AFRICA: Scientists scoop African Union awards

Professor Diane Hildebrandt was one of two South African winners of the inaugural African Union Scientific Awards for basic science, technology and innovation, announced during an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. Hildebrandt said she represented "scientists and engineers in Africa - men and women - who are doing research in often very difficult conditions and always with too few resources".

"The prize is a way governments in Africa say thank you to us and recognise that what we do is important for Africa," she told University World News. "I'm grateful for the award and look forward to making further contributions to Africa and its development."

Hildebrandt is co-director of the Centre for Optimisation Modelling and Process Synthesis at the University of the Witwatersrand. She also won the African Union's 2009 Woman Scientist of the Year award, is a South African Research Chairs Initiative Professor of Sustainable Process Engineering - and was the first women chemical engineer to be awarded an A-rating by the National Research Foundation.

While Hildebrandt won the basic science and innovation category Professor Patrick Eriksson, head of the geology department at the University of Pretoria, topped the earth and life sciences category. The two received their awards from South African President, Jacob Zuma.

The African Union's scientific awards programme is designed to reward achievements by scientists in their efforts to transform scientific research into entrepreneurship, attract investment to Africa and create centres of excellence on the continent.

The winners receive US$100,000 each as well as a medal and a certificate, and are selected on the basis of achievements demonstrated by numbers of publications and of research graduate students, the applicability of their work to Africa's challenges and its 'patentability'.

The inaugural awards attracted 50 entries from scientists across the continent. The Union also launched women scientist and young scientists' awards last year.

Hildebrandt told University World News she felt privileged to win the continental award but also felt it was "for all researchers in Africa as we are all working in one way or another towards a better life for all Africans, often under very difficult conditions.

"This prize makes me stop and reflect on what we have achieved in our research but also forces me to look forward and see what remains to be done."

She said her research group has been working towards a very simple way of looking at complex systems, such as chemical plants, and the interactions between parts of systems. Current research often focuses on optimising an individual unit in a system, but this can lead to a system that works non-optimally, she explained.

"When trying to optimise these systems it is the interactions between the individual parts of the system that are important and not often the performance of the individual unit. We have developed very simple, very graphical techniques to relook at systems and this has given us novel results in a number of areas including separations, flowsheeting and reactor design."

Hildebrandt said her research sought solutions aimed at Africa. "We have shown that if designed properly, high-efficiency plants have minimised CO2 emissions and are also cheaper to build and operate. We believe we have to find high-tech solutions designed for the African context so that we can develop industry in Africa that is competitive, that uses our resources wisely and does as little damage as possible to the environment."

Fellow prize-winner Patrick Eriksson told University World News it felt "really wonderful" to win the African Union award: "However, I want to stress that many scientists across the continent deserve such a prize more than me. I am just a very lucky fellow."

Eriksson credited his ability to build teamwork for his success. He has managed to put together teams of great scientists, he said, including co-editing a book with a team of 70 authors: "With this sort of talent pool one can hardly go wrong," he quipped.