University of Cape Town: Two new NRF A-ratings for UCT

The University of Cape Town (UCT) recently welcomed two new additions to its growing list of A-rated researchers. They are Professor Michael Claeys from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Professor Giona Tuccini from the Department of Italian Studies.

The National Research Foundation’s (NRF) rating system is a key driver in their aim to build a globally competitive science system in South Africa.

A-ratings are awarded to researchers acknowledged as leading international scholars in their fields. The rating of individuals is based primarily on the quality and impact of their research outputs over the past eight years, taking into consideration the evaluation made by local and international peers.

Apart from the sought-after A-rating, the NRF rating system has an additional four categories. They are:

B – Internationally acclaimed researchers
C – Established researchers
P – Prestigious Awards
Y – Promising young researchers
No stranger to the NRF rating system, Claeys was upgraded from a B3- to an A-rating. Tuccini, on the other hand, had not been rated previously, making this a truly remarkable first for him.

Professor Michael Claeys, Department of Chemical Engineering

Claeys’ research focuses primarily on catalysis for energy applications including the Fischer-Tropsch process, a technology which lies at the heart of South Africa’s synthetic fuels and chemicals industry and one that is playing an increasingly important role worldwide in the production of green future fuels and chemicals from sustainable resources such as CO2 and hydrogen.

“My research in catalyst preparation and design has strongly improved … often facilitated by international collaborators.”

As a soft-funded researcher, a large portion of this research is conducted as part of industrial collaborations including a longstanding partnership with energy and chemical company Sasol’s Research and Development division. Claeys leads a team of high-level researchers from both UCT and Sasol in harnessing Fischer-Tropsch catalysis to address industrial problems in this field.

“Traditionally my strengths have been to test catalysts in a variety of reactor systems at fully relevant industrial reaction conditions,” he says. “In recent years, however, my research in catalyst preparation and design has strongly improved as well, often facilitated by international collaborators.”

Claeys says that perhaps his greatest research achievement in recent years has been the development of novel in-situ methods which allow to characterise materials at industrial conditions (high temperature and pressure). These include an XRD reaction cell, which has been commercialised by the UCT spin-off Cape Catalytix, and the world’s first in-situ magnetometer, which was developed in partnership with Sasol and has been used extensively to optimise commercial catalysts.

Work conducted on the magnetometer has been presented at more than 40 international catalysis meetings, often on invitation and as keynotes or plenaries. It has also resulted in numerous publications .

Apart from delivering excellent research, Claeys also plays an important leadership role in various catalysis societies, committees and advisory boards. He is also the director of the South African national DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Catalysis, known as c*change.

The Centre brings together some 25 researchers from 11 higher education institutions across the country and supports 50 to 60 postgraduate students and 10 to 15 post-doctoral fellows. Under his leadership the Centre has established a strong national and international multidisciplinary catalysis network, and has graduated over 180 MSc and PhD students.

Professor Giona Tuccini, Department of Italian Studies

Tuccini specialises in the field of mysticism and religion in Italian literature (poetry and prose), medieval/early-modern Italian authors (with a special focus on Petrarch and Spiritual Petrarchism), as well as in Italian prose, cinema and drama of the 20th century, in particular on Pier Paolo Pasolini and Enrico Pea, whom Tuccini is an undisputed authority.

“The aim of my research has been to analyse the intersections between ancient and modern/contemporary Italian culture in a comparative and interdisciplinary perspective,” he says. “This has affirmed the centrality of the literary text as a wealth of echoes.”

He joined UCT in 2010 as an associate professor of Italian Literature and Head of the School of Languages & Literatures’ Italian Section. In the wake of receiving his NRF A-rating, Tuccini has been promoted to full professor.

“The aim of my research has been to analyse the intersections between ancient and modern/contemporary Italian culture in a comparative and interdisciplinary perspective.”

Over the course of his career, Tuccini has been invited to participate in more than 40 academic seminars and international conferences at a variety of institutions worldwide, often as a keynote speaker. He has also been appointed as visiting professor at University Sapienza of Rome for starting a research project on early-modern poet Girolamo Benivieni, as well as visiting fellow in the Department of Literary Theory at Campinas State University in Brazil, where he delivered a research module on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone. His scholarly production has resulted in about 70 publications, including seven monographs.

Tuccini firmly believes that the less tangible heritage of the Humanities is equally important to global progress as STEM research.

“The greater visibility of my work, and consequent financial support will hopefully generate further interest in Literary Studies research, which, compared to the sciences has sadly been neglected,” he says.

Tuccini’s strong research and leadership skills have seen him filling a number of important advisory roles, including – among many others – serving as co-Editor of the book series “Novecento Inquieto” (Aracne Publishing House), as Panelist and Research Specialist for the scientific evaluation of Italian research of the Italian Ministry of Universities and Research (MIUR), as an International Observer for the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) Action People in Motion: Entangled Histories of Displacement across the Mediterranean (1492- 1923) and working as an Italian dialogue coach for National Geographic’s documentary Galileo’s Telescope.

Tuccini believes that the NRF A-rating will greatly support his future projects in Italian Studies and enable him to build new bridges between specialists in South Africa and abroad.

Continued A-rating for four UCT researchers

In addition to Claeys’ and Tuccini’s new A-ratings, UCT also celebrates the previous A-rated researchers whose rating has been confirmed for another five years.

They are:

The late Emeritus Professor Jean Cleymans from the Department of Physics
Professor Rajend Mesthrie from the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics
Honorary Professor Robert J. Wilkinson from the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM)
Professor Jill Farrant from The Department of Molecular & Cell Biology
Professor Mark Solms from the Department of Psychology
Tribute to Jean Cleymans

Amid celebrations, the UCT community has also found itself mourning the loss of one of its NRF A-rating stalwarts.

Emeritus Professor Jean Cleymans’ untimely death was caused by an accident at his home in Turnhout, Belgium, on 22 February 2021 and came as a great shock to his colleagues in the Department of Physics.

“Jean will be remembered as a great teacher and supervisor of postgraduate students, and an outstanding theoretical physicist, recognised internationally for his work in statistical models of the early universe,” says head of department, Professor Andy Buffler.

“Jean will be remembered as a great teacher and supervisor of postgraduate students, and an outstanding theoretical physicist.”

Among other things, Cleymans was responsible for the establishment of the SA-CERN programme. He was also a long-time member of the ALICE collaboration at CERN.

His NRF A-rating, which had just been renewed, was first awarded in 1986.

“UCT Physics will celebrate his life more appropriately later, but as our highest priority we send our deepest condolences to his wife Ria and children Sylvie, Silke and Rene,” says Buffler.

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