Research with real-world impact

Understanding the twin scourge of poverty and inequality in South Africa, and figuring out how best to combat it constituted the main focus of Prof Servaas van der Berg’s initial studies and, later, his academic career. As a professional scholar, he views research as a powerful tool, yet takes care not to neglect another important implement in the academic’s toolbox: teaching.

Demo waste plant set to improve the sustainability of SA’s paper industry

To help South Africa’s paper, packaging and tissue industry secure a more sustainable future — that is the mission of a new demonstration plant at a papermill in KwaZulu-Natal. Driven by the ingenuity of Stellenbosch University’s chemical engineers, it was put into operation in 2023. The plant showcases the value of a process by which paper waste sludge destined for disposal in a landfill is turned into purified, high-value bioethanol.

Research reveals environmental and commercial benefits to tackling bioplastics disposal dilemma

Microbiologist Wessel Myburgh “grew up” as a scientist and entrepreneur during his time as a member of the Senior Chair of Energy Research (CoER): Biofuels and Other Alternative Clean Fuels. Now the co-founder of Urobo Biotech, Myburgh uses his knowledge of how yeasts and enzymes effectively break down plant-based waste into new products to improve the state of the planet he so dearly loves. He does this by tackling the mounting issue of what happens to used bioplastics.

The added dimensions of biofuels research

At the turn of the millennium, microbiologist Prof Emile van Zyl took up the challenge of driving postgraduate research and training in biofuels and other clean fuel options at Stellenbosch University. His aim? To gather expertise, drive research outputs, and develop human capital to help build the necessary technology for boosting the biofuels industry in South Africa and beyond.

A call answered — an international scholar returned home to help leverage Africa’s potential

Umezuruike Linus Opara grew up in a farming village in rural Nigeria and nearly didn’t make it to secondary school because of financial constraints. Yet, he went on to perform so well at university that his bachelor’s degree earned him a scholarship to do his PhD. Later, he sacrificed a comfortable job in Oman in order to relocate to South Africa — a country he hardly knew at the time — to take up a DSI-NRF South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) Chair in Postharvest Technology.

Research chair bears fruit

Prof Umezuruike Linus Opara's SARChI Chair comes to an end in 2024, but he has already ensured the continuation of its impactful work through a new entity — the Africa Institute for Postharvest Technology. "The institute was envisioned to leverage the successes we have had with the Chair thus far,” he says. “We have made a sure contribution towards building human capacity in terms of postharvest technology."

The interconnected, growing threat of TB in animals and humans

Tuberculosis (TB) is often thought of as a disease that affects only humans when, in fact, it is a multi-host disease [that affects many species]. A team of researchers, based in Stellenbosch University's ​Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics, are determined to understand exactly how the transmission of TB occurs between wildlife, livestock, and people.

Revolutionising the concept of shark management

Shark-specific barrier technology developed by marine biologists from Stellenbosch University and their collaborators has been installed in the Bahamas by a client with a private island in the Bahamas. The installation of the 30-metre-long SharkSafe Barrier along a bay on one of the islands will further strengthen marine conservation efforts in the region.

More than just words — developing tools to measure early language development

How do we know what they know, and don’t? Without a set of tools to determine what gestures and, later, words and grammatical structures children typically learn in the first 30 months of life, there is no reliable way to gauge any individual child’s language development. Until now, there has been a lack of reliable tools to measure language development in African languages.

SU fire engineers explore risks for humans and dwellings

“As a society, we need to understand how fires spread if we are to prevent them from becoming total disasters,” says Prof Richard Walls, who heads up the fire engineering team at Stellenbosch University (SU). “Urban fires can be incredibly dangerous, particularly in informal settlements.” Established in SU’s Department of Civil Engineering, this group of researchers is helping train the next generation of fire safety experts.

It’s not just about the guns

The question as to why certain disarmament programmes work while others don’t is the focus of DISARM, a project on the effect of disarmament on conflict recurrence. The project is a pivotal collaboration between Stellenbosch University and the Peace Research Institute Oslo. The project is the first systematic global study to look at what causes conflict recurrence after disarmament has taken place.

SU vibration scientists help make sense of mechanical shudders on polar vessel

Prof Anriëtte (Annie) Bekker, a vibration science expert at Stellenbosch University, is willing to brave harsh conditions in pursuit of new knowledge. Her interest lies in how data from mechanical sensors and engineering models on board a polar vessel can help seafarers make more informed decisions towards safer ship operations.

Institute leads cutting-edge biomedical research in Africa, for Africa

An investigator tracking the path of COVID-19, a scientist deciphering the body’s own armour against antimicrobial resistance, and an immunologist studying the placentas of pregnant women for clues that can explain preterm births. These are but three of the scientists at Stellenbosch University who are contributing to research for impact in Africa, and the world at large.

Oxalis — a genus in a hurry

The Western Cape is renowned for its diverse geophyte flora in the world, including roughly 2 100 species from 20 families. Among these flowering bulbs are species of the Southern African Oxalis genus. They may seem like some of the most fragile, puny little plants out there, but in terms of adaptation, they are punching way above their weight.

A spice as medicine: The possible role of turmeric in treating Parkinson’s disease

Scientists are investigating curcumin’s possible role in guarding against Parkinson’s disease (PD), a degenerative neurological condition that develops when brain cells stop producing enough dopamine. Recently, Stellenbosch University’s researchers have also started studying curcumin’s use in PD treatment, and its role in gut-brain interaction.

REACH-ing beyond the stars

Stellenbosch University and Cambridge University are leading the Radio Experiment for the Analysis of the Cosmic Hydrogen (REACH) project.It is to be put into operation in 2023 in the Northern Cape’s Karoo Radio Astronomy Reserve. The project aims to help determine how the first luminous objects in the sky formed, and in what manner they subsequently shaped the universe.

Advances in forensic art explore and preserve our common humanity

In her work on projects aimed at restoring personhood for missing and unidentified people of the past — both recent and ancient — Dr Kathryn Smith, Departmental Chair of Visual Arts at Stellenbosch University (SU), is unearthing shared histories and untold stories through art, science, and collaborative work.

Forensic facial imaging laboratory promotes interdisciplinarity

Stellenbosch University (SU) is the first tertiary institution in Africa to offer research and casework expertise in forensic facial imaging, a critical tool in human identification. VIZ.lab is an imaging laboratory based in SU’s Department of Visual Arts. The laboratory was launched by Dr Kathryn Smith — an interdisciplinary visual artist and curator — and Pearl Mamathuba, an academic researcher.

The future of microbiome-based therapeutics

A new study on the relationship between our gut microbiome and the brain provides a stepping stone for future research into microbiome-related therapeutics to prevent or treat mental health disorders. For the past 35 years, Prof Leon Dicks has dedicated his research in the Department of Microbiology to the study of lactic acid bacteria, a group of bacteria that are beneficial to humans.

African ingenuity a part of major American astronomy project

Southern African ingenuity in antenna design is on display as part of what promises to be the USA’s next major national facility in ground-based radio astronomy. Namibian Prof Robert Lehmensiek and South African Prof Dirk de Villiers will help determine just how far into the yet-unexplored and often cloudy, dusty corners of the universe astronomers will be able to probe with the Next Generation Very Large Array (ngVLA).

Music archives promote sociocultural understanding

Prof Stephanus Muller is the director of the Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation at Stellenbosch University (SU). Research done by this acclaimed writer and academic has led to the establishment of the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS) at SU. Muller spoke to us about his research, the founding of DOMUS, the role of music archives, digital humanities and what lies beyond.

Breakthrough work on microclots may explain long COVID

Proteomics. Genomics. Systems biology. Machine learning. Researchers at Stellenbosch University (SU) are using all possible tools to figure out how exactly the coronavirus disease (COVID), caused by the SARS-CoV2 virus, develops into long COVID, which affects an estimated 1,2 million South Africans.

Putting data avalanches to work to solve the world’s problems

By the end of this year, the world is expected to have produced 94 zettabytes of data and have 4,95 billion active social media users, all creating more data on a daily basis. Some might feel engulfed by this avalanche of data, but others see it as an ideal opportunity to mine for solutions to the world’s problems, quite literally bit by bit.

Crossing boundaries to build bridges – CERI leads the fight against epidemics

At the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI), a team of scientists is crossing transdisciplinary boundaries in its search for information regarding health threats, and in its interpretation of this data. Leading this team is Prof Tulio de Oliveira, director of CERI and the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRiSP).

Tygerberg at forefront of surgical training with Da Vinci robot

The future of advanced surgery undoubtedly lies in technology and, increasingly, in using robotics for complicated surgical procedures. As such, it was a big moment for Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences (FMHS) when, in February 2022, the first operation using the newly acquired Da Vinci Xi robot was performed at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town.

Robotic surgery with a human touch

The operating room of the future will still include surgeons, but they will have been trained to pilot machines like the Da Vinci Xi across a range of minimally invasive procedures, within their specific discipline. The performance of the country’s first six robot-assisted total hysterectomies at Tygerberg Hospital in June 2022 constituted the first exciting step into this future.

A peek at penguins’ posture

Nowadays, when Roanné Coetzer (24) looks at a black and white African penguin, she sees coloured dots. This is because penguins have been keeping this MEng student very busy during her studies. She has been using her knowledge of deep neural networks and other data science skills to write a computer program that automatically detects African penguin behaviour caught on camera.

Mongolian fossils may shed light on climate change, past and present

The recent discovery of fossil assemblages and ash deposits in the East Gobi Basin in Mongolia could provide new knowledge of the dinosaurs and extreme climate conditions on Earth 120 million to 80 million years ago. This is according to Dr Ryan Tucker, a sedimentologist and taphonomist at Stellenbosch University. He is a part of a team of scientists who undertook the expedition that led to this discovery.

Changing climates

Dealing with the twin crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss requires collective effort, and now demands novel academic support across ‘traditional’ academic silos. The world is facing cascading and intersecting crises such as these, warns Prof Guy Midgley, who heads up Stellenbosch University’s (SU’s) School for Climate Studies.

The computer conservationist

Dr Emmanuel Dufourq has never seen one of the last 30 remaining Hainan gibbons on Earth, but he knows very well what their calls sound like, or at least what a spectrogram image of the highs and lows of their chatter looks like. He uses his computational skills to make it easier for conservation ecologists to analyse animal sound, video and photo footage. His group’s mission is to do this one keyboard stroke, one algorithm at a time.

Cape Colony economic history project most extensive of its kind

How was wealth created in the Cape region of South Africa during the time it was governed by the Dutch East India Company (VOC)? For the past seven years, this has been a central research question posed by the economic historians of the Cape of Good Hope Panel, the flagship project of the Laboratory for the Economics of Africa’s Past (LEAP). This laboratory focuses on the quantitative study of African economic and social history.

Digital advancements expand Africa’s economic history

Interdisciplinary research at Stellenbosch University shows that a topic such as the economic history of South Africa in the colonial era has substantially more to it than can be claimed by research done in a single traditional subject area. Moreover, it shows that such topics can now be unlocked on a scale previously impossible.

Remembering the historically forgotten with new technology

The innovative use of technology in the Uncharted People project is helping researchers bring to light the previously unexplored lives of those that were marginalised and overlooked. Before, entire communities served merely as a static backdrop to the history of politics and the powerful few.

The long road to curing TB, together

A centuries-old disease still stalks humankind today. What is becoming increasingly clear, though, is that the answer may lie in researchers, scientists and patients first finding their common humanity.

Blood as a life-saving source of data

The academic gown that Dr Marion Vermeulen will don when she receives her PhD degree in virology in December 2022 will be as red as the topic of her thesis: blood. Vermeulen, transfusion medicine and technical services executive at the South African National Blood Service, has been doing work on this topic for close to 35 years.

Polio in SA: Assessing the risks

Researchers at Stellenbosch University have launched a new modelling project to help health authorities keep their fingers on the pulse of potential polio outbreaks in sub-Saharan Africa. Their model will be run for specific populations, based on a characterisation of its age structure and vaccine coverage, and on how efficiently surveillance is being done in a given area.