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Awards for Wits researchers advancing science for society

- Wits University

The National Research Foundation has recognised Wits researchers for advancing their fields.

The annual NRF Awards recognise research excellence in South Africa and progress in building an inclusive scientific community. The 2018 awards, in Port Elizabeth on 26 September, were themed Advancing Science for Societal Benefit.

Mrs. Natalie Benjamin-Damons, a lecturer in Physiotherapy in the School of Therapeutic Sciences at Wits won the Next Generation Researcher Award for outstanding academic performance in her final year as a doctoral student.

Benjamin-Damons’ research focus is paediatrics, child health, and development in children living with HIV. In particular, she is interested in the physiotherapeutic management of children living with HIV, due to the limited literature on the topic.

"Dr. Natalie Benjamin-Damons' achievement was made in the face of strong national competition and augers well for Wits and its quest to grow new waves of research excellence. Please join me in wishing Natalie well, and in congratulating the School for supporting our early career academics," said Dr. Robin Drennan, Director of Research Development at Wits.

Two Wits researchers were awarded NRF A-ratings for the first time. An A-rated researcher is defined as someone who is recognised by their peers as a leading international scholar in their field for the high quality and impact of their recent research outputs. 

The NRF’s first A-rated political scientist

Professor Lawrence Hamilton is the first political scientist in the history of the NRF rating system to receive an A-rating. Hamilton is the NRF/British Academy Bilateral Research Chair in Political Theory at Wits University and Cambridge University. This programme aims to balance historical colonial power relations by empowering the global South through research and engagement. 

Reviewers described Hamilton’s work as cutting edge and having a major international impact. It is shaping the discourse on needs, power and freedom, and offers a genuinely novel theory of political power and democratic practice. It has created fresh dialogue across disciplines, particularly political theory, philosophy, and development economics. 

Father of Green Chemistry A-rated

Roger Sheldon, Distinguished Professor of Biocatalysis in the School of Chemistry at Wits was also newly A-rated. Sheldon is a recognised authority on green chemistry and renowned as a founding father of this field. His expertise in green chemistry includes the development of methods for quantifying the environmental impact of chemical processes, such as E factors (which refers to the two measures of the potential environmental acceptability of chemical processes), and atom utilisation.

By using biocatalysts to improve the production of chemicals, Sheldon and his colleagues have made several major breakthroughs in green chemistry, even developing magnetised enzymes, which could be recycled out of liquids (and re-used), by separating the magnetised enzymes from the liquids.

Wits University boasts 28 A-rated scientists and five of these A-ratings were renewed at the awards:

  1.  Professor Jill Adler is the SARChI Chair in Mathematics Education in the School of Education at Wits and President of the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction 
  2. Professor Lewis Ashwal in the School of Geosciences at Wits led the team that found the “lost continent” under Mauritius in 2017
  3. Andrew Forbes, Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics, established the Structured Light Laboratory at Wits where he and his team are researching how to pack information into light, transmit it over distance, and then unpack the information on the other side
  4. Linda Richter, Distinguished Professor at Wits, fellow and former director of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development has spent 28 years tracking a cohort of more than 2 000 children since they were in the womb in 1990
  5. Professor Beric Skews in the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Aeronautical Engineering is founder and director of the Flow Research Unit at Witsand a global expert in the field of compressible gas dynamics.
  6. Wits alumna Glenda Gray is Full Professor: Research, in the School of Clinical Medicine at Wits and President of the South African Medical Research Council. Gray established the Wits Perinatal HIV Research Unit at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in 1996 and pioneered advances in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. In 2017, TIME magazine named her amongst the top 100 most influential people in the world.

A lifetime of stargazing

Wits alumnus Dr. Bernard Fanaroff, Special Adviser and Former Director Square Kilometre Array South Africa (SKA-SA) received the NRF Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognises the lifelong research achievements of individuals together with their impact on society. Fanaroff was recognised for his scientific contribution; his activism as an anti-apartheid activist; his contribution as a public servant and as the Director of SKA-SA. In the latter role, he successfully led the bid for South Africa to host the SKA and the design and construction of the Meerkat Telescope. Wits awarded Fanaroff an honorary doctorate in 2013 for his contribution to SKA-SA.