R21m waves of excitement for top SA scientist

Dr Mia Strand is based at the Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha.

Dr Mia Strand is based at the Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha.

Published Apr 28, 2024


Durban — A scientist from South Africa has been shortlisted for the internationally prestigious Frontiers Planet Prize and is now in the running to pocket a princely sum of one million CHF (Swiss franc), equivalent to R21 million.

Dr Mia Strand, from the Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha, is one of 23 national champions from science research teams across six continents who are in the finals; three of them will each receive $1.1million to further their work.

Now in its second year, organisers say the prize recognises scientists whose “research contributes to accelerating solutions that ensure humanity remains safely within the boundaries of the Earth's ecosystem”.

Strand said she was overwhelmed, excited and extremely humbled to have been chosen as a national champion and now a finalist for the international prize.

“As an early career researcher, it feels very surreal to be receiving this kind of recognition for our research. This work formed part of my PhD research, ‘Arts-based research for more equitable ocean governance in South Africa,’ at Nelson Mandela University, supervised by the brilliant Dr Nina Rivers and Prof Bernadette Snow,” said Strand.

The 23 national champions were selected by the prestigious Jury of 100, a group of sustainability and planetary health experts chaired by the world-renowned sustainability expert Professor Johan Rockström.

Another round of voting will take place to select the three international champions who will each be awarded 1 million Swiss francs to further support their research.

Since its inception, the initiative has engaged with 20 academies of science and 475 leading universities and research institutions from 43 countries to showcase transformational and globally scalable research on planetary science, with a focus on enabling healthy lives on a healthy planet.

This year’s 23 national champions represent a diverse group of researchers at various stages of their academic careers who have published groundbreaking articles that put forward unique, transformative solutions.

“My research specifically looks into sociocultural and equity dimensions of ocean governance and conservation, which are often overlooked and neglected in sustainability sciences. In this particular research, we worked with 24 indigenous and local people in Algoa Bay (Gqeberha) to explore how their knowledge and priorities could be better recognised in ocean decision-making. We used arts-based participatory methods, in the form of photography and storytelling, for everyone to share their own stories, narratives and reflections about the ocean and coast,” said Strand.

She said it was a collaborative effort and if she won the R21m prize it would be used to support research which was grounded in ethical, caring and equitable collaborations with communities and others who are either not given proper recognition, or heard in environmental decision-making.

“It will support transdisciplinary research that centres on issues related to justice and equity, exploring how we can advance equal valuation of various knowledge systems in marine science and expanding on the opportunities of arts-based participatory research,” said Strand. She said the money would also be used to support students who wanted to pursue postgraduate degrees in topics which were often overlooked and neglected.

“I believe the power of art and storytelling in connecting us and finding common ground is necessary to advance a more sustainable and caring future where we coexist with our planet. This is why I chose this field of study. I believe the arts and creative methods can emphasise and elevate existing ocean stewardship, connections and knowledge that we should learn from to make more inclusive, just and caring decisions about our ocean.”

Dr Mia Strand is based at the Nelson Mandela University in Gqeberha. Supplied.

Originally from Norway, Strand moved to South Africa in 2016 to study at the University of Cape Town and immediately felt at home.

“I found that as the years went by, it became more and more difficult to leave this home, and more than eight years later I am now an Ocean Nexus Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Nelson Mandela University. I can’t fully express with words how grateful I am for the people who have made this place home.”

The Frontiers Planet Prize award ceremony will take place on June 26 at the Villars Symposium in Villar-sur-Ollon, Switzerland. At the event, each champion will present their research and engage with key planetary health figures across academia, policy, business, and non-governmental agencies, all of whom have the capability to shape policy and influence civil society.

Frontiers Planet Prize director Jean-Claude Burgelman said: “We are confronted with an environmental crisis on a planetary scale, creating a true threat for humanity. The ambition of the Frontiers Planet Prize is to directly address this crisis by mobilising scientists engaged in breakthrough research.”

A short film on Strand’s project can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-499UAZC3d0

Independent on Saturday