Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Top students share Faculty of Science Dean’s medal
Author: Media & Communication, Faculty of Science
Published: 15/06/2021

The Faculty of Science's 2019 Dean's medal for persistent excellent academic performance is shared by Mr Fred de Villiers, a postgraduate student in applied mathematics, and Ms Emma King, a postgraduate student in quantum physics.

The medal, cast in solid silver, is awarded annually to an honours student who scores the highest average percentage throughout both the BSc and BSc Honours programmes. Emma succeeded in obtaining an average of 87,18% with distinctions in 36 out of the 40 subjects over four years, and Fred an average of 87,75%, with distinctions in 34 out of a total of 37 subjects.

Prof Louise Warnich, Dean of the Faculty of Science, says while the Faculty usually only awards one such medal, they had to make an exception for these two exceptional students. At the handing over of the medals p on Wednesday 9 June, she also presented each of them with a copy of the Faculty of Science's centenary book, A Particular Frame of Mind. Stellenbosch University, Faculty of Science, 1918-2018.

Fred, who grew up in Pretoria, says an unconventional career and study path have taught him what kind of problems he enjoys solving. He wrote matric as a part-time candidate and failed mathematics the first time round. Before enrolling for a BSc-degree in applied mathematics, he worked as a clerk in a hospital's accident and emergency unit: “The owner of the practice offered me many opportunities to acquire new skills and to assume new responsibilities. Some years later, we founded a small company together, offering practice management services to other medical practices."

“My favourite projects involved developing simple mathematical and statistical models to improve our business processes and to serve our patients more effectively. Fortunately, I was able to support my degree studies by continuing to work remotely between classes and during evenings."

He says the work experience meant that he could relate the theoretical concepts they were learning in class back to concrete problems he had faced in practice: “Being aware of the direct relevance of my courses in this way made it easier for me to synthesize the content and to stay motivated."

His research currently focuses on an area of machine learning called reinforcement learning: “This is a computational approach for an autonomous agent to learn to perform tasks through its interaction with the environment. Unlike supervised learning, the agent learns from its own experience without the help of labelled examples or expert domain knowledge. My research explores how more sophisticated internal representations that mimic processes like curiosity and memory may help the agent to be more successful in previously unseen environments," he explains.

Emma grew up in Cape Town and matriculated from Elkanah House High School in 2015. While she initially enrolled for a BSc degree in mathematical sciences, she became intrigued with physics towards the end of her second year: “At the time there was no single aspect of physics that interested me the most. It was more that I had become intrigued by the many unexplored questions, amazed by the fact that simple and elegant theories could be used to describe complex natural phenomena. And I was inspired by the physics lecturers."

Her research in theoretical physics focuses on the effect of temperature variations on the dynamics of open quantum systems when in the vicinity of quantum critical points. This work may be relevant for applications such as adiabatic quantum computation.

Emma is also involved with missionary work, and hopes one day to use her skills and expertise to promote tertiary education in Africa.