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Three SU researchers receive top honours
Author: Corporate Communication / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie [Alec Basson]
Published: 31/07/2020

​Three researchers from Stellenbosch University (SU) walked away with top honours at the annual National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)/ South32Awards. Dr Richard Walls and Profs Christine Lochner and Conrad Matthee were announced winners in their respective categories during a live-streamed gala event on Thursday, 30 July 2020.

The prestigious NSTF/South32 Awards recognise, celebrate and reward the outstanding contributions of individuals, teams and organisations to science, engineering and technology in South Africa.

Walls (Fire Engineering Research Unit at SU or FireSUN) received the TW Kambule-NSTF Award in the Emerging Researcher Category for establishing FireSUN, a dynamic research group pursuing methods to improve informal settlement fire safety as well as structural fire design – both crucial to ensuring safety in our communities. A leading expert on fire safety engineering, Walls played a key role in the analysis of the Knysna fire disaster in 2017, in which almost 1 000 homes were destroyed, and has contributed to the United Nations “Global Assessment Repot on Disaster Risk Reduction" which looks at how to mitigate the effect of disasters on society. He has been involved with the roll-out of smoke alarms in informal settlements in South Africa. More than 5 000 smoke alarms have been installed in low-income homes, with the alarms typically being sponsored by industry or government. Walls also established the first fire safety engineering qualification in Africa.

Commenting on the award, Walls said “not only do we get paid a salary to burn stuff down, now our team is being recognised for advancing science and engineering. Our PhD & MEng students, postdocs and undergrads have worked extremely hard, and we hope we are making an impact. I appreciate that all of their contributions are being recognised in this award."

Lochner (South African Medical Research Council Unit on Risk and Resilience in Mental Disorders and the Department of Psychiatry) was honoured with a TW Kambule-NSTF Award in the Researcher Category for raising awareness about obsessive-compulsive disorder, a common and debilitating d condition that contributes to individual and societal suffering and massive economic costs.

Since 2001, Lochner has launched several awareness campaigns and comprehensively collected clinical and genetics data from almost 1 000 patients with these conditions and MRI data from a subset, culminating in an extensive database that has facilitated collaborations with leading scientists worldwide, and resulted in numerous publications. Her research contributes to current knowledge of these impairing conditions which may translate into increased accuracy of diagnosis and better care – of the individual as well as society. The burden of disease associated with these conditions – i.e. on a personal/emotional level, as well as the financial burden – is thus ultimately decreased by work of this nature and scale.

Locher said it was a lovely surprise to be the recipient of one of the so-called NSTF 'Science Oscars' of South Africa.

“I am thankful for the recognition and encouragement by this important forum.  It is a privilege and a blessing to have a career which I find meaningful and love, and be rewarded for it.  Contributing to efforts that highlight the importance of scientific research in the field of mental health and how this can benefit society, is a priority."  

The NSTF-Lewis Foundation Green Economy Award went to Matthee (Department of Botany and Zoology) and his team for inventing the first eco-friendly shark specific barrier SharkSafeTM, which can protect beachgoers without harming the marine life. This innovative novel technology solves international problems associated with shark attacks including loss of lives, loss of income for local businesses, loss of recreational opportunities and loss of biodiversity in marine ecosystems. SharkSafeTM contributes to the preservation of a healthy ocean ecosystem while it also promotes sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth and in turn will improve livelihoods of local communities. Since patenting the locally manufactured SharkSafeTM barrier, a privately owned company, SharkSafe PTY LTD, was created during 2014. This invention has also attracted international attention with interest coming from La Réunion Island, Australia and Saudi Arabia.

“The inventors of SharkSafe BarrierTM by name, Mike Rutzen, Dr Sara Andreotti, Dr Craig O'Connell and myself are indeed honoured to receive this award," said Matthee.

“We want to give credit to the many role players who showed trust in our technology and assisted us on the long path to commercialization, specifically to Anita Nel and her team at Innovus, and Marius Ungerer from SU's Business School for assistance with strategic planning, and Laurie Barwell and Rory Bruins for endless product development and logistical support." 

Through this award, we hope to make people aware that this technology has the potential to permanently solve the global conservation and socioeconomic tribulations associated with human-shark conflicts, added Matthee.

  • ​Photo: Dr Richard Walls, Prof Christine Lochner, and Prof Conrad Matthee with members of his team.