Annual Academic Day: A celebration of research excellence

Prof Himla Soodyall of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) was the guest speaker at the FMHS' Annual Academic Day.

“A day of celebration – not only of our achievements and research excellence, but also the positive impact that we have on the world around us.”

This is how Prof Nico Gey van Pittius described the 63rd Annual Academic Day (AAD) of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), Stellenbosch University, which was recently held at the Tygerberg Campus.

The AAD is a showcase of the outstanding research done at the FMHS, and at this year’s event, nearly 250 research items were presented as either oral or poster presentations. Four State of the Art Lectures and five PhD Lectures were delivered, as well as a Dean’s Address and guest lecture by Prof Himla Soodyall, executive officer of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf).

Gey van Pittius, who is the Vice Dean: Research and Internationalisation at the FMHS, said that the university is committed to solving pressing health problems on the African continent and unlocking the “incredible potential” of its people. “Our research does have a tremendous and immeasurably positive impact on society, as can be witnessed by the many positive stories of the people that we care for, and the policies, practices and procedures in healthcare which we have been able to influence over the years,” he noted.

But 2019 has also been a year of reflection, as research emanating from the Department of Sport Science of the faculty has been widely criticized for perpetuating racial stereotypes, using questionable scientific methods, and drawing unwarranted conclusions, Gey van Pittius added. “This has given us pause to reflect on some of the systemic factors within our institution that may have led to the unintended entrenchment of discrimination and inadequate responses to implicit bias which we have encountered in some of our research. It has posed us with a challenge to continue to actively promote behaviours guided by our Faculty’s espoused values of inclusivity, compassion, accountability, respect, excellence and equity, also in our research endeavours.”

In his Dean’s Address, Prof Jimmy Volmink said that a task team has been formed to look at the use of race as a variable in research from the faculty in order to identify pitfalls and good practice. “While we are finding a lot of interest in trying to explain disparities in health or biological differences in terms of race and genetics, there isn’t the same attention being given to other factors that can account for these differences,” said Volmink. “It is important to understand that we need to give more attention to exploring the social and economic factors impacting on health. Because some of those factors are what accounts for the race differences we find.”

In her lecture, titled: “Genetic ancestry and identity: lessons from southern Africa”, Soodyall, a renowned geneticist, emphasised that there is no biological or genetic basis for race. “If we had to use the definition of race in zoological terms, the amount of variation must be more than 15% for them to be defined as a subspecies. No two human populations shows that much variation, and it has been shown that there are more variation within groups, than between groups.”

“If you were to look at the mitochondrial tree, everyone living today is a leaf. Your anchor to the tree is through a twig, that twig brings you to a smaller branch, ultimately to a bigger branch, and ultimately to a common trunk. One tree, different branches, many leaves… but it is still one tree,” said Soodyall.
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