Women in Science awards

Women were the largest untapped global reservoir of talent, the audience was reminded at the Women in Science awards, where the country’s leading female scientists were recognised for their work.

Dr Lephoto Tiisetso is conducting research into natural ways to control pests in agriculture. (Image: Lephoto Tiisetso )

Sulaiman Philip

The full scientific potential of our country would only be realised when all our young women were able to enjoy access to the best facilities and education, said Minister Naledi Pandor.

She was speaking at the Department of Science and Technology’s annual Women in Science awards. The awards, presented for the first time in 2003, recognises and rewards leading female researchers and scientists.

In her welcome message, Pandor pointed out that the awards showed that women could excel in science and research. The award winners, the minister said, were able to manage the conflict between family and career to become role models to young girls and boys. The ceremony was held on 17 August, in Sandton.

This year’s keynote address was delivered by Dr Nolulamo Gwagwa, chief executive of Lereko Investment. Quoting Hillary Clinton, she reminded the audience that women remained the largest untapped global reservoir of talent.

The women recognised by the awards, through a nomination or award, were role models for young girls and boys, Gwagwa said. She said the continent’s future depended on young people who followed their role models into innovative and technology driven careers. Turning to her host, Pandor, she joked: “When we talk about radical economic transformation, we should not only talk about race. We must talk about gender as well.”

The doctor added that a brighter future for Africa depended on more women becoming involved in sectors linked to technology and innovation. She challenged the audience to encourage young girls not to give up on their dreams of choosing careers based on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). Young girls needed to be encouraged to be ambitious. “We must tell young girls driven by burning ambition that it is okay and natural for women to be ambitious.”

WINNERS:

Distinguished women researchers

Natural and Engineering Sciences

Winner: Professor Alta Schutte (North West University): Schutte was the first researcher to investigate the correlation between high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease in black African populations. Her work has influenced health policy across the continent. She is also chair of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Early Detection and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease programme, funded by the Department of Science and Technology.

Runner-up: Professor Resia Pretorius (Stellenbosch University): A professor in the university’s department of physiological sciences, Pretorius developed diagnostic tools that led to the discovery of blood microbiomes in inflammatory conditions. Her research has also led to the discovery of a component of blood membrane that leads to the onset of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Professor Resia Pretorius research has also led to the discovery of a component of blood membrane that leads to the onset of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson. (Image: Department of Science and Technology)

Runner-up: Professor Colleen Downs (University of KwaZulu-Natal): A zoology professor, Downs has a research interest in how changing land use affects the behaviour of land animals and ecosystems. Her research has played an important role in conservation efforts in South Africa. Her findings have been used by national and municipal government to inform their town planning and the development of green spaces.

Humanities and Social Sciences

Winner: Professor Azwiihangwisi Mavhandu-Muduzi (University of South Africa): A professor in the department of health studies and a nurse, Mavhandu-Muduzi’s research focuses on new HIV infections and improving the quality of life of HIV-positive students at rural universities. She developed new guidelines for advocacy, care and support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trangender, intersex and queer students. These new guidelines and the management model she developed have helped to empower HIV-positive women as well as gay and non-gender conforming women in the workplace.

Runner-up: Professor Saloshna Vandeyar (University of Pretoria): A professor of of diversity in education, Vandeyar has done research on teaching in culture-rich classrooms and managing teen pregnancies in school environments.

Runner-up: Professor Venitha Pillay (University of South Africa): Pillay’s research on women and how gender shapes scholarship is funded by the National Research Foundation. The study is based on her two published books – Academic Mothers (2007) and Academic Mothers in the Developing World: Stories from India, Brazil and South Africa (2017). Her research is guided by the National Development Plan goal of educational empowerment for women.

Professor Venitha Pillay’s research is guided by the National Development Plan’s goal of educational empowerment for women. (Image: Department of Science and Technology)

Research and Innovation Leading to Socioeconomic Impact

Winner: Professor Henrietta de Kock (University of Pretoria): De Kock’s research into the sensory properties of food and beverages contributes to the wellbeing of African consumers. With a growing urban population to feed, her work looks at ways to use Africa’s biodiversity to create food that is nutritious and appetising.

Distinguished Young Woman Researchers

Natural and Engineering Sciences

Winner: Dr Philiswa Nomngongo (University of Johannesburg): A lecturer in analytical chemistry, Nomngongo’s nanotechnology research focuses on environmental pollution monitoring, desalination and water treatment.

Dr Philiswa Nomngongo is a lecturer in analytical chemistry at UJ. (Image: Department of Science and Technology)

Runner-up: Professor Genevieve Langdon (University of Cape Town): The deputy head of the university’s mechanical engineering department, Langdon was nominated for her work on blast protection for structures. She has spent her career mentoring the next generation of South African scientists. To date she has supervised more than 50 honours projects, 10 MSc and three PhD students.

Runner-up: Professor Tricia Naicker (University of KwaZulu-Natal): The youngest associate professor in the university’s College of Health Sciences and the youngest academic leader/head of discipline for pharmaceutical sciences, Naicker received her PhD after studying asymmetric organocatalysis, the first time it had been studied in Africa. She was nominated for her patented work on new molecules that target drug resistant bacteria.

Humanities and Social Sciences

Winner: Professor Roula Roula Inglesi-Lotz (University of Pretoria): An associate professor in the department of economics, Inglesi-Lotz runs a research methodology course for honours students and has supervised 12 MCom students. She sits on the editorial board of the Journal of Energy of Southern Africa and developed the first course on energy and environmental economics at masters level.

Runner-up: Dr Nomusa Makhubu (University of Cape Town): A senior lecturer at Michaelis School of Fine Art, Makhubu’s research covers the political role of public art as it relates to gender and class. This month, she begins a tenure at Harvard as a Harvard-UCT Mandela Fellow.

Research and Innovation Leading to Socioeconomic Impact

Winner: Dr Lephoto Tiisetso (University of Witwatersrand): Last year Tiisetso was one of 87 women selected to participate in the TechWomen Emerging Leaders programme. She is also one of the Mail and Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans to watch. Her research in molecular genetics involves finding insect killing nematodes to naturally control pests in agriculture.

TATA Masters scholarships

Nomabhongo Masana (Central University of Technology): Masana’s research focuses on the benefits of cloud-based computing and how the technology can be integrated into the public sector health service.

Yonela Mgwebi (University of the Witwatersrand): Mgwebi’s research involves non-corrosive coatings for metals used in power generation. Her research aims to find cost effective ways to produce energy and steel.

Emily Muller (University of Cape Town/African Institute for Mathematical Sciences South Africa): Muller is researching how social networks influence student performance with the hope of building predictive models to improve organisational structures.

TATA Doctoral scholarships

Marilize Everts (University of Pretoria): A published researcher, Everts is looking at ways to improve heat transfer in power generation equipment.

Loretta Magagula (University of Cape Town): A PhD student, Magagula is researching cancer-causing mutations in African populations. She is concentrating an breast and colorectal cancers, which are widespread in the black African population.

Funeka Nkosi (University of Johannesburg/Council for Scientific and Industrial Research): Working from the council’s labs, Nkosi is reasearching ways to improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries. She is testing manganese oxide-based metals to find ways to use locally mined minerals.

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