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Witsies claim top spots in the battle for ideas

- Wits University

Two Wits students were ranked top in the Falling Walls Lab competition that also saw Nelson Mandela University feature in the top three.

Witsies and winner of the 2023 Falling Walls Lab Johannesburg, Alisha Badal (Wits) is flanked by Yolanda Mngcongo (Nelson Mandela University) and Kate Da Silva (Wits).

The DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), in partnership with Wits University, supported by the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in South Africa, hosted solutions-orientated students on 2 June 2023. This was part of the Falling Walls Lab Johannesburg, a world-class pitch competition where students present innovative ideas in three minutes. Open to all disciplines and students across the country, the winner of the regional competition proceeds to the international competition in Germany.

First place was awarded to Wits PhD student Alisha Badal who wants to make inroads in the treatment of Triple-negative breast cancer, the most difficult type to treat compared to other types of breast cancers. Using a 3-step novel method, Badal proposed using advanced gene editing technology to manipulate an essential tumor suppressor gene. This is based on her research at the School of Molecular and Cell Biology.

Kate Da Silva, a PhD student from the Wits Advanced Drug Delivery Platform Research Unit, scooped second place for her concept on how to assist the body to regenerate tissue after traumatic incidents. This involves the utilisation of the native tissue secretome as a biotherapeutic agent for tissue trauma.

Yolanda Mngcongo, a Master's student in Environmental Health from Nelson Mandela University, broke Wits’ dominance and walked away with third place. Mngcongo is advancing the use of nanotechnology to curb nosocomial infections. These are infections acquired in healthcare settings which were not present during the time of admission. These may occur in different areas of healthcare delivery, such as in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and ambulance settings, and may also appear after discharge.

 Mngcongo proposed using a NanoRobot that will vacuum the pollutants from the air and clean the pollutants off the surfaces.

The jury, comprising experts from academia, industry, government and DAAD, evaluated the presentations based on three main factors. The breakthrough factor accounted for 50%, relevance and impact 40%, and structure and performance at 10%. Judges use a standard rubic which prioritises originality, innovation and the ability to trigger other innovative processes.

The 2023 event attracted participants from the Universities of Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Johannesburg, Pretoria, Central University of Technology and Mangosuthu University of Technology.

Badal, who is from the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at Wits is the second Witsie in recent years to represent at the international Falling Walls Lab. In 2022, Witsie Tamlyn Naidu was crowned the global winner of the competition. Her entry titled Breaking the Wall of Acid Mine Drainage tackles mining related water pollution and land loss. Her research successfully piloted the use of waste products from the refining and agricultural sectors to treat mining wastewater, resulting in a nutrient rich sludge which can be used for hydroponic farming.

Each year, two Labs take place in South Africa. The DAAD Information Centre in Johannesburg hosts one of the two (Lab Johannesburg/Lab Pretoria) in collaboration with a partner university in Gauteng, while the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the University of Cape Town host the Falling Walls Lab Cape Town.

2023 Falling Walls Lab Johannesburg