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SU researchers, alumni honoured by SA Academy

Article by Dr Alec Basson (Corporate Communication)

Three researchers and two former postgraduate students from Stellenbosch University (SU) have been honoured by the South African Academy for Science and Arts for their contributions to science and the arts.

The award winners are Prof Matilda Burden of the SU Museum, Prof Jan van Vuuren of the Department of Industrial Engineering, Prof Andre Weideman of the Department of Mathematical Sciences, and alumni Theo Busschau and Ruhan Fourie.

Prof Matilda Burden, a cultural historian, receives an Honorary Award for the Advancement of History (Erepenning vir die Bevordering van Geskiedenis) for her outstanding contribution to the advancement of history or cultural history as disciplines in South Africa.

Burden says that even though she was completely taken by surprise, it is a great honour and she is deeply grateful for it.

“It is my privilege to be able to research and write about South African cultural history, and to train South Africans across all cultural boundaries in cultural history, heritage studies and museum science. It is, therefore, a special honour to be rewarded with an award that recognises a modest contribution.

“Receiving this award from the SA Academy for Science and Arts means a great deal to me, especially as it also recognises the field of cultural history,” adds Burden.

The Douw Greeff Prize goes to Prof Jan van Vuuren for a research or review article of the highest scientific quality published in the SA Journal of Natural Science and Technology during the year preceding the award.

Van Vuuren says the prize was totally unexpected. “Recognition is not a researcher’s driving force; rather, it is a fundamental curiosity that leads to a quest to answer open-ended questions. But it is nevertheless encouraging and enjoyable if one gets the kind of recognition that the South African Academy for Science and Arts gives.” He also received this award in 2007 with Nicky Pantland.

The Havenga Prize for Physical Sciences was awarded to Prof André (J.A.C.) Weideman, an applied mathematician who specialises in the design and improvement of computer algorithms for application in the natural sciences and engineering. The Havenga Prize is an annual award for original research in the natural sciences and can be awarded only once to an individual.

​Prof Weideman is internationally acknowledged as one of the most creative figures in numerical analysis, specifically for his research on the interface between complex analysis and numerical algorithms in application fields such as differential equations, integral transforms and special functions. Over a career spanning more than thirty years, he has made a valuable contribution to the improvement of software by applying his theoretical knowledge to develop practical algorithms.

In reaction to the award, Prof Weideman said the award is special even more so as applied mathematicians’ research contributions often remain invisible to the popular media: “Applied mathematics is a subject in the service of the rest of the sciences. For someone who spent his academic career on improving computer algorithms for effective use by other scientists, this award is extremely special.”

The Junior Captain Scott Memorial Medal for the best MSc-thesis in Zoology was awarded to Mr Theo Busschau, for his thesis on the “Phylogeographic patterning of three co-distributed forest-dwelling reptile species along the east coast of South Africa”.

Mr Busschau has been working on reptiles since his BScHons-degree, under the supervision of Prof Savel Daniels. Described as an exceptional student, he has already published five research articles in peer-reviewed journals, two of which as first author, with another article in press. In September, he will be off to the United States where he was granted a PhD fellowship in Biology at New York University.

Another SU alumnus, Ruhan Fourie, was honoured with the Protea Boekhuis Prize and the General Christaan de Wet scholarship for the best History dissertation in Afrikaans. His master’s thesis was on the anti-apartheid activist Beyers Naudé.

Photograph: Prof Jan van Vuuren.