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Two young SU scientists win prestigious national awards
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]
Published: 19/09/2023

​Two talented postgraduate students at Stellenbosch University, Nyeleti Mabaso and Leanne Nortjé, won prestigious South Africa Women in Science Awards (SAWiSA) recently. They received fellowships for their master's and doctoral degrees respectively.

According to the Department of Science and Innovation, SAWiSA honours women scientists and researchers who serve as role models for younger women and rewards younger women who are starting their careers as researchers and scientists. The SAWiSA also awards registered master's and PhD students.

Mabaso, a speech-language pathologist working towards her master's in Speech-Language Therapy, said the fellowship is a recognition that she has met national standards of promoting indigenous knowledge systems within the healthcare sector in South Africa. She added that it also affirms her as custodian of Vhavenḓa people. Mabaso was born to a royal family that has been ruling the Vhavenḓa nation for over 300 years.

Her research investigates the cultural and linguistic equivalence of the newly adapted Multilingual Instrument of Narratives (an instrument for assessing narrative skills in children who acquire one or more languages from birth or from early age) in Tshivenḓa for Grade 4 children.

“The success of this research will help clinicians, researchers, and educators to distinguish developmental language delay and effects of bilingualism in children from multicultural backgrounds. By providing this instrument that is culturally and linguistically valid for use amongst indigenous cultures in South Africa, Tshivenḓa-speaking children will have access to an early intervention that will contribute to advanced early literacy development and academic success."

Mabaso, who was also named one of the Mail & Guardian's 200 Young South Africans recently, said “the fellowship will enable me to fulfil my vision for Tshivenḓa-speaking children to have access to early developmental intervention and adequate treatment through the Speech-Language Pathology".

She wants to collaborate with the Departments of Health, Education and Social Development and the monarchy in Venḓa to reduce illiteracy in children and neglect of persons with communication and hearing disorders by promoting early intervention through programmes that she will design.

Commenting on her award, Nortjé, who is a DeepMind scholar and a PhD student in electrical and electronic engineering, said it was an immense honour and a deeply gratifying experience to be acknowledged for contributing to a field where females are so underrepresented.

“This award inspires me to continue breaking barriers and to keep fostering positive change through my work. It is a tremendous boost to my research endeavours. Firstly, the exposure can open doors to new collaborations and research opportunities. Additionally, the recognition brings increased credibility, making it easier to secure funding for my projects. Moreover, the award serves as a motivating force, pushing me to set even higher standards for my research."

Nortjé's research focuses on creating visually grounded speech systems for low-resource or underrepresented languages. She uses images to loosely transcribe audio, as well as taking advantage of well-resourced languages like English. The systems used in her research are inspired by how rapidly children acquire their native language. As a result, she can also test whether these systems use the same learning methods that children use to acquire language.

Nortjé said she would like to expand the scope of her current research by delving deeper into its implications and potential real-world implementations. “Ultimately, my goal is to contribute to the advancement of knowledge in this area and create a lasting impact."

  • Photo: Nyeleti Mabaso (by Stefan Els) and Leanne Nortjé (supplied)