Faculty Alumni obtain PhD Degrees from ETH Zurich

[Article by Nane Zietsman]

The Faculty of Engineering aims to produce graduates that are skilled for success in both the local and international arena. Over the years, we have seen many of our students accepted into postgraduate programmes at top-ranked universities across the globe. We are proud to share the recent achievements of Faculty alumni Dr Chris Joubert and Dr Johann van der Merwe, who obtained PhDs from ETH Zurich in Switzerland.

Dr Joubert joined the Faculty as a master’s student after completing his bachelor’s degree in Electronic Engineering at the University of Pretoria. Under the supervision of Prof Johan Vermeulen, Dr Joubert’s thesis explored the location optimisation of wind and solar photovoltaic power plants. “Throughout my time at Stellenbosch University, I had the freedom to explore different approaches and methodologies to address the problem that we were trying to solve. I was also fortunate to make life-long friends with other master’s students in the process. The faculty presented us with great opportunities, like attending an engineering conference in Malaysia where we presented some of our work. They would also invite postgraduate students to guest lectures by acclaimed international academics and industry experts,” says Dr Joubert.

During one of these Faculty guest lectures, Dr Joubert was presented with the choice to pursue further studies abroad. “I always attended guest lectures because they were truly inspiring, and I knew I would not be able to experience these learning opportunities elsewhere. That day, I attended a session where Dr Ndaona Chokani from the Laboratory for Energy Conversion (LEC) at ETH Zürich gave a fascinating presentation on the power grid modelling that they were doing. Their work was in line with my research, and I started considering the possibility of doing a PhD. I decided to meet with Dr Chokani, and he recommended that I apply at the Laboratory for Energy Conversion,” shares Dr Joubert.

His PhD examined street robbery in urban areas using agent-based modelling and reinforcement learning. Using Cape Town as a case study, he modelled the mobility behaviour of the whole urban agglomeration and criminal agents who learned how to travel and move around to maximise their reward. “This framework supplied a tool for investigating different theories of street robbery. It also allowed us to study the impact of environmental interventions, such as new street lighting, on the decline and displacement of robberies,” explains Dr Joubert. His laboratory (LEC) assigned him and other selected PhD students to work with the Institute of Science, Technology and Policy (ISTP). This involved connecting with interdisciplinary teams of economists, social scientists and urban planners to work on common topics. “My job was to provide some technical expertise and ultimately test if applying innovative technologies like large-scale agent-based modelling can provide new insights into existing problems like crime,” says Dr Joubert.

Dr Joubert is currently working as a software engineer at the Esri Zurich R&D Centre. “I am utilising all that I have learned about modelling and simulation as part of my current work. The team I joined specifically works on an integrated, web-based urban planning and design tool called ArcGIS Urban,” concludes Dr Joubert.

Dr van der Merwe moved from the Free State to Stellenbosch in 2004 to pursue a degree in Civil Engineering. “Coming from the small town of Ficksburg, I was enthralled by this ‘new world’ Stellenbosch University exposed me to,” says Dr van der Merwe. He went ahead to complete his master’s degree under Prof Jan Wium, researching the seismic design of building structures. After graduating in 2009 Dr van der Merwe moved to Pretoria where he began his professional career with Aurecon, now known as Zutari. According to Dr van der Merwe, he has always been interested in pursuing a PhD somewhere along his career path. “After a couple of years of gaining practical experience, I was keen to return to research. Finally, an option presented itself at ETH Zurich, for which I am extremely thankful,” says Dr van der Merwe.

Dr van der Merwe enrolled at ETH in 2016 and graduated at the end of 2019. “My wife, who is also an alumnus of Stellenbosch University, was busy with her doctorate at ETH Zurich during this time, so we stayed on a bit longer. We eventually moved back to South Africa in June 2021.” Sharing his experience of adapting to the customs of a foreign university, Dr van der Merwe says that his learning experience at Stellenbosch aided in the ease of the adjustment: “At Stellenbosch, we were given a chance to engage with our professors and ask them questions daily. This is unlike some of the top international universities where a student’s contact is primarily with teaching assistants. Coming from an institution where interactive engagement between students and academic staff from all ranks was available and encouraged, I felt I had an added layer of experience from which I could draw,” explains Dr van der Merwe.

His research topic formed part of a broader group study investigating the explosive spalling of concrete in fire. “My doctorate focused specifically on developing constitutive material models that govern the occurrence and which contribute towards numerical modelling of the phenomenon,” explains Dr van der Merwe. Although Dr van der Merwe currently works in the industry, he stays passionate about research. “I hope to remain involved in both industry and academia in some form or the other. Since returning to South Africa, I have been fortunate to get involved with two local universities, Maties being one, of course!” says Dr van der Merwe.

Dr Chris Joubert and Dr Johann van der Merwe agree that spending time abroad, whether to pursue a doctorate or work in the industry, is an enriching experience they wish everyone could afford.

Photograph: (from left to right) Dr Chris Joubert, Dr Johann van der Merwe and his wife, Antoinette.