University of South Africa: Unisa celebrates biggest crop of Research and Innovation Award winners in years

This compares with the approximately 80 awards handed out at last year’s R&I Awards and the 93 awards presented in March 2020 (literally days before Covid-19 forced the shutdown of the country’s schools and universities).

One of the major factors behind the magnificent tally of 120 R&I Awards handed out on Friday night was a strong increase in National Research Foundation (NRF) ratings: 66 Unisa researchers successfully applied to be rated or re-rated in 2021 or transferred with a rating, compared to 28 in the previous year. This goes to show how productive Unisa researchers have managed to be in the most difficult of circumstances.

Another major highlight of this year’s awards ceremony was that, for the first time, both the Chancellor’s and the Principal’s Awards were presented. Previously, these awards were handed out in alternate years, the Chancellor’s award to the University’s finest established researchers and the Principal’s Award to the best young researchers under 35.

Chancellor praises recipients’ sense of greater purpose
The three recipients of the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research – the most prestigious research award a Unisa researcher can receive – were Professor Mishack Gumbo of the College of Education (CEDU), Professor Moeketsi Letseka of the UNESCO Chair on Open and Distance Learning and Professor Gerhard Prinsloo of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences (CAES).

“Like the true researchers they are, they are motivated not by personal ambition but by the commitment to contribute to a greater purpose, a higher calling, a more noble cause,” said His Excellency Dr Thabo Mbeki, Unisa Chancellor, and former President of South Africa in his message of congratulation. “Their research interests, each in their own way, in one way or another … are dedicated to the greater good of the people of the continent of Africa.”

The three young researchers selected for the Principal’s Prize for Research Excellence were Professor Usisipho Feleni of the Institute for Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability, Professor Jan Maluleka of the College of Human Sciences (CHS) and Professor Mlungisi Phakathi, also from CHS.

A foundation of caring
In congratulating them and all the other emerging researchers being honoured at the R&I Awards, Professor Puleng LenkaBula, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Unisa, said, “I urge you to build your careers on a foundation of caring about your own and the broader community. We celebrate your academic achievements and are very proud of your contribution towards the achievement of knowledge, research and innovation. But I challenge you to leave in your wake a positive and sustainable impact in our communities.”

Another much-anticipated category of awards was Women in Research, including the award for Youngest Female Doctoral Graduate of 2021, which went to Dr Makgalake Radingoana of CAES.

The Emerging Researcher Award went to Dr Fundiswa Kobo of CHS, and the two recipients of Research Leadership Awards were Professor Jeanette Maritz of CHS and Professor Norma Romm of CEDU.

Innovators do Unisa proud
In the Innovation Awards section of the ceremony, there were both new and familiar faces. Among the previous winners who returned for new accolades this year was Professor Hennie Stoffberg of CAES. He received two awards: one for patents, designs, trademarks and plant breeders rights, and another for intellectual property applications. Last year, he won three Innovation Awards, including Most Prolific Innovator: Patents.

Another previous winner was Professor Vijaya Vallabhapurapu of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET). This time round, he was honoured in the category of First Patent Granted in Examining Jurisdictions, along with Professor Patrice Umenne of CSET.

Professor Xinying Liu, also from CSET, won an award for First Patent Granted in South Africa, as well as a Million Rand Award for securing external grant funding of up to R1 million.

Three other researchers received Million Rand Awards, namely Dr Sandiswa Figlan of CSET and Professor Trevor McIntyre of CAES. Eight other researchers were recognised for their success in securing external grants of up to R500 000.