Research Highlights

Wits has a proud history of research excellence dating back to its origins in 1922 as a mining school.  This focus on science and technology has been maintained, but simultaneously the institution has seen a growth of research activity in the broad fields of humanities and social sciences.  A consequence of this growth is that in the five year period from 2009 to 2013 the area of multidisciplinary research was the most impactful across the University. 

Bibliometric data

According to Thompson-Reuters data, the relative impact of Wits research over the period 2009 to 2013 compared to global averages, shows that Wits has produced better than the global average in the fields of clinical medicine, environment and ecology, immunology, microbiology, plant and animal science, pharmacology and toxicology, physics, social sciences with geoscience trailing the global average by a whisker.

In a 32 year period (1981 to 2013) Wits has produced over 24 000 Web of Science publications that have been cited more than 310 000 times with an average impact (citations per paper) of 14.6.  Over this time period 83% of papers produced were cited by others, which is equal to the world average over the same time period.

Nobel Laureates

Wits is justly proud of its four Nobel Laureates.  They include: Aaron Klug – 1982 Chemistry, Nadine Gordimer – 1991 Literature, Nelson Mandela – 1993 Peace, Sydney Brenner – 2002 Physiology or Medicine.

South African measures of research excellence

In the South African (SA) context the key measures of research excellence include more than 330 NRF rated researchers of which 21 are ‘leading international scholars’ (second most in SA), host (or co-host) of six DST-NRF Centres of Excellence (most in SA), home for 22 South African Research Chairs (second most in SA), a wide portfolio of inventions (most in SA) and one third of its annual income is generated from funded research (most in SA).

World-class people and facilities

Wits enjoys a postgraduate to undergraduate student ratio of 2:5 and is targeting to shift this to 1:1.

The University’s library system comprises two main libraries and 14 divisional libraries.  Students have access to over 1,000,000 book volumes; 400,000 journal titles and 46,000 new electronic resources. 

In order to create an environment conducive to teaching, learning and research at the highest level, Wits has recently completed an ambitious R1,5 billion infrastructure development programme, which will see its buildings and equipment modernised, renewed and upgraded to world-class standards.

Current research focus

Today, the signature research themes of Wits include:

Origin of Species and Natural Heritage: Wits is home to one of the largest fossil collections in the southern hemisphere both human and faunal.  It holds many of the world’s oldest hominid fossils.  New species are constantly being discovered and described. 

Molecular Biosciences: With its routes in the pioneering work of Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laureate in 2002 for Physiology or Medicine and benefiting from the great diversity of people and other species in South Africa.   

Mining, Minerals and Exploration: Rooted in the history of the establishment of the University and fuelled by unprecedented exploration and mining activity in South Africa over more than 100 years.

Materials Science and Engineering: This multidisciplinary field has enjoyed great success with a currently highlight of a prestigious government funded (DST-NRF) Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials.  This centre focuses on the study of Carbides and Cermets, Carbon Nanotubes and Strong Composites, CeramicsDiamond, Thin Hard Films & Related Materials, New Ultrahard Materials, and Strong Metallic Alloys.

India/South Africa: Studies in this area tries to chart a new post colonial history through working against nation centred thinking on historical processes and promotes thinking about the histories of Africa, Asia and Latin America together through the connections that they have always had through religion, commerce, the movements of labour and capital, and not least the circulation of ideas.

Global Change and Sustainability: This multidisciplinary area of research has a number of focus areas that include, at least, the study of global change adaptation and mitigation, biodiversity, human health  and nutritional status of rural communities, sustainable urban living through improved water, waste and energy management, pollution, extraction and ecosystem health, action research on environmental policies, improve innovation policy-making  effectiveness and support cross field collaboration between environmental, science and technological agencies.

Diseases of Lifestyle: ‘Lifestyle’ diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and chronic lung disease are among the top threats to economic development in South Africa.  Their effect on the workforce and its productivity, and the potential future cost to the health system, is daunting.  

Cities: The study of cities, like Johannesburg, with extreme income inequality, rapid growth and social change driven by migration, economic shifts and political instability will expand knowledge about life in urban spaces.  Wits’ location in Gauteng at the economic crossroads of Africa makes it ideal to explore how complicated urban environments can harness their full capacity to become high-performance cities.

Biodiversity: South Africa is recognised as a global biodiversity hotspot.  Thus it is natural that considerable effort is invested in the study of the breadth of this diversity, but also its conservation.  This multidisciplinary subject is often tackled from an ecological point of view encompassing the multiple interactions between organic and the inorganic.