Engineering PhD candidate bestowed with Rector’s Award for Social Impact

Adam Venter, a PhD candidate in the field of Mechanical Engineering, was awarded the prestigious Rector’s Award for Social Impact which forms part of the Rector’s awards for excellent achievements.

Before pursuing his PhD studies, he did his BEng and MEng at the Department of Mechanical & Mechatronic Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering of Stellenbosch University (SU). His research focuses on the computational modelling of power station cooling fans under the supervision of Prof Johan van der Spuy.

Asked about his research focus, Adam says: “Due to the scale of power station cooling systems, when we try to model them numerically, we have to use reduced order aerodynamic codes; however, these codes are only able to give us a limited approximation of actual system performance. So, my research is specifically attempting to improve these simplified codes.”

Besides his research and academic workload, this humanitarian volunteers much of his time with the NSRI and the VWS. “Outside of academics, I am a ‘serial volunteer’; I started volunteering when I was 16 years old and have since accumulated well over 1000 hours of community service. I started as a volunteer lifeguard and qualified through Western Province Lifesaving. Later, during my undergraduate degree, I qualified as a wildland firefighter with Volunteer Wildfire Services (VWS) (where I am still active at three stations – Stellenbosch, Helderberg and Newlands). Most recently, I have qualified as a crew member for the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) at Station 2, Bakoven.”

He adds: “I joined the VWS in 2016, and in 2019 I was promoted to Crew Leader. I joined NSRI Station 2 in August 2021 and qualified as a crew member by June 2022, which is in record time.”

Asked about what prompted his involvement, Adam says: “Outside of the tragedy that you sometimes face, I find the emergency medical and rescue scene very exciting: the physicality, the strategy, the rawness of nature, the teamwork. But also, beyond the excitement and adrenaline, it is amazing to be able to help others; this is truly what makes all the sacrifice and standby hours’ worth it! So – it is not unusual for me to be on standby every weekend of the month during the summer season.”

He says the devastating Cape Town fires of 2015 motivated him to seek ways to get involved and help, and that is when he came across the VWS. “The VWS is a key player in the provincial response to major wildfire incidents. The VWS is sometimes the only defense between a community and disaster.”

In 2021 he moved to Cape Town and joined the NSRI. “Since the NSRI is the primary sea rescue resource in South Africa, you must live close to a rescue base to qualify. During standby duty, we are required to be able to get to the base within ten minutes. So as soon as I met that requirement, I didn’t hesitate to join.”

He names the Knysna fire (2017) and the George fire (2018) as the most memorable fires he responded to.

“The well-known Knysna fire was truly a unique experience; the atmosphere was one of desperation and vulnerability, but it was contrasted by the energy and enthusiasm of so many people trying to make a difference. We experienced a huge range of emotions on that fire; we witnessed incredible acts of bravery, the pain of death and evacuations, the overt kindness of strangers and the joy of both small and large victories,” he says.

“The George fires of 2018 was a very different experience. This was the largest fire in South Africa’s history (at approximately 96 hectares). The fire burnt from Riversdale through to Tsitsikamma; however, it remained largely deep in the mountains, so it did not receive much media coverage. My team spent a week living in the mountains just off Barrydale – staying in Cape Nature huts and travelling into the town to use the bathrooms at Wimpy. We worked on a 24-hour shift rotation: 24 hours on the line, then 24 hours rest. The camaraderie on that fire was second to none and although we were often exhausted, we still managed to pull off some of the most epic firefighting I have seen.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, Adam was involved in the search and recovery of a young girl who fell off the rocks near Llandudno beach and was swept out to sea. “This was a tragic call-out, but to be able to help provide closure for the family and friends meant a lot.

“I encourage everyone to try out volunteering, not just for the VWS or NSRI, but anywhere you can make a positive difference,” he adds.

Photograph: Wildland firefighter, Andre Venter.
📸: Andrew Hagen