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The Postgraduate Symposium, a festival of ideas

- Wits University

Masters students and PhD fellows showcase quality research at the annual Cross-Faculty Postgraduate Symposium.

Cross-Faculty Symposium winners

The annual event which aims to showcase postgraduate research was a resounding success, highlighting the exceptional research endeavours of students pursuing advanced degrees at Wits. Hosted by the Postgraduate Research, and Development Office, students from Wits’ five faculties -  Commerce, Law and Management,, the Engineering and the Built Environment, Health Sciences, Humanities, and Science use the platform to share innovative research and keep abreast of developments outside their disciplines.

The symposium culminated in the announcement of winners in various categories. The distinguished panel of judges comprised of Dr Memory Zimuwandeyi (Faculty of Science), Dr Anushka Ajith (Faculty of Health Sciences), Dr Christopher Ealand (Faculty of Health Science), Dr Pierre Mubiayi (Faculty of Science), and Associate Prof. Dannielle Cerbone (Faculty of Commerce, Law, and Management).

Masters Students - Oral Presentation Winners

Zuha Ajlan (1st Place), a Master of Science in Medicine, is a neuroimmunology researcher, who secured the top spot for her presentation titled The effect of sleep disruption on immunity in healthy young women.

The research found that not getting enough sleep can affect the immune system in a way that increases the risk of autoimmune disorders. The study focused on young, healthy women and compared the effects of two types of sleep disruptions—fragmented sleep and restricted sleep—on their sleep patterns and immune response. The results showed that both disrupted sleep conditions led to reduced total sleep time and changes in sleep stages. The study also found differences in the levels of a specific immune marker (IL-8) between the two disrupted sleep conditions. Overall, the findings suggest that acute sleep disruption can impact both sleep patterns and immune activity in young, healthy women.

Khethani Mathikhi (2nd Place), a Master of Science in Medicine student, focused on Investigating the toxic effects of acute nyaope on the brain, liver, and kidney of Sprague-Dawley rats.

The World Drug Report of 2020 stated that global drug use has peaked, with over 317 million users worldwide. Drug use can lead to negative consequences, especially drug use disorder, where people become dependent on substances. In South Africa, the post-apartheid economic and social structure has made the country vulnerable to illicit drugs, particularly the popularity of heroin-based nyaope in townships and urban areas. The SACENDU 2021 report highlighted early initiation of nyaope use among black individuals aged 15 to 34. Nyaope is popular due to its affordability and accessibility, costing about R20-30 per joint.

Studies have identified various substances in nyaope, including heroin, morphine, codeine, caffeine, efavirenz, and methyl-amphetamine. Nyaope primarily affects the brain's opioid system, impacting areas crucial for behaviour and emotion. Mathikhi’s hypothesis of the experiment was that acute nyaope treatment would cause neurotoxicity in the brain, liver, and kidneys, affecting animals' behaviour. The experiment involved treating male rats with nyaope or saline. The rats treated with nyaope showed reduced exploratory and grooming behaviour. Tracking data confirmed these observations, revealing differences in distance travelled, time spent in the centre, exploratory behaviour, and speed. However, the acute dose of nyaope did not cause changes in molecular markers related to inflammation and cell death in the brain, kidney, and liver.

Gomotsegang Motlhale (3rd Place), also a Master of Medicine student, delved into the Effects of lycopene on femur and tibia indices on Wistar rats fed a high fructose diet.

Eating too much fructose in your diet can harm your bones by increasing stress and leading to conditions like osteoporosis, which makes bones more prone to breaking. Hip fractures are common and can raise the risk of death and health issues. Lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, might help protect bones from the negative effects of a high-fructose diet. This study tested lycopene's potential benefits on the bone health of growing Wistar rats fed a diet similar to what children on an obesity-inducing diet might consume. The study found that dietary fructose reduced bone width in females and certain dimensions in males. However, lycopene, especially in medium and high doses, increased bone width in females and specific dimensions in males. It's important to note that low-dose lycopene in females decreased bone width in some areas. In conclusion, while lycopene could help counteract the negative effects of a high-fructose diet on bone width, caution is advised, especially in females, as a low dose may have adverse effects on certain bone dimensions.

Gradflash Presentation Winners

This category assesses students’ ability to present their research in a succinct and engaging manner.

Sansha van der Merwe (1st Place), a Master of Medicine student in Interdisciplinary Global Change Studies presented on Hydrological Harmony: Investigating Natural Systems for Stormwater Management and River Protection. The UN 2023 Water Conference, Water Action 2030 Agenda recognises that managing water resources sustainably is important for development. Sub-Saharan African cities like Johannesburg face challenges due to rapid urbanisation, increasing poverty, informal development, and the impacts of climate change. Water-sensitive urban design (WSUD), which uses green infrastructure, is an approach to tackle issues like flooding and improve water quality. WSUD installations, like ponds, can enhance water quality by allowing natural processes to occur, protecting water bodies from pollution. This study in Johannesburg aims to assess how WSUD systems impact water quality in stormwater systems. Measurements were taken at different locations and times, showing a notable increase in water quality during various campaigns. WSUD systems were effective in improving stormwater quality and aiding urban drainage remediation. However, their success depends on proper design and implementation, tailored to specific conditions. Addressing infrastructure issues and pollution sources is crucial for long-term improvement and the health of water bodies.

Cyril Fonka (2nd Place), a Master of Public Health student in Health Economics, focussed on The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on maternal, neonatal, and child health services in Gauteng province, South Africa: a mixed method study, secured him the second-place spot.

The results of the study show that Covid-19 significantly disrupted primary healthcare for children under five-years, first antenatal care visits before 20 weeks, and postnatal care visits within 6 days. The disruption varied among districts, with Tshwane/Pretoria being the most affected. Reasons for service disruption included resource reallocation, healthcare worker shortages, facilities prioritizing Covid-19 cases, long waiting times, fears of infection, misinformation about service availability, and transportation restrictions during lockdown. The study suggests catch-up plans and service integration as strategies for maintaining essential services during future outbreaks. In conclusion, the Covid-19 pandemic had a substantial impact on maternal, neonatal, and child health services in Gauteng province, with disruptions attributed to both supply and demand factors.

Kieran Mcinnes (3rd Place), a Master of Science in Molecular and Cell Biology student, explored FOXP3 in COVID-19: A clot to uncover.

Even though the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is over, there's still much we don't know about the disease. As the virus is expected to stay in the population, it's crucial to understand how it affects the body. In severe cases, COVID-19 can cause excessive clotting in blood vessels, leading to issues like strokes and organ dysfunction. Even in milder cases, small blood clots are believed to contribute to long-lasting symptoms, known as long-COVID. Research suggests that the clotting might be due to overactivation of platelets, possibly because of a pathway called p38 MAPK. =In sum, the study suggests potential therapeutic approaches to help manage the effects of the virus on the body.

Advancing Knowledge in Varied Disciplines

PhD Student Oral Presentation Winners

Malehlogonolo Mphahlele (1st Place) is currently doing a PhD in Chemistry. Her research looks at Comparing the adsorption efficiencies of silica-anchored acylthiourea and amine adsorbents in the recovery of Pt and Pd from aqueous solutions.

This study explores a new way to recover precious metals, specifically platinum and palladium, from wastewater produced in refineries. These metals are essential for renewable energy technologies, but their low natural abundance requires finding alternative sources. Traditional recovery methods have limitations like lack of selectivity, high energy consumption, and low recovery rates. To address these issues, the study developed a novel material from simulated refinery wastewater. This material could be a cost-effective and efficient alternative for recovering minerals, making it valuable for industries relying on these precious metals.

Million Phiri (2nd Place), is a PhD in Social Science candidate, looking at the Social Context of Contraceptive Use Transition in Zambia: A Decomposition Analysis Approach.

The study focuses on understanding the factors that have contributed to the increase in contraceptive use in Zambia, which is crucial for maternal health and development efforts. While global progress has been made in improving access to family planning services, no study has examined the specific factors behind Zambia's increase in contraceptive prevalence rate from 14.2% in 1992 to 45.0% in 2018. Using data from six Zambia Demographic and Health Surveys conducted between 1992 and 2018, the study analysed the contraceptive use of 44,762 sexually active women. The results showed that changes in women's contraceptive behaviour were the main drivers of increased contraceptive use in Zambia. Specifically, factors contributing to this increase include a rise in the proportion of women with secondary education, a decrease in child mortality, an increase in women visited by community health workers, higher levels of women's decision-making autonomy, and improved access to health facilities. The study concludes that education and women's empowerment have played a significant role in influencing contraceptive use in Zambia. It suggests that investing more in the education sector has the potential to further improve contraceptive use. Additionally, strengthening child health interventions is recommended to enhance contraception uptake among women. The findings provide evidence to guide the enhancement of FP policies and programs in Zambia.

Jasmin Patel (3rd Place), a PhD candidate in the School of Molecular and Cell Biology is interested in the Whole genome sequencing and assembly of the Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri).

The Southern Ground Hornbill, a bird species in Africa, is facing a significant risk of population decline. Despite conservation efforts and research on their lifestyle and behaviour, there's a lack of scientific data about their genetic potential. This study presents the first complete genome sequence of the Southern Ground Hornbill, achieved using advanced sequencing technologies. Outcomes of the study will be crucial for identifying genetic pathways and mechanisms essential for the survival of the Southern Ground Hornbill. It also forms the foundation for future studies on the population genetics of these birds, contributing to ongoing conservation efforts. In the long run, this genome sequence can preserve the history of the Southern Ground Hornbill in case of extinction. The project is a collaboration with Birdlife South Africa, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), and the Mabula Ground Hornbill Project.

PhD Student Gradflash Presentation Winners

Naaziyah Abdulla (1st Place), a PhD candidate in Molecular and Cell Biology student, is currently in her third year. Her research paper is titled Cholesterol Chronicles: Friend or Foe in Colorectal Cancer-Immune Cell Mini Gut Co-Cultures.

Colorectal cancer is a significant global health challenge where healthy cells in the colon turn into cancerous polyps. This study explores not only genetic factors but also the tumour microenvironment), which involves dynamic interactions in the cancer surroundings. The study aims to understand how cholesterol influences immune responses in cancer progression. To do this, the researchers will grow mini-guts derived from patients and expose them to activated cytotoxic T-cells (immune cells) while manipulating cholesterol levels. This will help them explore cholesterol's role in immune responses during cancer progression. The goal is to see if reducing cholesterol could be a potential therapeutic strategy. Ultimately, the researchers hope to improve outcomes in managing colorectal cancer and deepen our understanding of the complex interplay between cholesterol, immune function, and tumor progression.

Jessica Sian Brothwell (2nd Place), PhD candidate in Molecular and Cell Biology secured this spot for her paper titled Autism spectrum disorders: Speaking through interactions research topic.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition linked to abnormalities in the brain's cortex. Currently, there are no reliable markers for diagnosing ASD. Diagnosing ASD typically involves a comprehensive assessment that considers various factors, including social communication skills, repetitive behaviours, and restricted interests. Clinicians often rely on behavioural observations, interviews with parents or caregivers, and standardized assessments.

Mande Goldfein (3rd Place) a PhD candidate in the School of Molecular and Cell Biology is interested in, The Nutritional Symphony of FOXP2 Transcriptional Regulation from Speech to Cancer.

FOXP2 is a protein that regulates gene expression and is found in various parts of the body, including the brain. Problems with FOXP2 can lead to developmental disorders affecting verbal communication and cognitive functions. Interestingly, FOXP2 is also thought to have a role in preventing certain cancers, such as breast, gastric, and liver cancer. The study explores the potential interaction between FOXP2 and three important dietary components: folic acid, retinoic acid, and pyrroloquinoline quinone (PQQ). These components are known for their nutritional significance in preventing cognitive impairment and cancers associated with FOXP2. Using molecular docking and binding studies, the research suggests a potential interaction between FOXP2 and folic acid, retinoic acid, and PQQ. Identifying and understanding these interactions could lead to further research on using these dietary components to prevent or treat neurodevelopmental diseases and certain cancers.