UCT’s Signature Theme policy provides a framework for interdepartmental and interfaculty research and contributes to cultural and operational transformation on various levels. The Signature Themes are grounded in existing areas of internationally recognised excellence and selected to drive research in a strategic mannerwhile being aligned to institutional, regional and national priorities.

Signature Themes have come about in two ways. The first five were established at UCT in 2007 through a highly competitive process driven by the University Research Committee. These are the African Centre for Cities, Brain and Behaviour Initiative, Drug Discovery, Marine Research Institute and Minerals to Metals. More recently, the African Climate and Development Initiative was adopted as a new strategic focus areaand as the sixth Signature Theme.

All Signature Themes were submitted to external review by the end of 2010. This milestone came within three years of inception as outlined in the original Signature Theme policy framework. At the end of 2010, another three-year cycle of URC funding was approved for each Signature Theme.

African Centre for Cities

During 2005 and 2006, an interdisciplinary network of academics emerged across the Faculties of Science, Humanities and Engineering & the Built Environment to explore the nature, role and importance of cities – particularly those in the developing world. The Africa Centre for Cities (ACC)is built on this network.

Since its establishment the ACC has earned a reputation as the pre-eminent applied urban research centre on the African continent. Research in the ACC is focused around African urbanism, urban culture and inclusion, food security, new regionalism, housing finance for the poor, relational urban governance, alternative planning, spatial inequality, and urban water management.

Through its postgraduate bursary programme, the ACC has been able to recruit outstanding postgraduate students. The students are located in different faculties and departments, enabling the ACC to bring researchers from other disciplines into the ACC fold. Over and above its core funding, the ACC has been able to attract significant large research grants for its work on Cape Town.

In 2010, the ACC continued to invest in promoting a new generation of urban scholars through its different initiatives and projects. Several papers presented were the work of PhD students and emerging scholars. Additionally, a major exhibition on sustainability imperatives and innovations was launched in CapeTown. This exhibition is a creative means to open up public debates on the ACC’s research findings.

Brain and Behaviour Initiative

TheBrain and Behaviour Initiative (BBI) promotes interrelated research in the cognitive and affective neurosciences across faculties and disciplines. Since its establishment, the BBI has been active insetting upa cross-university brain-imaging facility with a new magnetic resonance imaging machine, securing Mellon funding to bring in international expertise (Professors Rob Paul and Jack van Honk), and gaining two SARChI Research Chairs.

As part of its efforts to create the local research capacity to support its interdisciplinary research projects, the BBI has also established an MMedSci course in Neuroscience and an MPhil in Neuropsychiatry. Information about neuroscience research is delivered through the BBI website and mailing list and networking and knowledge-sharing is fostered through a monthly seminar series and annual symposium.

In its three-year review, the external reviewers were highly supportive of the BBI and its progress to date. They noted that the BBI is the only formal grouping of such diversity (geneticists, psychologists, psychiatrists, biochemists, biologists and physicists) working together at a national and continental level on abnormalities of the central nervous system.

Highlights in 2010 included the Medical Research Council funding a cross-university Brain Research and Innovation Network, which allowed members of the Signature Theme to focus on imaging research on methamphetamine abuse. This area is particularly relevant to South Africa, given the recent tik epidemic and its intersection with the HIV epidemic. Concurrently, BBI mentees won several competitive post-doctoral fellowships to help support this research area.Late in 2010, the BBI held a symposium on Neurogenetics at which Professor Ezra Susser of Columbia University delivered the keynote address on “Causes of Schizophrenia”.

Drug Discovery

The Drug Discovery Signature Theme was established in response to the world’s growing burden of disease and the corresponding need for therapeutic drugs. The notion of developing a fully integrated and cohesive Drug Discovery consortium within UCT was an ambitious butnecessary one for the Theme to move to the next level. Historically, UCT has had a strong reputation in clinical research and in the underlying scientific disciplines. However, there has been a critical shortage of relevant skills to bridge this gap and translate knowledge into tangible outputs such as the discovery of potential new medicines. This requires an integrated approach to drug discovery combining various disciplines such as medicinal chemistry, biology, pharmacology as well as drug metabolism and pharmacokinetic studies. Together this would ensure training a new generation of scientists with the key skills needed for drug discovery through innovative and internationally competitive research.  These considerations led to the establishment of the new UCT Drug Discovery and Development Centre (also known as H3-D), the first of its kind in Africa. The URC-commissioned External Review also concluded that "advance of a UCT drug development programme will be best served by consolidating investment and technology in the new H3-D Centre". This is considered to be an excellent outcome of the Signature Theme, which will continue to operate for another cycle as a research stream within the new Centre, in order to be fully integrated into its broader research agenda. 

In 2010, more than thirty publications by the consortium appeared in international journals.A multimillion-rand investment was made into the higher-end technology platforms pertaining to pharmacokinetic activities.Further academic collaboration occurred across the sub-disciplines of synthetic and medicinal organic chemistry, biochemistry, and the structural and molecular biological components of drug-discovery.

Marine Research Institute

The Marine Research Institute (Ma-Re) was launched in 2006 to promote multidisciplinary research on the marine environment. The Theme was reviewed at the end of 2009,and 2010 saw the beginnings of the implementation of the recommendations by the panel of reviewers.

In 2010, Ma-Re successfully negotiated collaborative agreements between several organisations, including the City of Cape Town and the French Institut de Recherche et Development (IRD). It has also been the driver for the formation of the Nansen-Tutu Centre for Marine Environmental Research, a partnership with Norwegian collaborators which was officially launched in 2010. Under the French IRD agreement there are now seven French scientists based at UCT for at least two years each, from 2009 to 2011. Also in 2010, a technical task group was formed to drive the development of operational oceanography in South Africa under the OceanSAfricainitiative to ensure co-ordination between the four pillars of the system.

Due to the multidisciplinary thrust of the Signature Theme, social science forms a strong new component of marine research at UCT. Several new EU contracts have generated research funds, as has a successful bid to the Vice-Chancellor’s Strategic Fund.

Three departments that collaborate under the Ma-Re umbrella developed a new undergraduate curriculum, which led to a single major in Oceanography and Marine Biology. The Faculty of Science accepted this and it was started in 2010. This lays the groundwork for several honours degree options in 2011, including Oceanography and Marine Biology. There is now also a seamless transition from the Oceanography honours to the Marine Science master’s by coursework and dissertation. The Applied Marine Studies master’s by coursework and dissertation has been resurrected with ten registered students per annum since 2007.

Ma-Re continued to contribute directly to the mission of the Vice-Chancellor’s Africa Climate and Development Initiative.

Minerals to Metals

The Minerals to Metals Signature Theme is supported by the award of a DST/NRF SARChI Chair in Minerals Beneficiation. The Theme draws together the skills of academic and research staff in four existing research groupings: the Centre for Minerals Research, the Centre for Bioprocessing Engineering Research, the Crystallization and Precipitation Unit, and the Environmental and Process Systems Engineering Group. The groupings carry out and promote multidisciplinary research in the area of minerals beneficiation.

The first cohort of the Mineral to Metals Signature Theme’s master’s and doctoral students graduated in 2009, with a further two master’s students graduating in December 2010. The Signature Theme contributed significantly to the drafting of the proposal to the Department of Science and Technology to establish the South African Minerals to Metals Research Institute (SAMMRI). The national virtual research institute was launched in November 2010. SAMMRI promotes long-term innovative research in minerals processing.


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