UCT’s size-and-shape strategy commits it to becoming a research-intensive institution, where postgraduate students make up 40% of the student body. Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Danie Visser explains the university’s research plans and ambitions.
The month of May saw a celebration not only of things African, but also of research – a primary preoccupation of UCT – during the institution’s first Research Week, running from 12 to 16 May.
Professor Danie Visser, deputy vice-chancellor responsible for research, used the opportunity to speak about UCT’s intention to become a research-intensive university.
“The university is currently known as a research-led institute, but this doesn’t mean that we concentrate on research at the expense of teaching. We live the Humboldtian ideal, where you create new knowledge, impart it to students and then work with students to create more new knowledge,” he explained.
Visser was speaking at the Harry Oppenheimer Library at the opening of UCT Research Week, a time focused on research and publication in South Africa, on research ethics, and on promoting access to open scholarship opportunities.
According to Visser, one of the markers of a research-intensive university is that postgraduate students make up more than 40% of the student body. He also pointed out that the university’s research income totalled R975 million last year, while new research contracts signed came to R978 million. “When an institute is successful in drawing in money from outside funders, then it is doing research that people care about – [it is an indication] that the research is relevant and making a contribution in real terms.”
He also highlighted the various ways in which the university is providing support to researchers. The university is in the process of creating a research portal, which Visser described as being a “one-stop-shop for all electronic resources researchers might need”. He also pointed out that the portal is set to become a single repository for researchers’ details, so that when they submit applications for grants through university structures, for example, their information can be drawn automatically instead of their having to provide the same details each time.
Visser also emphasised the university’s commitment to interdisciplinary study by mentioning its plans to establish a Hasso Plattner Institute School of Design Thinking (HPI D-School). Only two other institutions in the world have so-called D-Schools – the University of Potsdam in Germany and Stanford University in the United States. A school for design thinking provides a space for students from all the faculties to “learn to think in order to be innovative” while grappling with real-world problems put to them by industry. In August, a group from the University of Potsdam will come to UCT to present training courses and start the process of establishing a D-School at UCT.
The university-wide research week culminated in a Postgraduate Research Expo, at which 46 postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows showcased and elaborated on their research in front of a judging panel consisting of representatives from all faculties. Here’s a dip into the research of the event’s first-prize winners.
Synthetic fuel using cobalt crystallites
Anna Petersen, a PhD student in chemical engineering, won in the category for technology, engineering and the built environment for her research into alumina-modified cobalt catalysts for the Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. In the Fischer-Tropsch process, a catalyst is used to produce valuable hydrocarbons, such as synthetic fuel, from very basic starting materials – hydrogen and carbon monoxide. These starting materials can be derived from alternative carbon sources such as coal, gas or biomass. Thus, the Fischer-Tropsch process could secure access to transport fuels and bulk chemicals essential for the chemical and pharmaceutical industry long after depletion of crude oil reserves. Cobalt is a fantastic catalyst for the Fischer-Tropsch process, but is very expensive. That’s why small cobalt crystallites are typically used to optimise its activity, at minimal cost. To maintain a small cobalt crystallite size during the process, a catalyst support is used. This support is a ceramic (such as alumina) that acts as a solid sponge over which the metal is dispersed. Typically, the support comprises 80 to 90% of the weight of the total catalyst, and only 10% is the actual catalytically active metal compound.
The most endangered language of South Africa
Dr Sheena Shah, a postdoctoral fellow who obtained her PhD at Georgetown University in the US, won in the Africa-specific research category for her poster on the N||ng Language Project – part of the activities conducted by the Centre for African Language Diversity (CALDi) in the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology & Linguistics. With five remaining speakers, N||ng is the most endangered language of Southern Africa. N||ng – with its Eastern |’Au variety and Western N|uu variety – is the last related language to |Xam (which features prominently on South Africa’s coat of arms). Shah’s poster highlighted one aspect of the N||ng Language Project, namely the development of a practical orthography (the conventional spelling system of a language) that will help the community maintain their language. Another major component of the project is to make archived audio and text files on this language accessible to the community.
Can public transport lead to a healthier lifestyle?
Clare Bartels, a doctoral student from the UCT/Medical Research Council’s Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, won first prize in the science and health sciences category with Siketha Ukuba Nempilo (‘We choose to be healthy’), a project that explores whether taking public transport can lead to a healthier lifestyle. According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 1.9 million deaths worldwide are caused by insufficient physical activity. Transport-related physical activity, such as walking and cycling, can contribute to getting a community more physically active. Bartels’ study describes the profile of MyCiTi bus users and quantifies the impact of active commuting on their daily physical activity.
A total of 1 473 MyCiTi bus passengers and non-users were interviewed; unsurprisingly, MyCiTi users accumulated significantly more time in active transport and total physical activity than non-users.
The changing shape of South African English
Alida Chevalier, a PhD student in the linguistics section of the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics (AXL), won the commerce, law and humanities category for her work on reverse vowel shifts (a change in the pronunciation of a vowel) in South African English. According to Chevalier, “Language is something through which we humans communicate, however unwittingly, our histories and contexts – they’re alive, and changing continuously.” In post-apartheid South Africa, English as spoken by the middle classes in particular is converging, with young people speaking an English very different to the often ethnically-identifiable varieties spoken by their parents – a process Professor Rajend Mesthrie has termed ‘deracialisation’. It is the aim of Chevalier’s research to track the vowel shift happening in Cape Town English; and thereby, determine the extent of the deracialisation of South African English via the degree of participation in this change by various Capetonians.