University of Cape Town: UCT researchers win big at NRF Awards

Five researchers from the University of Cape Town (UCT) have been recognised for their outstanding achievements and contributions to society at this year’s National Research Foundation (NRF) Awards Ceremony.

Held annually, the NRF Awards recognises individual researchers and teams for outstanding achievements that have had an impact on society. Their internationally competitive work is assessed with a strong emphasis on its quality and impact.

After COVID-19 scuppered plans for 2020, the NRF hosted a hybrid event this year with a limited number of guests attending in-person in Pretoria. The event was also live-streamed to more than 500 virtual attendees. The ceremony celebrated 68 awardees across 10 categories.

Five UCT researchers were awarded in four categories.

NRF Research Excellence Award for Next Generation Researchers
This award recognises outstanding academic performance by final year doctoral students.

Dr Neelakshi Mungra, Department of Integrative Biomedical Sciences (2021)

Mungra’s research looks at engineering affordable cutting-edge antibody technologies that can be used to leverage the development of diagnostic and therapeutic tools for cancer and infectious diseases, especially in developing countries like South Africa.

Currently, her work focuses on engineering novel immunodiagnostic and immunotherapeutic treatments for breast cancer, which is the most common cancer among South African women: one in 31 will be diagnosed with the disease during their lifetime. This burden is projected to increase in the coming years, due to an aging population and high prevalence of risk factors.

Furthermore, Mungra’s project aims to develop scarce skills and novel intellectual property that will generate future employment programmes and attract private and public support.

NRF Research Excellence Award for Early Career / Emerging Researchers in the Humanities and Social Sciences
This award recognises outstanding research excellence by current Thuthuka grant-holders. Thuthuka is central to the NRF’s Human Capital Development strategy and aims to redress historical imbalances in the South African researcher cohort.

Associate Professor Christopher Ouma, Department of English Language and Literature (2020)

Ouma’s career path, so far, has been framed by two research projects. The first draws connections between childhood studies and African diasporic studies, gender studies, and memory studies in the context of contemporary African identity formation. The other lies at the intersection of literary history and cultural studies by examining small (literary) magazines in mid-century Africa (1955–1975) and the ways they created conditions for Pan-African imagination.

The former project has seen Ouma gain acclaim and has resulted in 12 single-authored publications on local and international platforms. His most significant contribution has been his monograph, Childhood in Contemporary Diasporic African Literature: Memories and Futures Past.

Ouma’s work makes a major contribution to the ways national imagination – intersecting with continental and global geographies of identity – works to re-centre and reposition childhood as an important paradigm for understanding identity alongside race, gender, sexuality and class.

NRF Public Engagement in Research Award
This award recognises researchers and scientists who make outstanding contributions to public engagement with research over a sustained period.

Professor Rachel Wynberg, Department of Environmental and Geographical Science (2021)

As the Department of Science and Innovation/National Research Foundation South African Research Chair (SARChI) in the Social and Environmental Dimensions of the Bio-economy, Wynberg’s work aims to address the knowledge gaps that exist around the environmental, political and social dynamics of the bio-economy.

Although the bio-economy has been touted as a panacea for resolving the environmental, social and economic predicaments society faces, critical questions have been raised about who stands to benefit, the involvement of local and indigenous communities, and the economic and political drivers behind the push for the bio-economy.

Through her research and public engagements, Wynberg seeks to deepen critical thinking about these questions and to inspire scholarship that explores possibilities for socially just and environmentally sustainable approaches – with a particular focus on the Global South.

From the inception of her career, Wynberg has developed a clear strategy for engaging the public in understanding the nature of her research and its applications in society.

Professor Liesl Zühlke, Department of Paediatrics and Child Health (2020)

With her work focusing on neglected cardiovascular diseases of childhood, Zühlke has prioritised raising awareness about this relatively niche and unknown field by engaging patients and communities, and disseminating her team’s research findings to the affected public. She has made extra efforts to engage with audiences outside of her research domain through multiple mediums.

Zühlke has consistently found innovative ways to mesh engagement activities with research programmes and can now demonstrate meaningful and active collaboration and engagement throughout the research life cycle. This includes incorporating ‘public user’ insights into production, design and technology for maximum impact.

A major example of this is engaging patients and communities affected by disease into research production, analysis and dissemination.

In addition, Zühlke has extensive experience engaging with policymakers, including ministries of health, the African Union, the World Heart Organization and the World Heart Federation, as well as convening and attending high-level meetings.

NRF Hamilton Naki Award 2020/21
Named after the self-taught surgeon who trained generations of medical students in surgical techniques, the Hamilton Naki Award honours individuals for advancing their careers in science and achieving world-class research performance despite considerable challenges.

Professor Sharon Prince, head of Department of Human Biology

Prince leads a large research group that studies novel therapeutic interventions and drug targets for the treatment of cancer. She has supervised 78 students from honours to postdoctoral level, most of whom were from marginalised groups. Since 2001, she has published more than 72 articles in peer-reviewed publications, including PLoS Genetics and Nature Communications.

What makes these achievements more remarkable is the journey Prince undertook to get here.

Prince grew up in a large family with limited financial resources in an area of the Western Cape characterised by high unemployment and crime. While her parents lacked formal educations, they placed a strong emphasis on their children’s schooling, encouraging them to excel.

She enrolled for a Bachelor of Science degree at UCT under a special dispensation that allowed black people to study at a ‘white’ university. Prince helped found the Azanian Students Organisation whose guiding principle was the struggle for the creation of a democratic South Africa, free of racist oppression and exploitation.

After completing her PhD at UCT, she was awarded the Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Traveling Fellowship, which enabled her to work at the Marie Curie Research Institute in the United Kingdom. Her other fellowship awards include the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust and the Harry Crossley Senior Clinical fellowships.

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