UCT chemical engineering says halala to 100 years

Participating in multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary research, and pursuing technologies that will serve South Africa and the international community well, is “critical” as the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Department of Chemical Engineering transitions beyond its 100th year.

This according to Professor Aubrey Mainza, the head of the Department of Chemical Engineering based in UCT’s Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment (EBE), who delivered these sentiments during the department’s centenary celebrations on Tuesday, 8 December 2020.

The historic event joined staff (past and present), including Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation Professor Sue Harrison; students; alumni; and the department’s external partners during an event at the UCT Graduate School of Business. The event was also live streamed.



“The ethos of the department, developed over the last 100 years, serves as a reminder of the hard work put in by our predecessors.”

“The ethos of the department, developed over the last 100 years, serves as a reminder of the hard work put in by our predecessors to make sure that we have the department that we have today,” he said.

“But it also signals the work that those in the department need to do to contribute to towards [achieving] a prosperous department in the future.”

Achieving success

Chemical Engineering’s longest serving academic, Emeritus Professor Cyril O’Connor, who has notched up 40 years of service at UCT, said that the key to the department’s success is reflected in its “outstanding research-led teaching culture”.

Research-led teaching, he explained, refers to academics who are actively engaged in some form of research in order to contribute effectively to good teaching. When academics are involved in research-led teaching, it means that they also develop “enquiring minds” – this helps to ensure that their students are “beneficiaries” of cutting-edge concepts in the subjects they are taught.



“When they graduate, they are equipped with a world-class, relevant toolbox to take [with] them wherever they go.”

“[This means] that when they graduate, they are equipped with a world-class, relevant toolbox to take [with] them wherever they go. And a key component of that toolbox is an enquiring mind, capable of lateral out-of-the-box thinking,” he said.

And because the department’s academics have adopted the ethos of engaging in research, supervising postgraduates and carrying “heavy” teaching loads, this way of working has contributed “hugely” to the department’s success.

“My wish is that the current and future generation of chemical engineers, staff and students will continue to embrace the culture of generations who have gone before us. [We can achieve this] by ensuring that the department continues to enjoy a world-class research reputation to ensure students receive only the highest quality education,” he said.

Reaching greater heights

As Professor Mainza reflected on the past 100 years and the department’s achievements, he said staff, students and partners need to strive to “do more” to reach greater heights. To achieve this, the department will place renewed emphasis on three fundamental elements, defined by its ethos and put into practice a century ago by its predecessors:

Recruitment and staff development: The department will be “deliberate” in its recruitment processes and has committed to employing young, energetic staff and students who can contribute to unique teaching and research. Mainza said that the department will also “double” its efforts to further develop staff to ensure it remains competitive and relevant both locally and internationally.


“The department will continue to use unique and distinct research groupings to organise its research and to ensure it responds to local and global needs.”

Consolidating research: The department will continue to use unique and distinct research groupings to organise its research and to ensure it responds to local and global needs, and current and future challenges. Together with his team, Mainza said that they will endeavour to broaden the department’s research scope to fit the needs of the country, the continent and the world.
Teaching: The department has continually revised the curriculum to meet the needs of an ever-changing country and world. While the curriculum was revised six years ago, “fine-tuning” work has already started in order to ensure that future chemical engineers can successfully respond to future needs.
Change is under way

In a pre-recorded message, UCT’s vice-chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, congratulated the department on reaching this historic milestone.

Professor Phakeng said it took 48 years after the department was established before the first woman student finally graduated. However, today the department is an exceptional example of transformation, diversity and inclusion. She said that during its centennial year, almost half of the department’s 649 registered undergraduate and postgraduate students are women, and 65% are black.

“These statistics speak to your vibrant culture, as well as the foresight and courage [displayed] by your leaders over the years, who were committed to bringing change,” she said.



“I salute you for your past, present and future contributions.”

Under the guidance of the dean of EBE, Professor Alison Lewis, the chemical engineering department is a “completely different” place when compared to 100 years ago, said Phakeng.

“Many have helped to make courageous and meaningful advances towards transformation in terms of both gender and race.”

She praised chemical engineers for showing “a deep dedication” towards making a difference and achieving sustainable development in environmental, societal and economic areas, among others.

“I want to congratulate each and every one of you – staff, students and alumni – who have helped to shape chemical engineering at UCT into the internationally recognised department it is today,” she said.

“You are leading and shaping a field that is absolutely critical in the search for solutions to myriad global challenges. I salute you for your past, present and future contributions.”

On the same evening, UCT’s Professor Jim Petrie launched the Department of Chemical Engineering’s centennial book – a hard copy of reflections, personal perspectives, as well as the department’s academic development journey over the past century.

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