From top student to full professor

Over the past 21 years, the Faculty of Engineering’s second female full professor, Prof Celeste Viljoen, made her mark as a student and an academic. She joined the academic corps of the Department of Civil Engineering ten years ago and was promoted to full professor in July 2019.

Even during her study career as a Maties civil engineering student she displayed exceptional talents. In her final-year in 2001, she was Chair of the Engineering Students’ Council and received the ECSA Medal of Merit as top Stellenbosch engineering student. Her academic acumen resulted in her master’s degree being upgraded to a PhD. At the graduation ceremony in 2006 where she received her PhD degree, she was also announced the winner of the Chancellor’s Medal, the highest honour bestowed on a student by the University.

She worked as a consulting engineer designing bridges and buildings for about five years. “I enjoyed my work in industry tremendously!” she exclaims. “Especially the team work, as I find team work very fulfilling.”

At the end of 2009, she joined the Department of Civil Engineering. Her main field of expertise is structural reliability and she is nationally and internationally involved in standardisation of structural design. Currently she is Head of the Structures Division in the Department.

“I have great appreciation for the academics in the Department who have mentored me over the years,” she says. “There are especially three I would like to mention by name: The late Prof Peter Dunaiski who made it possible for me to pursue postgraduate studies. He encouraged me to tackle a PhD degree and also opened my eyes to an academic career. Secondly, Prof Johan Retief who has been a fantastic mentor to me. I am indeed fortunate to have ‘inherited’ many of his contacts. Thirdly, Prof Gideon van Zijl who involved me in managerial matters in the department earlier than I expected to be involved. He offered me growth opportunities for which I am still grateful. Now I really enjoy this new (managerial) dimension in my work.”

On the teaching front, Prof Viljoen enthusiastically shares her industry experience with students. And when it comes to research, she is truly in her element. Why? Because it involves team work, of course. She explains: “Initially our research group was small, but now that our group and international networks have grown, I enjoy the collaborations, the friendships and the energy of our team. I feel I can make a valuable contribution as a member.”

Prof Viljoen is married to Braam, a rheumatologist. They have two children, a boy (6) and a girl (4). “I am fortunate that my husband supports my career wholeheartedly,” she concludes.


Prof Celeste Viljoen.