Message from NSTF Executive Director


Women to look up to

Does anyone still doubt that women can do science, engineering and technology (SET)? Not only do they – they often do it just as well or better than men, and enjoy their fields of research and practice. Women’s Month is a good time to call attention to South Africa’s women achievers in SET and to celebrate them.

Guests at the National Science and Technology (NSTF) Awards Gala Dinner in June looked up at the giant AV presentation depicting a vision of the first elements after the big bang, propelled into space to form the building blocks of our universe. I am thinking – ‘stars are born. The stars of SET are here, under this roof, and some will light up the stage as no artificial light can do.’

Among the 15 NSTF-South32 Awards winners this year, seven women featured: Prof Lindiwe Zungu (Unisa – University of South Africa), Dr Mardé Helbig (University of Pretoria – UP), Prof Alison Lewis (University of Cape Town – UCT), Prof Martine Visser (UCT), Prof Tandi Matsha (Cape Peninsula University of Technology – CPUT), Ms Nicoleen Janse van Rensburg as Manager of the Process, Energy & Environmental Technology Station (University of Johannesburg – UJ-PEETS), and Ms Shirona Patel, as head of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Communication Services team.

Last year six women (out of the 15 Awardees) were recognised at the 2018 NSTF-South32 Awards: Prof Etheresia Pretorius (Stellenbosch University), Ms Wendy Collinson (Endangered Wildlife Trust), Prof Mmantsae Diale (UP), Prof Leslie Petrik (University of the Western Cape), Prof Keolebogile Motaung (Tshwane University of Technology), and Ms Sibongile Shongwe, as CEO of The Platinum Incubator.

This is just short of 50% of the winners over these two years, and a higher proportion than the average for all the previous years. This suggests that South Africa’s female representation among the highest achievers has grown at an unprecedented rate. It is not just the moon and the planet Venus that are thought to be female – the stars are probably both male and female in equal measure.

The statistics for the NSTF Awards have been hopeful indicators of increasing female representation over the years:

Out of the 172 individual winners over 21 years, 35% are women. This is up from 32% over the last two years.

Out of the 62 awards for teams/organisations, over the past 21 years, at least 20% were led by women. It has been increasingly common for women to lead such teams/organisations.

Women Winners among the NSTF-South32 Awards Winners for 2018/2019:

Prof Lindiwe Zungu, Executive Dean: Graduate Studies, Unisa – winner of the TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Researcher.

For innovatively crafting health and safety guidelines for the Mining and Health Safety Council and simultaneously designing women-specific safety gear bespoke for the underground mining conditions. The innovative contribution from the work by Prof Zungu includes comprehensive and systematic guidelines which were developed to assist the SA mining industry to design and provide appropriate personal protective equipment for women in mining; given that the mining industry is male-dominated, and all equipment and clothing were designed along the male physique. Thus, the uniqueness of this body of work has significantly added valuable knowledge to an area that has been sparsely studied locally and internationally, and the SA mining industry has recognised it as a significant industry milestone towards the advancement of health and safety of women in mining.

Dr Mardé Helbig, Senior lecturer: Computer Science Department, UP – winner in the category TW Kambule-NSTF Award: Emerging researcher.

For the evaluation of the performance of dynamic multi-objective optimisation algorithms. Many optimisation problems in real life have more than one objective, with at least two objectives in conflict with one another, and at least one objective or constraint changing over time. These problems are called dynamic multi-objective optimisation problems. Her research in developing algorithms for the solution of these problems can be applied to a vast range of areas, such as optimising the treatment of water, based on what the water is going to be used for; scheduling of jobs at a production plant; and routing of vehicles. Dr Mardé Helbig recommended both a benchmark suite and performance measures to effectively evaluate the performance of algorithms solving these problems.

Prof Alison Lewis, Dean: Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, UCT – winner of an Engineering Research Capacity Development Award

For training, nurturing and mentoring students in the Crystallization and Precipitation Research Unit at UCT through new research into the recovery of valuable metals, water and minerals through innovative methods. Professor Alison Lewis has been involved in training, nurturing and mentoring students in the Crystallization and Precipitation Research Unit at UCT. Over the last ten years she has supervised 44 MSc and PhD students to graduation, ensuring that they presented and published their research work. Of the 69 international journal papers she has published, 52 were co-authored with a postgraduate student. This new research area has been applied to recovering valuable metals such as platinum, palladium, rhodium and gold and thus has special relevance in SA, but also globally. The new research approach has also been applied to the recovery of resources from wastes, specifically the recovery of water, metals and metal salts from hypersaline brines, reverse osmosis retentates, acid mine drainage, mining wastewaters and other industrial effluents.

Ms Nicoleen Janse van Rensburg, UJ, Process, Energy & Environmental Technology Station (UJ-PEETS) – winner of the NSTF-Lewis Foundation Green Economy Award towards achieving biodiversity conservation, environmental sustainability and a greener economy.

For enabling technology transfer and interaction between academia and SMMEs to stimulate and support technology innovation in the green economy by providing subsidised engineering services to SMMEs in the green economy. UJ-PEETS’s primary mandate is to contribute towards improving the competitiveness of industry through the application of specialised knowledge, technology transfer, and facilitating the interaction between industry (especially SMMEs and the academia, in order to enable innovation in a sustainable manner to grow the green economy. UJ-PEETS has supported more than 1000 SMMEs through prototype development and applied research and development since 2010 by providing subsidised engineering services to SMMEs. The activities of the technology station create an opportunity for researchers to interact with industry and SMMEs, directing research towards real needs in industry.

Prof Martine Visser, Director: Environmental Policy Research Unit; and Professor: Economics, School of Economics; and Research Chair: African Climate Development Initiative, UCT – winner of the NSTF-Water Research Commission (WRC) Award towards achieving sustainable water management, knowledge generation and solutions, with demonstrated leadership and impact.

For spearheading a project with the City of Cape Town, in which behavioural nudges were successfully used to conserve water during the water crisis. Prof Martine Visser headed an extensive project to apply behavioural nudges to conserve water during the 2018 water crisis, in collaboration with the Cape Town municipality. The project began with a city-wide randomised control trial in which households were motivated to save water via nudges in their monthly utility bills. As the drought worsened, this expanded into ongoing strategic collaborations with the City to aid in the design and analysis of specific crisis interventions and capacity-building. Novel outcomes include findings around longevity of nudges, difference in effects depending on household profile (low/high income), and a fresh approach to academic-government collaborations in tackling real societal issues.

Prof Tandi Matsha, SARChI Chair: Cardio Metabolic Health, CPUT – winner of the Data for Research Award for advancing the availability, management and use of data for research

For research into Epigenetics and transcriptome analysis of type 2 diabetes mellitus. The burden of diabetes and associated cardiovascular risk in SA is enormous, rapidly growing and disproportionately affects the ‘previously disadvantaged’ South Africans. The risk factors are largely due to the complex interaction between genetic, behavioural, and environmental factors, but population-specific risk factors have not been clearly defined in populations from Africa. Furthermore, the known risk factors do not completely explain the sudden increase in these populations. Therefore, research done by Prof Tandi Matsha and her team utilises an integrated approach encompassing epigenetics and transcriptome analysis, to provide new mechanistic insights into the genesis of diabetes and to identify a panel of markers with diagnostic/prognostic and therapeutic relevance.

Wits Communications Services headed by Ms Shirona Patel, – winner of the Communication Award for outreach and creating awareness.

The Wits Communication Services team is committed to inspiring curiosity, creating new knowledge, making research accessible and impacting on society through innovative science communication. These are principles that drive the Wits Communication Services team. Committed to impacting on society and advancing the public good through science communication, the team has successfully executed ‘global’ campaigns across multiple platforms, using innovative technologies to engage with diverse audiences, as part of its research communications strategy. The team has worked across disciplines, faculties and institutions to make research visible including the global announcement of the HIV+ liver transplant (health sciences), the launch of the Homo Naledi VR application (palaeosciences), the Brainternet project (engineering) and Watershed (interdisciplinary science and arts project).

Women’s Day (9 August) commemorates the women’s march on the Union Buildings to protest against the pass laws. The march was led by four women – one from each race group (classified as per Apartheid laws). Representivity is important – then and now. Although we still have a long march ahead of us, we can see the distant stars beckoning.

To all our readers – have a happy Women’s month!

The opinions expressed above are those of the Executive Director, Jansie Niehaus, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Executive Committee or members of the NSTF.