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Dr Sahal Yacoob, Dr Edilegnaw Wale Zegeye and
Dr Riaan Stopforth.

The College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science maintains a strong presence in the recently released updated database of National Research Foundation (NRF)-rated researchers

The NRF released its rating of researchers in South Africa as part of its goal to develop an internationally competitive scientific research system in the country.

Of the 120 College staff listed, four were given A-ratings which identifies researchers unequivocally recognised by their peers as leading international scholars in their field for the high quality and impact of their recent research outputs.

A total of 21 College researchers were given B-ratings categorising them as those who enjoy considerable international recognition by their peers, for the high quality and impact of their research.

The College boasts 73 C-rated researchers – established researchers with a sustained recent record of productivity in the field, who are recognised by their peers as having produced a body of quality work which has coherence and attests to on-going engagement with the field. These researchers have also demonstrated the ability to conceptualise problems and apply research methods to investigating them.

The College has 10 NRF-rated scientists who have just received new ratings in their specific fields of research. Recognition by the NRF is noteworthy as ratings are allocated based on a researcher’s recent research outputs and impact as perceived by international peer-reviewers. Rated researchers are also recognised as being capable of imparting important, innovative skills to those they supervise.

The following researchers have been newly rated: Professor Fernando Albericio of Chemistry and Physics (A2), Professor Bogale Gebreyohannis of the African Centre for Food Security (C3), Professor Mark Laing of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (C3), Professor Derek Stretch of Civil Engineering (B2), Professor Jules-Raymond Tapamo of Engineering (C3), Dr Stephen  Ojwach of Chemistry and Physics (Y2), Dr Adam Shuttleworth of Life Sciences (Y2), Dr Riaan Stopforth of Engineering (Y2), Dr Sahal Yacoob of Chemistry and Physics (Y1) and Dr Edilegnaw Wale Zegeye of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (C2).

Stopforth said: ‘The NRF rating means being recognised for the research one is doing at a national level. There are high expectations, and it is an indication of all the long hours and work put into UKZN and the research.’

Stopworth heads 2 research groups: (1) The Mechatronics and Robotics Research Group: Search and Rescue Division, which focuses on research, design and development of unmanned vehicles to assist in emergency and disaster situations in terms of search and rescue efforts and (2) the Mechatronics and Robotics Research Group: Bio-Engineering Unit which applies engineering capabilities for biomedical research and technology development, looking at devices that will assist disabled persons and surgeons.

Stopforth is one of the College’s 19 researchers who feature in the Y category for young researchers (usually younger than 35 years of age), who have held a doctorate or equivalent qualification for less than five years at the time of application. They are recognised as having the potential to establish themselves as researchers within a five-year period after evaluation, based on their performance and productivity as researchers during their doctoral studies and/or early post-doctoral careers.

Yacoob, also a Y-rated researcher, said: ‘This NRF recognition of early career quality contributes to the entrenchment of UKZN as a research-driven institute. Personally it creates an expectation of continued productivity which needs to be justified and verification that the work is important and worthy of support, both within and external to UKZN.’

Yacoob’s research can best be summarised as the curiosity-driven pursuit for greater understanding of the laws of nature. It seeks to answer questions such as what we are made of and how these things interact to form the universe we live in. To answer these questions and gain knowledge of the extent of the wonders of creation, his research develops new technology and methodology which is incredibly useful to society, with the most well-known being the world wide web, and neutron and proton therapy for cancer treatment.

Laing spoke of the benefit that his C-rating has for his students and the work that they are busy with, which covers ‘many crops, many diseases, many projects and many approaches’. Zegeye, also a C-rated researcher, said of the rating: ‘For me, it is one form of recognition for one’s research endeavors which encourages me to do even better.’

B-rated Stretch said he applied for an NRF rating this year because of the increasingly important role of the NRF in supporting multidisciplinary research.

‘I am happy that a B-rating implies international recognition for the work done in my research group. I am of course indebted to my graduate students and collaborators for that,’ he said. Stretch’s research group focuses on bio-hydrodynamics – the interactions between hydrodynamics and biological processes within hydro-ecosystems.

The group is currently involved in an NRF-supported project to understand factors that affect the sustainability of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site), including factors such as the effects of waves and turbulence on phytoplankton and zooplankton dynamics. The group also studies the vulnerability of our coastline to wave attack and sea level rise, and how these things will be affected by climate change in the future.

Ground-breaking research being conducted by these recognised UKZN researchers will be furthered as a result of the NRF ratings which make their achievements more visible and widely acknowledged worldwide.