School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

UKZN Honours Top Female Academics in Engineering and Geography

Professor Cristina Trois, South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Waste and Climate Change and Dr Jemma Finch of the Discipline of Geography have earned recognition from UKZN in the form of a Fellowship of the University and the Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award, respectively.

Fellowship is awarded to Professors or Senior Professors in recognition of distinguished academic achievement and the production of high-quality scholarly work that demonstrates originality and creativity.

Trois, who was the first female Dean of the School of Engineering at UKZN, has been at the University for more than 20 years and made considerable contributions to research and teaching in Environmental Engineering.

The C1 National Research Foundation (NRF) rated researcher has more than 100 publications on aspects of environmental and geo-engineering; waste and climate change in sustainable cities; waste and resources management; control, management and treatment of landfill emissions; renewable energy from waste and greenhouse gas control from zero waste in Africa and developing countries; and alternative building materials.

Trois has supervised more than 60 postgraduate students, developed and co-ordinates the first Master’s Programme in Waste and Resources Management in South Africa, and through her SARChI Chair leads a dynamic research group.

She has driven innovation in waste management, waste minimisation, waste to energy projects, and wastewater engineering and treatment with municipalities in South Africa, pioneered the “cellular method” of landfilling, and contributed to the first leachate treatment plant in South Africa and to the first African, World Bank-funded “landfill-gas-to-electricity project”. She has also advised national and local government and the private sector on their waste management strategies.

She is a member of several international research teams, including the International Waste Working Group (IWWG)-Southern Africa Regional Branch and International Partnership to advance local authorities’ waste management services, and has collaborators in Italy, the UK, India, Germany, France and Switzerland. She is an editor and reviewer for numerous journals and institutions, and a member of engineering councils, royal societies, waste management institutes and United Nations commissions.

Trois has established multi-disciplinary research centres and laboratories to focus on environmental engineering research, and developed initiatives that encourage women and girls’ participation in Science and Engineering.

Originally from Sardinia, she completed her studies at Cagliari University in Italy where she is a registered professional engineer, and her achievements in her field led to the award of a knighthood under the title of Cavaliere del lavoro from the Italian Republic – the highest honour an Italian citizen can receive from their country.

Trois has won recognition in South Africa for her efforts – she was a first runner-up for a Department of Science and Innovation Women in Science Award in 2016.

The Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award for 2021 recognises Finch’s outstanding research achievements. Presented annually, this Award recognises research, scholarly, or creative productivity in young researchers, and is valued at R150 000 in research funding.

After two years of a global pandemic that hampered research efforts, Finch said receiving the award is a boost.

‘I am truly honoured and grateful to receive this recognition, and would like to acknowledge the postgraduate students who I have had the privilege of working with over the years, the enormous contribution made by my collaborators, and the support of my family,’ said Finch.

Finch, a senior lecturer in Geography, completed her undergraduate and master’s studies at UKZN before heading to the University of York in England as an Early Career Researcher on a Marie Curie Excellence Grant. Her PhD research at York focused on understanding how biodiverse tropical forests in East Africa responded to climate change in the past. She rejoined UKZN as a lecturer following a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Cape Town.

Finch’s research in palaeoecology involves using plant and animal remains preserved in wetland sediments as indicators of past climates and environments; she aims to use environmental histories to better predict how ecosystems will respond to change in the future.

Her ongoing research projects involve examining the drivers of ecosystem change over time in Maputaland, the Drakensberg, and East Africa. More recently, she expanded this focus to include estuarine salt marsh deposits along the southern African coastline as a means to understand regional patterns of sea level rise in response to climate warming.

With a C2 rating from the NRF, Finch has 28 articles and book chapters to her name and is an Associate Editor mentee for the South African Journal of Science in the fields of archaeology, anthropology and palaeontology. She has graduated 12 masters and PhD students and teaches undergraduate biogeography and environmental change, with a special interest in fieldwork-based training and developing scientific writing skills.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied