such as Covid-19 and tuberculosis demands that testing be done at speed, as accurately as possible, and in significant quantities. To ensure that this diagnostic testing is done properly and accurately, control materials are required. These control materials are live disease causing agents — living corona virus or TB bacteria — used to determine whether or not the testing results are correct. These controls also ensure that testing labs are handling the specimens correctly and that the tests are fit for diagnosis of the indicated diseases. But as these organisms are infectious by their very nature, they cannot be used to verify diagnostics, which is a significant stumbling block. So, to overcome this challenge and streamline mass testing of disease, the Biomimicry Diagnostic Verification Controls Team from the University of Witwatersrand developed biomimicry-based controls using harmless bacteria.
“We have done this for numerous diseases, but the most powerful example today is Covid-19,” says Professor Bavesh Kana, DSI/NRF Centre of Excellence for Biomedical TB Research at Wits. “When we talk of testing for this virus, we think of labs and test results on the mobile phone — what we call the front end of the process. The question is, how do you know if your results are right and not mixed up with another specimen? There are thousands of these tests done every day and the labs are overwhelmed.”
This was a critical consideration during Covid-19 as labs were under pressure, had to bring in more staff, and needed to know that the diagnostic test used for the swabs was fit for purpose. They needed to know that the tests being used were reliable and valid, especially after a global shortage and as new tests entered the market rapidly.
“This is where our innovation comes in,” says Kana. “For any lab to operate they need quality assurance systems, good sample handling and proficiency testing. For example, to confirm that a Covid-19 test works, they put a known amount of the virus into the system, and if the diagnostic tests the expected result, the lab can operate with confidence that patient swabs will be processed through a high-quality workflow. However, to do this, you need a specimen with live Covid-19 virus and you need to send this live sample out to laboratories, which is a dangerous prospect. The labs were stuck — how could they implement process controls without dealing with the live virus?”
The team took a soil dwelling bacterium that isn’t dangerous or infectious, and they engineered small bits of the virus genome into this bacterium. Together with a local company, SmartSpot Quality CC, the team put this bacterium onto small pieces of paper with some dye to create a dried culture spot that can be used by the laboratories to determine if their Covid-19 tests are operating as expected. Simple, safe and incredibly effective.
“That’s all they need, this piece of paper to confirm that their tests are accurate,” concludes Kana.
Today, the solution is being used in nearly 30 countries globally, saving lives and keeping frontline workers safe with intelligent biomimicry instead of live virus. It’s an impressive innovation made into a reality by a dedicated team that would stop at nothing to make it happen during a global pandemic. The team includes Dr Edith Machowski, Dr Christopher Ealand, Dr Bhavna Gordhan, Dr Dale Liebenberg, Dean Sher, Anest Reyneke, Chyreene Truluck and Tyron Grant. — Tamsin Oxford
The language of science becomes more inclusive
Professor Carolina Ödman loves that we are able to think about the vastness of space and understand what goes on out there using instruments that push the boundaries of technology, all right here in South Africa.
“Dreaming big is a reflection of the spirit of this country and while science may not be as mainstream as, say, rugby, we keep producing excellent science and it is something to be really proud of. The story of how the Square Kilometre Array came to South Africa is a testament to this, and one that opens new opportunities to so many young people; how could I not be inspired?” she asks.
Ödman is the Associate Director for Development and Outreach at the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy (IDIA), and is tasked with innovating in terms of communication and engagement in the science, engineering, and technology (SET) fields. Since her appointment in 2018, she has carried out a broad, evolving range of communications activities, promoting the Institute’s research, engaging with the media, and offering leadership in public forums on issues that affect the public.
“My goals are to see the youth embrace science as a way to grow, to solve problems, to think outside the box. As we have seen in the past two years with the pandemic, it is science that unlocks solutions to the biggest challenges we face, but not without humanity, and that’s exactly the nexus where I get to work.”
Ödman was nominated for her outstanding promotion of academic research and teaching in science for development, and has made a huge contribution to the multidisciplinary research into building a native scientific vocabulary in African languages at UWC.
“I realised that through our science translation project, where we seek to develop a scientific vocabulary in African languages that can be used to talk about current science topics, that we could give a real place to indigenous knowledge instead of imposing English terms that can confine science to a colonial practice,” she says. “Researching words and their meaning can help us duly recognise and truly integrate indigenous knowledge with science, and does not place it just alongside ‘modern’ science.”
“I love being at the crossroads of technology and scientific research, but with a mandate of development and outreach — the talent that we have is incredible, and young people are shining and pushing boundaries every day.” — Kerry Haggard
Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) Award
Inspired by personal struggles, driven by commitment, the Outlook Foundation sets its sights on the future
The Outlook Foundation is a volunteer-led non-profit organisation (NPO) that focuses on promoting careers and opportunities in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. The organisation is defined by its community of professionals, all with backgrounds in STEM, and all passionate about the development of young people.
“At first, the programme didn’t move; we saw no real change in the first seven years,” says Sego Kelefetswe, Founder and CEO of the Outlook Foundation. “Then in 2009, I was invited to join a career exhibition and I was introduced to NRF-SAASTA. Thanks to this connection, we then partnered with them to do the first career outreach in Pudumoe and Morokweng, both in rural North West province, before demarcations.”
This moment defined the next steps for the Foundation. After this, it was introduced to many organisations that included the Water Research Commission, the South African Institution of Civil Engineering and Aviation Development Africa, and has since been part of multiple career outreach initiatives.
“We partnered with the DST [Department of Science and Technology] through SAASTA [South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement] for the revamped outreach aimed at changing the landscape of the learners we reach out to, and created a new format called the Role Modelling campaign,” says Kelefetswe. “The objective was to use science and maths to influence the learners to choose role models in STEM fields. This, plus our engagement with SAASTA on their community initiatives, helped us engage with more learners from various communities.”
Since it started, the Outlook Foundation has been involved in more than 90 projects with more than 77 schools and has reached more than 300 000 learners. It plays a fundamental role in engaging with youth to address South Africa’s shortage of STEM professionals, engages with the youth and shows them the immense opportunities that lie in the field of STEM, and with the technologies of machine learning, data science and data engineering.
The Outlook Foundation has earned its recognition in the 2021 NSTF-South32 Awards. Its work has achieved remarkable results, and its team remains committed to a goal that will benefit South Africa and its people. — Tamsin Oxford