NRF 25 years: Prof Alphose Zingoni

NRF 25 years: Prof Alphose Zingoni

This year, the NRF is celebrating a major milestone in our history as we commemorate 25 years of Research, Innovation, Impact and Partnerships. It gives us great joy to share the accomplishments and impact of the many students and researchers we have supported during various stages of their careers. We thank all participants for submitting their stories and hope that you enjoy reading about their journey with the NRF.

Professor Alphose Zingoni is a Professor of Structural Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Cape Town. Coincidentally, his association with the NRF dates back exactly 25 years. He currently holds an NRF A-rating (leading international researcher in his field) and has served as an assessor on specialist NRF panels.

How did your journey start?

At school, I had a passion for mathematics and physics, particularly the latter. Just after Zimbabwe earned its independence, I had the great fortune of being one of the country’s three best performers in the Cambridge A-level examinations, which earned me a prestigious Beit Scholarship for university studies, and a handshake at the State House by the first President of the new country! While the idea of becoming a theoretical physicist had crossed my mind several times, my eventual choice of pursuing a civil engineering degree at university was guided by the down-to-earth realisation that what distinguished the so-called first-world countries from the third world countries (typically countries in Africa, South America and parts of Asia) was mainly their higher standard of living and superior engineering infrastructure such as roads, railways, bridges, airports, well-built cities, canals, water-supply systems, power stations, industrial infrastructure, electricity and communication networks. Engineers, particularly civil engineers, could play a vital role in achieving the transformation of our region to greater prosperity.

After graduating from the University of Zimbabwe with a BSc Honours in Civil Engineering, I realised I needed to specialise, and decided on structural engineering because of its obvious connection to the built infrastructure. Structural engineering also presented excellent opportunities for applying mathematics and physics in addressing technological challenges, such as: (i) understanding how tall buildings and long slender bridges behaved in strong winds (dynamic response), and designing these in a better way; (ii) developing infrastructure that was better able to withstand the devastating effects of earthquakes, thus minimising damage and saving lives; (iii) creating the strongest possible structures using the least amount of materials, thus embracing sustainable engineering.

I had heard Imperial College London was the top institution in the UK (and among the top in the world) for engineering studies, so I completed an MSc degree in Structural Engineering (with Distinction) there a year later, and proceeded to do a PhD in Shell Structures (shells are an extremely efficient type of engineering structure), which I completed in 1992. I was fortunate to be awarded a prestigious Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Research Fellowship at the end of the PhD (only six of these were awarded to selected PhD graduates in the STEM areas across the UK ), which saw me remain at Imperial College for another two years. In that period, I studied problems with symmetry in structural engineering, using the mathematics of group theory. After returning to Zimbabwe, and serving a three-year term as the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Zimbabwe, I joined the University of Cape Town in 1999, where I have been since then (and in the role of Full Professor since 2002). The year 1999 was also the time my relationship with the NRF began.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

During the process of relocation to the University of Cape Town (in 1999), a senior colleague in the UCT Department of Civil Engineering encouraged me to apply for an NRF rating, noting that I had already published a book on shell structures two years earlier and that my publication record looked strong. I was pleased to receive a C2 NRF rating at the age of 37. I did not know that at the time, but it seems my first association with the NRF (by becoming NRF-rated) began in the year in which the NRF was born, which makes the NRF, and my personal association with it, both 25 years old!

One immediate benefit of obtaining a rating was that I could more easily access NRF funding. In particular, I benefitted tremendously from the annual grants of NRF funding for rated researchers. With effect from 2005, I also benefitted from a five-year grant totalling R600K, which greatly supported my research within the broad area of the engineering sciences. Specifically, I was able to partially support my postgraduate students, attend international conferences abroad, and meet general running expenses of my research. NRF funding was quite crucial to me, as the nature of my work (fundamental structural mechanics) made it rather difficult to attract funding from local industry.

As a result of this support from the NRF, I was able to conduct my research with greater peace of mind, and this went from strength to strength. I was elected a Member of Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) in 2005 and also received a B2 rating from the NRF that year. The B2 rating was renewed in 2010. In 2016, I was elected a Fellow of the University of Cape Town in recognition of “original distinguished academic work”, and in the same year, also received a higher NRF B1 rating. Based on my research, I authored two more books, one in 2015 and the other in 2018. Both quickly gained international acclaim for their innovative approaches, as evidenced by reviews. In 2023, I was awarded an A1 rating by the NRF, in recognition of having become “an internationally leading researcher”.

As researchers, we also have a responsibility to give back to the organisations and systems which support the work that we do. Starting from around 2008, I served as a member of the NRF specialist panel for the evaluation and rating of researchers in the combined engineering disciplines, later becoming a convenor. This was hard work, but also a great opportunity to learn what researchers in other institutions were doing. After a break of five years, while I wrote two books, I became involved with the NRF again, this time as an assessor on specialist panels that were as far from engineering as one could imagine! I served in that role until the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. I also act as a reviewer for the NRF from time to time. I would like to encourage other researchers to assist the NRF in these ways, and at the same time express the hope that universities will give more recognition to this type of national service, in the same way they give recognition to the administrative and management service that academics render to the institution.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

My work is aimed at providing a better understanding of structural mechanics (how structures behave) as a basis of more efficient solutions for structural engineering problems, and more sustainable designs for engineering structures. I have focused on two main areas of research, namely: (i) the development of analytical methods for shell structures and innovative use of the shell form in providing more efficient structural solutions; (ii) studies of symmetry in structural mechanics, and the development of more efficient computational formulations for structures with symmetry.

With regard to the first area, not only have I aimed to derive closed-form solutions for a wide variety of shell structures, but I have also used these solutions as an effective tool for the exploration of more efficient shell forms for high-capacity liquid-containment and other engineering applications. More recently, I have introduced the concept of dual-purpose concrete shells to maximise the functionality of the shell while taking advantage of its high strength and minimal usage of construction materials.

With regard to the second area, I have harnessed the mathematics of group theory to better study how symmetry influences the behaviour of engineering systems. I have been particularly interested in the vibration behaviour of structural systems such as cable nets and layered space grids for long-span roofing applications, and, to a lesser extent, the stability behaviour of truss and frame systems under compressive loads.

The findings of these studies allow us to make more informed decisions in designing engineering systems, for example, what are the desirable symmetries to incorporate, what are the best locations for placing damping devices to reduce structural or mechanical vibrations, or what are the best locations for placing stiffeners to strengthen the systems against buckling and the possibility of collapse?

Why is your work/studies important?

My work, while of a fundamental nature, aligns with SDG 9 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is of universal applicability, i.e. applicable anywhere in the world. As stated in the previous section, the work ultimately finds application in the design of more efficient engineering structures and systems, and more sustainable engineering solutions for meeting the technical needs of society.

Shell structures of the type I have investigated over many years, and for which I have developed practical solution procedures, find applications worldwide. For example, egg-shaped sludge digesters, which I have been investigating for over 20 years, offer an innovative and more efficient solution for wastewater treatment, on account of their smoothly curved profile that is not only structurally more efficient but is also functionally superior to conventional sludge digesters (the egg profile promotes good mixing of the sludge, results in lower maintenance costs, and attracts minimal heat losses). A few such structures have already been built in South Africa, such as the ones at the Umgeni wastewater treatment plant in Pietermaritzburg, but many more are required.

The use of group theory in studying engineering problems with symmetry helps us to better understand complex phenomena in structural mechanics (vibration, stability, bifurcation, statics, kinematics), while at the same time affording us more efficient computational procedures for the analysis of engineering systems that possess complex symmetry properties. To make the findings of my work more accessible to postgraduate students, engineering practitioners and software developers, I have written two books which are now used in many countries around the world, including South Africa. I have also offered short courses on shell structures to the South African industry.

What are some of your proudest academic achievements?

Perhaps my proudest moment has been receiving the A1 rating from the NRF in 2023.

Other proud moments were: in 2001 when I founded the International Conference on Structural Engineering, Mechanics and Computation (SEMC), the first conference of its type on the African continent (this now attracts to South Africa hundreds of participants from all over the world every three years); in 2012, when I was invited to the UK by the Royal Society to speak on my work on symmetry and group theory to an interdisciplinary audience of physicists, chemists, mathematicians, material scientists and engineers; in 2016, when I was elected a Fellow of UCT for “original distinguished academic work”; in 2019, when my book on shell structures won the UCT Book Award; and in 2023/24, when three of my PhD students and two of my MSc students all graduated within nine months of each other.

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