31 August 2021

Catching up with Dr Vathi, nine months on

She is vibrant, progressive and a respected research and innovation leader. Just nine months into the job, Dr Vathiswa Papu-Zamxaka, Tshwane University of Technology’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Engagement reflects on the progress made thus far.

Dr Vathiswa Papu-Zamxaka, Tshwane University of Technology’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Engagement.

Q: Women’s month allows us to gauge how far we have come in transforming society. As we near the end of this noteworthy month, we thought it was important to catch up with you. 

Dr Vathi, what has your experience been since taking up the position as DVC: Research, Innovation and Engagement?

A: It has been very busy, but yet so fulfilling. TUT is a great place to be and offers lots of potential for research growth. A lot has happened in the past nine months and I am truly grateful to be part of this winning team. 

Q: We know you have a great deal planned for the Vice-Rectorate, please share some of the progress made in research programmes and funding?

A: We have made many noticeable strides in that regard, including:

  • FOREST 21 (21st Century Climate-Smart Forestry Education for Livelihood and Sustainability in South Africa). The project consortium comprises five South African and three Nordic Higher Education Institutes. It is a collaborative project for strengthening the capacity in South African higher education in forestry entrepreneurship. It focuses on curriculum development, which will be helpful for our Higher Certificate programme. I am proud to announce that the project received a generous grant of €999,965.00 co-funding from the European Union’s Erasmus+Programme. 
  • We are also excited about the THENSA: HERE-SA - Cooperation for innovation and the exchange of good practices. The maximum amount of funding is €754,834.00. A kick-off meeting has already taken place. 
  • European Union Delegation (EUD) in SA. Collaboration between EUD and TUT’s new Institute for the Future of Work (IFoW) has been established, with the contract signed in May 2021. The main focus of the collaboration is on joint research on the 4IR / Future of Work; Structured engagements between researchers, private companies (EU and SA) and policy makers and research competitions for students.

Q: You mentioned international funded projects, are there any local funding initiatives or endeavours for research and postgraduate students?

A: Absolutely, we are proud to announce that we have put a few in the bag. 

  • We received DBSA one-year funding (R629 050.00) for a Research Chair Platform in infrastructure extension, subject to performance;
  • NIHSS Funding for Postgraduate students to the value of R560 000.00 awarded for four doctoral students.
  • CSIR Funding for Postgraduate students to a value of R1 639 000.00 for a total of 29 students; a combination of doctoral, master’s, honours and advanced diploma/BTech studies;
  • Gibela Research Chair contract extension signed for a three-year period at a value of R12 million;
  • merSETA WIL funding agreement signed to the value of R3 168 000.00

Q: You have always emphasised the importance of strategic collaboration and research advancement at the University. How far are we currently?

A: Working with international colleagues can provide new insights and even a career boost for researchers, but it takes patience and proper planning. We have captured the following planned collaborations, some of which have been finalised.

  • TUT and Universitat Politecnica De Valencia (UPV) in Spain Inter-institutional agreement is fully executed and includes an Erasmus KA107 exchange programme for 2020-2023.
  • TUT and MIT-Africa MOU was signed. The collaboration will promote mutual beneficial connections between MIT through MIT-Africa initiatives and a set of South African universities.
  • TUT and the Chinese Embassy – Proposal for potential areas of collaboration have been discussed with the Counsellor for Education at the Chinese Embassy in South Africa.
  • TUT and the French Embassy – Postgraduate funding webinar negotiated and conducted for TUT students by the French Embassy.
  • TUT and Innovation Hub Funding Strategic Collaborations – A joint concept document and a collaborative workshop has been concluded. We are excited about the MoU underway.
  • TUT and TIA Strategic Collaboration – A joint concept document has also been concluded in this regard. Negotiations are currently underway for the appointment of an overall Business Development Manager for all three Technology Stations and exploration of funding opportunities continues.

Q: In the last two decades, higher education worldwide has moved from the periphery to the centre of governmental agendas. Universities are now seen as crucial national assets in addressing many policy priorities and as sources of new knowledge and innovative thinking. Do you think our university has cemented its place in that regard?

A: Totally, TUT is undoubtedly making its mark across the globe as a force to be reckoned with in ground-breaking research initiatives. In the last nine months, there has been evident growth in our research outputs. We managed to increase the number of Research Chairs from 11 to 14. We also established the following:

  • UNESCO Research Chair in African Integration and Innovation in July 2021;
  • Research Chair in Safety & Security appointed on 1 August 2021;
  • DBSA Research Chair in Infrastructure awarded on 13 August 2021;
  • Five-year celebration and three-year launch for Gibela Research Chair planned for 3 September 2021;
  • Inaugural Gibela prototype exhibition at industry partner that took place on 30 August 2021.

I must add that a number of research and development platforms have been realised. In March 2021, we secured internal (TUT) funding for three R&D platforms. The call for proposals in this regard was advertised on 1 August 2021, following information sessions with all seven our faculties. 

I am pleased to announce that, amongst many research accomplishments, our very own Prof  Alvaro Viljoen has won the Indigenous Plant Use Forum award 2021: Indigenous Herbal Medicines. This clearly demonstrates the capacity TUT has. 

We also have Prof David Katerere, the co-founder of PharmaConnect Africa (PCA), who recently signed an MoU with the Association for African Medicinal Plants Standards (AAMPS). It aims to promote worldwide recognition for Africa’s most important medicinal and aromatic plants (MAPs). There is a whole lot to celebrate!

Q: What future opportunities do you foresee in research, innovation and engagement for TUT?

A: There is immense opportunity for the University to increase funding for research and for postgraduates through industry partnerships; opportunity to increase the third stream income for the University through CITSIs and more importantly, to position our University internationally to be a leading University of Technology (UoT) in 4IR through the Institute for the Future of Work (IFoW). As you are aware, I am spearheading the establishment and launch of the Institute for the Future of Work (IFOW) in October alongside the Task Team. The strategic essence of the institute lies in the imperative of mutually beneficial partnerships with organisations in the public and private sectors. These include institutions of higher learning with outstanding international stature, science councils, funding agencies, as well as local and multinational businesses. We are looking forward to that.

Q: And the challenges?

A: I can allude to a few challenges that inevitably also bring opportunities for us, depending on how you look at it.

  • Enhancement of policies to ensure internal capacity through retired professors;
  • Overall analysis of our policies to ensure an enabling environment for our researchers and to also drive third stream income;  
  • Shrinking government budgets, thus a need to diversify sources of funding.

Q: The road ahead will certainly not be easy, what is currently on the cards?

A: Nothing ever comes easy in life. We all need to work hard to achieve everything we envisage for our lives and careers. I am prioritising the facilitation of collaboration across disciplines in the conduct of research, scholarship and creative activities, thus further supporting the development of our institutional niche areas and the establishment of centres of excellence. We are ready for the following:

  • Launch of the TUT Institute for the Future of Work (IFoW) on 26 October 2021.
  • Launch for Gibela Research Chair on 3 September 2021.
  • Continuous sourcing of funding and collaboration to ensure sustainability, whilst securing contract research for revenue generation.

Q: What message of encouragement do you have for other female researchers and innovators at TUT?

I believe that resilience is key. More than anything, be consistent in what you do. Go at it. When you succeed, don’t forget the responsibility of making someone else succeed with you. We have high calibre researchers at TUT and the emphasis should be on creating a more enabling environment for them to thrive.

For more information on the Tshwane University of Technology, please contact Phaphama Tshisikhawe, Corporate Affairs and Marketing.
Tel: +27 12 382 4711 Email: tshisikhawerpt@tut.ac.za