Stellenbosch University Pioneering Researcher Achieves A1 NRF Rating

[Article by Nane Zietsman]

The renowned Computer Scientist, Prof. Andries Engelbrecht, was awarded an A1 rating by the National Research Foundation. This is the highest achievable rating on the NRF’s rating system. Researchers in this category are recognised by their peers as leading international scholars in their field for the high quality and impact of their recent research outputs. Prof. Engelbrecht was first accredited by the NRF in 2004 after being recognised in the Y1 category. He proceeded to achieve ratings in the B2 category (2009-2012) as well as the A2 category (2015-2020).

Prof. Engelbrecht received his PhD in Computer Science from Stellenbosch University in 1999. “My PhD studies introduced me to the field of artificial neural networks (NNs), which opened the gateway to my current research in computational intelligence (CI).” After his PhD, Prof. Engelbrecht broadened his focus to other CI areas and has since positioned himself as a leading researcher in particle swarm optimization (PSO), an emerging technology in the field of CI.

In addition, Prof. Engelbrecht and his associates also gained international recognition for their work in differential evolution, coevolution, NNs, artificial immune systems, and fitness landscape analysis. Their research focuses mostly on the development of new optimization, machine learning, and data analytics algorithms as well as the improvement of these existing algorithms, and the analysis of the performance of these algorithms theoretically and empirically. “Many of our algorithms and theoretical analysis were pioneering works, forming the foundations of large bodies of research that followed.”

When asked about his success, Prof. Engelbrecht attributes it to his passion for research, conceiving and developing new ideas and his postgraduate students who shared in his vision. “The biggest contributing factor to the success of my research are by far my postgraduate students. I have worked, and still continue to do, with some of the finest minds in the field who all devotedly delivered excellent research. I am proud that these students now form part of the academics in South Africa and internationally.” After his PhD, Prof. Engelbrecht established a strong CI research group at the University of Pretoria where he also served as head of the Department of Computer Science (2008-2017), South Africa Research Chair in Artificial Intelligence (2007-2018) and was founding director of the Institute for Big Data and Data Science (2017-2018).

He returned to Stellenbosch University in 2019 where he was appointed as the Voigt Chair in Data Science in the Department of Industrial Engineering, with a joint appointment as Professor in the Computer Science Division. Since his employment at Stellenbosch University, Prof. Engelbrecht has developed and taught a new undergraduate Data Analytics module in Industrial Engineering, and two Honours Computer Science modules in AI. He also developed and taught Applied Machine Learning and Data Analytics postgraduate modules for the postgraduate Data Science programs in Industrial Engineering. Prof Engelbrecht furthermore developed and taught an Industrial Engineering Postgraduate Diploma and Masters Degree in Data Science.

Prof. Engelbrecht has supervised 96 honours, 52 Masters, 18 Doctoral, and 2 postdoctoral students to completion. His current research group, after two years at Stellenbosch University, consist of 14 MSc Computer Science, 13 M.Eng Industrial Engineering, 5 PhD Computer Science, and 11 PhD Industrial Engineering students.

Prof. Engelbrecht aims to continue to build on the research outcomes of his previous NRF evaluation period. “My objective is simply to continue as I have done in the past. To drive myself to maintain research excellence, to remain at the front of research in my field, to continue to play a leading role, and to produce work that will continue to form the foundation of future research endeavours.” Being in the centre of worldwide recognition one can only believe Prof. Engelbrecht to be on high demand for commentary on his success.

His modesty is commendable, and he drives a hard bargain when it comes to explanation. “I am not one to often talk about what I have achieved, how I have achieved it and what it ultimately means. I am someone who believes in doing what needs to be done because I want to, and I enjoy it. I regard any recognition that comes with it as a bonus.”

Photograph: Prof Andries Engelbrecht