Top SU researchers receive NRF awards

[Article by Dr Alec Basson, Corporate Communication & Marketing]

Seven prominent researchers at Stellenbosch University (SU) were honoured by the National Research Foundation (NRF) at the recent annual NRF Awards. The awards recognise and celebrate South African research excellence that advances science for the benefit of society.

Profs Dieter Heiss (Physics), Andries Engelbrecht  (Industrial Engineering / Computer Science), Elmi Muller (Medicine and Health Sciences), Cornelius van der Merwe (Private Law) and Oonsie Biggs (Centre for Sustainability Transitions) all received A-ratings at the awards ceremony held on 2 November 2021. Dr Nicholas Spaull (Economics) was honoured with a P-rating. Dr Isobel Brink (Civil Engineering) received a Research Excellence Award for Early Career / Emerging Researchers. SU now boasts 493 rated researchers, 15 of which are A-rated.

A-rated researchers are unequivocally recognised by their peers as leading international scholars in their respective fields for the high quality and impact of recent research outputs. The P-rating is the highest rating possible for researchers under 35 who are recognised as having the potential to establish themselves as researchers within a five-year period after evaluation. According to the NRF, its rating system is a valuable tool for benchmarking the quality of South Africa’s researchers against the best in the world.

More about the recipients

Heiss is a theoretical physicist whose research focuses on Exceptional Points (singularities that arise in non-Hermitian physics), while Engelbrecht’s work focuses on computational intelligence and data science. The latter is currently acknowledged as the second-most cited researcher at SU.

A pioneering clinician and transplant surgeon, Muller played an important role in shaping practices around the world that protect organ donors from exploitation and commercialisation through her work in the Declaration of Istanbul Custodian Group. She recently became the first woman to be appointed as Dean of SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

As one of a select number of internationally renowned authors to have contributed to the prestigious International Encyclopedia of Comparative Law, Van der Merwe has made his mark in the area of Property Law from a historical and comparative perspective with a particular focus on South African, Scots and European property law.

A prolific writer and also one of SU’s most cited researchers, Biggs works in the field of Sustainability Science where her focus is on addressing social and ecological sustainability challenges.

Spaull’s P-rating is no mean feat as he’s currently the only economist in the country with such a rating. He is doing research about education policy in South Africa with a focus on inequality and early grade literacy and numeracy.

Brink received the Research Excellence Award for Early Career / Emerging Researchers which recognises outstanding research excellence by current Thuthuka grantholders. She was honoured for her work on low impact and sustainable technologies in water quality improvement including point-of-use potable water treatment; green infrastructure for wastewater and stormwater runoff quality improvement; and river water quality modelling.

Commenting on the awards, Dr Therina Theron, Senior Director for Research & Innovation at SU, said “the NRF-ratings process remains a very important indicator of the international recognition of SU’s researchers and of the quality of their research outputs as judged by their academic peers from across the globe.

“We are extremely proud of all SU’s rated researchers, and particularly of our group of newly P-and A-rated researchers. They are making an enormous contribution to SU’s vision of being Africa’s leading research-intensive university. We salute and celebrate them, as we know what it takes to achieve at this level.”

Photograph: (left) Prof Andries Engelbrecht, (right) Dr Isobel Brink.