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Remembering Tania Douglas: a brilliant biomedical engineer, academic and friend

A smiling woman wearing a blue shirt and dark jeans is perched on the edge of a desk. Behind her is an orange shelf displaying various objects and items.
Professor Tania Douglas is warmly remembered as an excellent scientist and a remarkable human being. Je'nine May/UCT Health Sciences

Tributes from friends, colleagues, collaborators and students have poured in for South African academic Professor Tania Samantha Douglas, an internationally recognised scholar, biomedical engineer and innovator. She passed away on 20 March 2021.

She was admired by many and consulted broadly for her unique insights, in-depth understanding of South Africa’s higher education environment, and open-mindedness. Always vibrant, she was able to fully engage with issues in an unbiased manner – sharing her well-considered thoughts in a friendly and practical way.

Tania obtained the second highest grade in the country in her final school exams in 1987. She went on to read for a BScEng in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT). This was followed by an MS in Biomedical Engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Then came a PhD in Bioengineering from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, and a postdoctoral fellowship in image processing with the Japan Broadcasting Corporation in Tokyo.

In 2000, Tania returned to her alma mater. She took up a lecturer position in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

In her recent work, she strove to combine biomedical engineering with social context. Her aim was to find novel solutions towards improved health. To this end, she developed a new postgraduate programme in Health Innovation teaching human-centred innovation with an emphasis on end-user engagement.

She believed and advocated that Africa needs to find solutions to its own problems and worked tirelessly to build biomedical engineering capacity across the continent.

Academic legacy

During her 21 years at the University of Cape Town, Tania held numerous leadership positions within the department and faculty. These included serving as Divisional Head for a period and serving as Deputy Dean of Research in the Faculty of Health Sciences. She also, for the past decade, led the Medical Research Council/UCT Medical Imaging Research Unit.

In 2016, Tania was awarded the prestigious South African Research Chair in Biomedical Engineering and Innovation. Two years later she was Founding Director of UCT’s Biomedical Engineering Research Centre.

Tania excelled in all spheres of academia. She headed a large research group, and trained and graduated more than 50 master’s and doctoral students. Postdoctoral fellows and junior staff were among those she mentored. She also published extensively in leading international journals, and taught and developed courses. Her scholarly contributions were recognised through numerous awards. These included research fellowships from the International Institute for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany; and the European Union’s Erasmus Mundus programme.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Women in Engineering’s South Africa Section named her as its female academic/researcher of the year in 2009.

In 2018 she was recognised as a Quartz Africa Innovator. A year later, the South African Women in Science Awards named her as Distinguished Woman Researcher in Research and Innovation. In the past decade, she was elected a Fellow by the South African Academy of Engineering, the International Academy of Medical and Biological Engineering, and the University of Cape Town. She was also a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa.

Tania’s research focused on major public health problems in South Africa. She developed novel instruments and computer-assisted techniques. Some of her early work involved developing image-processing techniques to characterise the facial phenotype associated with foetal alcohol syndrome – a condition of which the incidence in certain communities in South Africa is among the highest in the world.

Tania also made seminal contributions in tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis. One was the development of a ‘smart microscope’ that automated detection of TB bacilli in stained sputum smears. Another was the computer-aided detection of pulmonary pathology in paediatric chest X-rays.

Read more: Africa needs to start creating its own medical technology. Here's how

She played a leading role in establishing the African Biomedical Consortium. She also launched and was founding Editor-in-Chief of the open-access electronic journal Global Health Innovation. In addition she edited the open-access eBook Biomedical Engineering for Africa (University of Cape Town Libraries; 2019).

Since 2014, Tania had served as Associate Editor of both the South African Journal of Science and Medical Engineering and Physics. In January 2021 she was appointed as Editor-in-Chief of the latter.

A great void

Tania was warm and empathetic, and an inspiring mentor to many. As her friend and head of the Department of Human Biology at UCT, Professor Sharon Price, wrote:

We will remember Tania for being an amazing woman – brave, humble and brilliant. She lived her life, and carried her illness, with extraordinary grace and dignity. We will remember her for her astute intellect and her quiet humanity to build others in the process. She was talented and gracious, and we will remember her positive attitude and ever-present beautiful smile.

Tania is survived by her parents, Rita and Aubrey Douglas.

This tribute originally appeared in the South African Journal of Science.

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