Engineering welcomes A-rated researcher

The Faculty of Engineering is proud to welcome Prof Andries Engelbrecht on its academic staff. Prof Engelbrecht is an A-rated researcher as rated by die National Research Foundation (NRF). This rating acknowledges that he is a leading international researcher in his field. His fields of expertise are Computational intelligence, Swarm intelligence, Evolutionary computation, Neural networks, Optimisation, Machine learning and Data analytics.

Prof Engelbrecht is the first incumbent of the new Voigt Chair in Data Science in the Department of Industrial Engineering.

As a first-year Matie student in 1988 he opted for BSc with Computer Science and Mathematics. When asked why he chose computer science he replies: “I can’t remember! Everybody thought I was going to do Theology and become a minister. In my first year I asked a professor for advice on which computer to purchase for my second year. He replied drily that I first had to see if I could pass Computer Science, as I had a progress mark of 35 for this subject at that stage!”

Luckily, he passed all his subjects and his first year with flying colours. He continues: “In my second year the Computer Science bug bit me. When I graduated in 1990, I had to choose between continuing with an honours, doing an HED, or going to the army. I decided to do an honours degree in Computer Science at Stellenbosch, specialising in Artificial Intelligence.”

He obtained his honours cum laude in 1992, followed by a master’scum laude (1994) and a PhD in 1999.

During his postgraduate studies he taught Computer Studies and Mathematics on a temporary basis at a few schools. His introduction to academia came with his appointment as a lecturer in Computer Science at Unisa in 1996 where he stayed for two years.

His academic career gained momentum in 1998 when he joined the University of Pretoria as a lecturer in Computer Science. Over the two decades that followed he rapidly progressed through the ranks, his last two positions being Head of Department (2009 to 2017) and Director: Institute for Big Data and Data Science (2017 to 2018). After 21 years at Tuks, the opportunity arose to return to his alma mater. His appointment at Stellenbosch University comprises two aspects; 50% is allocated to his role as Chair in Data Science in the Faculty of Engineering and 50% as an academic in the Department of Computer Science in the Faculty of Science.

“Regarding my position as Chair, my main aim is to promote Data Science within Stellenbosch University. This includes the transfer of knowledge to undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as to industry. In order to do this, I want to establish a research group within the Department of Industrial Engineering. I have two bright young colleagues in my team, Prof Jacomine Grobler and Dr Thorsten Schmidt-Dumont. We already have quite a number of master’s students enrolled for 2019.

“Furthermore, I will present Data analytics to third-year industrial engineering students and Applied machine learning to postgrads.”

When wearing his hat as academic in the Department of Computer Science, he will mainly present postgraduate modules in Computational intelligence for optimisation and in Machine learning. These fields will also be his main focus of research in that Department.

What are his immediate plans? To this question he replies: “I would like to continue publishing and will do my utmost to establish a strong Computational Intelligence Research Group (CIRG), similar to the one I built up at the University of Pretoria which had between 50 and 60 students. A few CIRGs already exist, namely CIRG@UP at the University of Pretoria, CIRG@UNISA at the University of South Africa and CIRG@NMU at the Nelson Mandela University. I want to enlarge the CIRG family by adding a CIRG@SU at Stellenbosch. Then I would like extend this further by including the CIRG@Brock University in Canada and an IT company EpiUse. The ultimate aim is to build a Computational Intelligence Research Network (called CIReN) comprising several national and international academic and industry partners and to establish a Centre of Excellence in Computational Intelligence with conferences presented annually at one of the hubs.

What is the secret to his success? “I think my success, and the speed with which I achieved it, is because I am self-driven and disciplined. I am very focused on my research,” he notes. “Since I started school, I have always been serious about studying. I was the nerd who sang in the choir and who played chess. I had no interest in macho things,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye.

“My research was boosted, because I was fortunate to see a gap and utilise this opportunity at the right time. It happened in 1995 when I attended a presentation on the swarm behaviour of birds which introduced me to particle swarm optimisation. Swarm intelligence is based on the modelling of swarms and colonies in nature where simple actions lead to complex behaviour by the interaction of simple individuals. Examples are ants or bees looking for food, or the behaviour of bacteria and fungi. We model these simple actions in a local environment and show how it changes the environment. This collective behaviour is then used to develop models with which complex optimisation problems can be solved. This has brought me to the level I am today and our research group is the group that has published the most in this field.”

With a family with three young children (aged 6, 9 and 10) and a wife who also works for Stellenbosch University, there is little time to relax. When this dedicated and focused academic takes time off, he likes to read historical fiction.

Just as he has great plans for his research, he also dreams of starting a five-member family orchestra or ensemble. This is well within his reach, because between the five of them they play one or more of the following musical instruments: accordion, piano, trumpet, guitar, violin, flute and recorder.

And how does he feel about his appointment in the Chair of Data Science? “Lost!” he exclaims tongue in cheek. “I am a computer scientist surrounded by a lot of engineers. They do things differently!”

Bearing in mind that Prof Engelbrecht grew up in Cape Town and obtained four degrees from Stellenbosch University, he aptly sums up his return to his alma mater with these words: “You can actually say that the prodigal son has returned.”

Photo caption: Prof Andries Engelbrecht.