Science heroines win national awards

Women hold up half the sky, as the saying goes, and South African women made up half the winners in the fifth annual South African science Oscars, hosted by the National Science and Technology Forum at a glittering ceremony at the Sandton Hilton in Johannesburg.

Genetically modified food and seed expert Dr Jocelyn Webster of the biotechnology advocacy group AfricaBio, in Centurion, beat runner-up Coaltech 2020 in the non-profit science organisation category.

University of Pretoria education professor Sarah Howie took the prize for individual scientific research, for her outstanding investigations into the causes of (and possible solutions to) South African students’ low scores in maths and sciences, which threaten the country's economic potential.

And Dr Wilma Vosloo, who heads the exotic diseases labs at the world-famous Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute in Pretoria, walked off with the award for best corporate science.

"For its quiet, unromantic, dedicated leadership in managing foot and mouth disease in cattle and African swine fever, this Agricultural Research Council team under Dr Vosloo has saved the industry and the taxpayer hundreds of millions of rands," said Denis Hunt, head of the NSTF adjudication panel for the past five years.

But the lady scientists will not be able to rest on their laurels. It was obvious at the gala dinner that a new generation of savvy, funny, bright young women scientists is being nurtured.

A dozen teenage girls from around the country were applauded for their top performances in various scientific competitions, including the Expo for Young Scientists and the Mathematics, Science and Technology Olympiads.

And female matriculants from disadvantaged communities of each province who obtained the highest marks in mathematics and science were also cheered on by the audience of high-ranking scientists.

Teachers – many of them female – weren’t left out, either. The winners of the Sowetan/Telkom/Protec Teacher of the Year Awards were honoured.

"Students and teachers are our role models," said NSTF chief executive officer, Dr James Hlongwane. "We need to recognise ordinary individuals, such as educators and students, who make a significant impact in science, not just salute professional scientists only."

But not every heavy, solid granite award went to members of the fairer sex.

Dr Kelvin Kemm, a nuclear scientist who became a journalist in frustration at the "extreme green anti-nuclear misinformation" he encountered won the prestigious award for an entire lifetime of scientific achievement. After 1000 articles and the creation of Impact, the country’s longest-running sci-tech TV series, the Pretoria-based consultant said it’s impossible to completely satisfy scientists and inform the general public at the same time: "I still get up to 10 phone calls from scientists after every story, complaining that I left out some important detail!"

Not every winner came from Gauteng, the industrial heartland of South Africa.

Thomas Rõthig founder of Rõth Medical Components, left his world-class machining shop in Cape Town to accept the statue for best small scientific company. The runner-up in the lifetime achievement category was Cape Town’s Dr Michael Kahn of the Human Sciences Research Council, who jumpstarted the 100-plus Dinaledi (seSotho for stars) Schools, existing institutions which have been pumped with extra resources in an effort to double the number of African higher-grade matric passes in science and maths.

Professor Peter Clayton, head of Rhodes University’s computer science department, flew up from the Eastern Cape to collect his award for science – like Clayton's successful computer outreach programmes for poverty-stricken students in the Grahamstown townships - which falls outside the boundary of strict research. Clayton’s colleague, Dr Winston Leukes, the outgoing head of Rhodes University’s biotechnology department, was a runner-up in the research category, for his ability to harness natural ingredients from living things like fungus and bacteria, and use them to do everything from reduce pollution to brewing export-quality honeywine.

Now the race is on for next year's awards. "We've had more nominations than ever before," said the NSTF's Dr James Hlongwane. "The calibre is very high. It's great for South Africa."

But when will the NSTF launch an African scientist of the year award? If you know of regional or national science awards elsewhere in Africa, please email the details to Science In Africa. The email is

* The NSTF is on the internet at


May 2003