New Frontiers Research Award promises academic excellence, freedom – and solutions

University of Cape Town particle physicist James Keaveney received the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust’s (OMT) inaugural New Frontiers Research Award on 15 May 2024.

“The annual New Frontiers Research Award aims to give exceptionally talented early- to mid-career researchers the freedom and flexibility to pursue bold ideas and push the boundaries of knowledge in their fields of study,” says OMT chair Rebecca Oppenheimer.

Rebecca Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer Memorial Trust chair presents Dr James Keaveney, particle physicist at the University of Cape Town with the inaugural Oppenheimer Memorial Trust New Frontiers Research Award

The total award is for R7.5-million. The winner, who receives R1.5-million in research funding each year for five years, must be based at a South African university and have the ambition needed to build high-performance teams.

“It’s living your dream to be paid to explore, [but] it’s not often that, as a scientist, you are given free rein to pursue exactly what you want to pursue,” says Keaveney.

OMT has an extensive history of funding masters and doctoral studies as well as postdoctoral and sabbatical research. The New Frontiers Research Award targets early- to mid-career researchers, filling a critical gap in research funding.

OMT received 101 applications, from all corners of South Africa and a range of subjects, from applied mathematics and climate studies to linguistics and English. Keaveney was one of eight applicants who were called to be interviewed.

Along with teaching physics at UCT, Keaveney is the elected national coordinator of a group of almost one hundred South African physicists and engineers who collaborate in ATLAS, a multinational general-purpose particle physics experiment at the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland.

Dr James Keaveney, particle physicist at the University of Cape Town and the inaugural recipient of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust New Frontiers Research Award

He hopes to develop ways of making positron emission tomography (PET) scanning more effective and cheaper. PET scanning is highly sensitive, able to pinpoint cancers and other tissue damage. This makes it essential for cancer diagnosis and the monitoring of cancer’s response to therapy. It is also used in tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis and treatment. TB is the leading cause of death in South Africa and the leading infectious killer of people worldwide.

Keaveney also plans to use the award to promote global interdisciplinary collaboration, which he views as “key to expanding the horizons of particle physics”, and to develop younger, up-and-coming scientists in this field.

“James Keaveney impressed everyone on the committee not only with his science, but also with his ability to explain very complex concepts in physics and medicine,” says Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research & Innovation at the University of the Witwatersrand. Morris is one of the adjudicators of the New Frontiers Research Award.

UCT’s executive director of research, Dr Linda Mtwisha, said: “We are incredibly proud of Dr James Keaveney … This recognition is not just a testament to his outstanding dedication and ingenuity but also a significant milestone for UCT and the broader research community in South Africa.”