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New ultra-clean isotope geoscience laboratory opens up a new world of research

- Wits University

New laboratory will work closely with the University of Johannesburg to offer southern African scientists a local solution for isotope analysis.

Earth science research on the African continent just made a massive leapfrog into a new era with the launch of the state-of-the-art, ultra-clean Wits Isotope Geoscience Laboratory, known as the WIGL.

This laboratory, based in the School of Geosciences at Wits, offers scientists from a wide range of disciplines such as ecology, palaeontology, medicine and, of course, geosciences the opportunity to perform ultra-clean, contamination-free experiments that separate isotopes from Earth materials. “Isotopes, elements with variable numbers of neutrons, are incredibly powerful tools used to trace processes operating on the Earth,” says Dr Grant Bybee of the Wits School of Geosciences and Director of the WIGL. “Instead of shipping our samples to Europe at a huge cost in terms of time, money and resources, scientists in southern Africa will have a world-class facility on their doorstep.”

A student works in the new Geosciences Isotope LaboratoryThe elements and isotopes that this laboratory aims to separate are normally present in extremely low abundance in rocks, meteorites, fossils and water. “Elements like Pb, Sr, Cu, Zn are normally only present at the part per million or part per billion level in these materials and so it is crucial that we process these samples in an extremely clean and contamination-free environment,” says Bybee. “If not, researchers run the risk of contaminating precious samples with elements from the surroundings, obscuring the natural isotope signal of the samples.”

Normal air contains over 1 million particles cubic foot, but the complex air filtration system in WIGL, reduces this by about a million times to 1-10 particles per cubic foot. Along with a completely metal-free environment – everything in the lab is constructed of durable, acid-resistant, plastic – this air quality ensures that any sensitive samples processed in the WIGL remain contamination-free. “It would be an excellent place to work for those that suffer from allergies!” says Bybee. As you progress further into the laboratory, the environment gets cleaner and cleaner, ensuring that most sensitive chemical techniques aren’t jeopardised.

The laboratory took over a year to build, using high-tech components. Due to the sensitive nature of the laboratory, every single part had to be built from non-metallic material, and any unavoidable metal parts have to be carefully covered with plastic coating. In total, the WIGL cost just over R6 million to build, and was funded by Wits University.

The WIGL is made up of four separately sealed rooms, where the air quality and flow is carefully controlled. A working sample, like a crushed rock, would enter through the first room, where it would be weighed on an incredibly precise scale. It would then pass through a secure air-controlled hatch, where, in the second room, it would be dissolved in strong acid like hydrochloric acid and prepared for analysis in the third and fourth rooms. Special resins and chemical techniques allow the researchers to separate the elements of interest. Once this is completed, samples would be sent to an ultra-precise mass spectrometer at the Department of Geology at the University of Johannesburg, where the exact amount of each isotope would be measured. “The two labs at Wits and UJ have developed an incredibly strong collaboration aimed at advancing our understanding of Earth processes using high-quality isotope measurements,” says Bybee.

Wits Isotope Geoscience LaboratoryThe use of elemental and isotopic analysis is extremely important in geosciences, where scientists study the composition, age and processes operating on the Earth. However, isotopes are also highly effective in other scientific fields such as medicine – for example in the diagnosis of cancer and bone diseases – and in palaeosciences for establishing the origin, movement patterns and diets of now extinct animals, including our human ancestors.   

The WIGL builds on a strong a history of pioneering isotopic work at Wits University in which many ground-breaking techniques and ideas were generated. “This is a first for the geoscience community in South Africa and the WIGL team is geared up to facilitate and inspire the next generation of scientists to produce important, interdisciplinary science,” says Bybee.

Wits’ rated researchers recognised

- Wits Communications

The Wits Research Office last night recognised 67 researchers at the University whom the National Research Foundation (NRF) has rated or re-rated.

At the awards ceremony held at the Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein on 11 April, the University also acknowledged the 14 most highly cited researchers in faculty and four top postgraduate supervisors.  

Emerging young researchers comprised 17 Thuthuka grant recipients and four Friedel Sellschop awardees.

Dr Mahomed Moolla, MC and Head of Internationalisation and Strategic Partnerships at Wits acknowledged the contribution of research to “Vision 2022”. This aims for a 50% postgraduate student cohort by then. Postgraduate students currently constitute 13 500 out of all Wits’ 37 000 students.

Zeblon Vilakazi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, who awarded the recipients, said: “Wits remains at the forefront of guiding and leading research across the continent. Our research proves that global institutions of the south can be wellsprings of knowledge production.”

Wits' rated researchers

Lyn Wadley (A1) and YevhenZelenyuk and Shabir Madhi (A2) retained their ratings while Profs. Derek Brouwer and Chris Mathew each earned A2 ratings. NRF A-rated researchers are those scholars recognised by their peers internationally as global leaders in their field.

Additionally, the NRF re-awarded 36 Wits researchers with B, C, P or Y ratings while 31 researchers were awarded ratings for the first time. These B, C, P or Y category ratings denote:

  • B – Internationally acclaimed researchers
  • C – Established researchers
  • P – Prestigious Awards
  • Y – Promising young researchers

Read the full list of names of the rated and re-rated Wits researchers.

The best postgraduate supervisors at Wits

  • Prof. Paul Alagidede in the Faculty Commerce, Law and Management
  • Prof. Ivan Hofsajer in the Faculty Engineering and the Built Environment
  • Prof. Saraladevi Naicker in the Faculty of Health Sciences
  • Prof. Edward Witowski in the Faculty of Science

The most highly cited researchers per faculty in 2016 were:

  • Richard Langlois and Ronald Wall in the Faculty Commerce, Law and Management
  • Drs  Mutiu Amosa and Diakanua Nkazi, and Prof. Sunny Iyuke in the Faculty Engineering and the Built Environment
  • Dr Alisha Wade and Prof. Linda Richter in the Faculty of Health Sciences
  • Andrew Thatcher and Mehita Iqani, and Dr Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon in the Faculty of Humanities
  • Drs Deepak Kar, Xifeng Rua, and Angela Dudley and Profs. Andrew Forbes and Bruce Mellado in the Faculty of Science. 

Professors Mehita Iqani, Hlonipha Mokoena, Andrew Thatcher and Zeblon Vilakazi.The Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award made to Prof. Ebrahim Momoniat in 2016 was acknowledged.

Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal lauded the research output despite economic and political challenges in higher education recently. 

“It is truly astonishing what this University community has achieved in the past five years. It opens up the opportunity of what else is possible with the support from the state, the NRF and other agencies,” said Habib. He added that Wits continues its transformation agenda, pointing out that Black students now comprise 79% of the cohort, up from 68% in 2013. Additionally, Wits allocated R45m to diversifying the academy and investing in the permanent appointment of Black scholars.

“We are defined by a single agenda: To be a transformed university that produces world class research. This is an institution that is simultaneously transforming and at the cutting edge of knowledge production in the world,” he said.

Prof. Hlonipha Mokoena from the Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research (WiSER) delivered a talk, in which she referenced research as “formalised curiosity”. This concept had sustained her during her tenure process at the University of Columbia.

Dr Molapho Qhobela, Chief Executive of the NRF said Wits has an important role to play in higher education.  He congratulated Wits on its research: “This is a prestigious institution – do not be shy to exalt excellence.”

SA students benefit from major digital electronics update at CERN

- Wits University

International scientists share knowledge with SA students and industry at a workshop, dedicated to the CERN electronics upgrade.

South African students and industry are benefiting from the major digital electronics challenge of upgrading the ATLAS Tile Calorimeter at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.

The Tile Calorimeter of the ATLAS detector covers the central region of the detector and it is designed to measure the energy and position of particles that result from high-energy proton-proton collisions provided by the LHC. The Tile Calorimeter detects particles called hadrons, which are copiously produced in high-energy proton-proton collisions.Scientists, students and industry leaders who attended the ATLAS Tile Calorimeter Upgrade week.Following the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012, the LHC is developing a long-term plan to increase the intensity of the collisions. This is necessary to provide a lot more data with which to explore the Higgs boson and its coupling to other particles; the search for other bosons and other new particles. In 2016 the LHC delivered collisions with an intensity significantly surpassing the initial design. The LHC envisions major upgrades in the future that will increase the data available by about 100 times.

“The Tile Calorimeter will undergo a major replacement of its on- and off-detector electronics for the high luminosity programme of the LHC starting in 2026,” says Professor Bruce Mellado, who coordinates of the contribution to ATLAS by South Africa.

All signals will be digitised and then transferred to the off-detector electronics, where the signals will be reconstructed, buffered, and sent to the first level of the trigger at a rate of 40 MHz, or 40 million times every second. This will provide a better precision of the calorimeter signals used by the trigger system; will provide more information and will allow the development of more complex trigger algorithms.

Mellado and colleagues from the US and Europe organized the ATLAS Tile Calorimeter Upgrade week at iThemba Laboratories in Cape Town from March 15th to 17th, where scientists from around the world, working at the ATLAS experiment at CERN gathered to discuss the technicalities of the upgrade.

Sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation, the event provided a unique opportunity for local students and industry to gain information and knowledge from highly respected scientists from around the world.

“The ATLAS upgrade represents a major challenge in digital electronics that South African scientists and industry are profiting from,” says Mellado. “The generation and real-time processing of digital signals forms the first stage of what is usually referred to as the Big Data problem. In the process of pursuing this type of complex problems, South African students encounter the opportunity to acquire unique skills, which are brought to the country.”

Local industry also profits from these activities. Based on a design developed for the upgrade of the off-detector electronics of the Tile Calorimeter, South African industry was able to manufacture in 2016 the most complex electronics board in the country to date.

The production of the board was possible thanks to a concerted effort in investing and innovating that now enables local industry to produce complex boards more efficiently and affordably.

The workshop was kicked off with an open session chaired by Mellado. The first speaker was the Director of iThemba Laboratories, Dr. Faiҫal Azaiez, who welcomed the participants and gave an overview of his vision for the laboratory and its international projection. The Director emphasized the commitment to support the development of instrumentation for South Africa. Daniel Dock, Managing Director, TraX Interconnect (Pty) Ltd, gave a presentation on the history and capabilities of the South African electronics industry. Dock gave an overview of the complexities behind the manufacturing of high-density electronics board, with emphasis on the techniques that had to be developed to manufacture the board for the ATLAS Tile Calorimeter.

The open session was concluded by a colloquium by Dr. Oleg Solovyanov, the Project Leader of the ATLAS Tile Calorimeter. Solovyanov reviewed the most important features of the detector and plans for the upgrade.

Glenda Gray on TIME 100 List

- Wits Communications

TIME has named Glenda Gray, Full Professor: Research, in the School of Clinical Medicine at Wits, among the top 100 most influential people in the world.

Professor Glenda Gray has pioneered advances in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, which has saved thousands of lives. She is an alumna of Wits Medical School and established the Wits Perinatal HIV Research Unit at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in 1996. She is currently President and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and involved in HIV vaccine research.

Gray was born in South Africa and graduated as a medical doctor from Wits in 1986. In 1992 she qualified as a paediatrician from the College of Medicine South Africa.  Internationally acclaimed for her work in HIV research, Gray has broken new boundaries, redefined scientific excellence and pioneered groundbreaking medical research that has shaped global communities and saved lives. 

“Placing people at the centre of health research is the fuel for ensuring impact”, says Gray. Glenda Gray, Associate Professor in Clinical Medicine and Director of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit 

While at the helm of the country’s medical research council, the custodian for health research in South Africa and globally known for its strategic impetus to respond to South Africa’s burden of disease, Gray also chairs the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases to lead research collaborations on chronic diseases worldwide. Her leadership style has enabled the SAMRC to acquire three consecutive clean audits, redirect resources to invest significantly in research in historically under-resourced universities and elevate the research agenda to build the next generation of black medical scientists in the country.

Gray’s story over the years is nothing shy of dedication, commitment, and passion for addressing health issues that have and still affect South Africans.  In 1996, together with James McIntyre, she co-founded the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (HPRU) based in Soweto where they developed a world renowned unit focused on HIV prevention and treatment.  In 2002, when the South African government propagated AIDS denialism and HIV-infected women antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to prevent transmission to their babies, Gray and McIntyre were awarded the Nelson Mandela Health & Human Rights Award for their work in response to this challenge. 

Globally the medical community took note of their work and in 2003, in recognition of their research and advocacy to bring lifesaving antiretroviral therapy to mothers and people in need, Gray and McIntyre received the Heroes in Medicine award from the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care (IAPAC).

“When you give a child an opportunity to grow up free of ill health, you give them hope to define a destiny of their own,” says Gray, recalling how HIV took from South African mothers the joy of seeing their children grow up. 

One of the highest orders in South Africa, the Order of Mapungubwe, was bestowed by the President on Gray for her life-saving research in mother-to-child transmission of HIV that changed the lives of mothers and their children and served the interests of South Africans. Since then Gray has been on a trajectory that has led her to becoming an internationally recognised leader in global health.       

In the mid- 2000s Gray saw that the only path to an AIDS-free generation was in the development of potent biomedical interventions. She thus turned her attention to HIV vaccine research, believing it was critical to ending the HIV epidemic, and focused her research on investigating potential HIV vaccine candidates.  As, the Co-Principal Investigator (PI) of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) funded HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN), an international network that conducts over 80% of the clinical trials of candidate HIV vaccines globally, she provides leadership at a global level with the HVTN PI, Larry Corey, and Co-PI, Scott Hammer.

Most notably, she spearheaded the clinical development of the South African AIDS Vaccine initiative’s HIV vaccines, the SAAVI DNA/MVA candidates and conducted the first trial using these candidate vaccines in South Africa and the United States. In November 2016, an ambitious programme was announced to evaluate an HIV vaccine regimen in South Africa that, if successful, could be the first HIV vaccine to be licensed globally. Gray and her team are leading this trial - HVTN 702 - the first HIV vaccine efficacy trial in seven years. 

TIME named another Wits scholar, Professor Lee Berger, a paleoanthropologist, to the same list in 2016.

WiSER scholar elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

- Wits Communications

Professor Achille Mbembe of the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research (WiSER) has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

This election recognises the significance of Mbembe's scholarship within South Africa and the continent and beyond. 

Founded in 1780, the Academy is both a learned society and independent policy research centre. It recognises achievement across academia, the arts, science, business, and government, and currently includes Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, MacArthur Fellows, and luminaries who shape contemporary politics, policy, and society. Current academy members nominate and elect fellows and honorary members.

Professor Achille Mbembe of WiSER is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Born in Cameroon, Mbembe obtained his PhD in History at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1989 and a D.E.A. in Political Science at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Paris). He was Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University, New York, from 1988-1991, a Senior Research Fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., from 1991 to 1992, Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania from 1992 to 1996, Executive Director of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (Codesria) in Dakar, Senegal, from 1996 to 2000.

Mbembe was also a visiting Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001, and a visiting Professor at Yale University in 2003. He was recently a Visiting Research Professor in History and Politics at Harvard University's W.E.B. Dubois Research Institute, and for several years was a Visiting Professor at the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University. 

He has written extensively on African history and politics, including La naissance du maquis dans le Sud-Cameroun (1996), Sortir de la grande nuit: Essai sur l'Afrique décolonisée (2003), and Critique de la raison nègre (2013). On the Postcolony was published in French in 2000, and was translated into English the following year.

Politiques de l'inimitié appeared in 2016, and Critique of Black Reason - translated by Laurent Dubois - will be published in 2017. 

He is an A1-National Research Foundation rated academic.  

Mbembe and other new members will be inducted into the Academy at a ceremony on 7 October 2017 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

In 2016 Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University was elected to the Academy as a foreign, honorary member. His election acknowledges his contribution and excellence in educational, scientific, cultural, and philanthropic administration (non-profit sector).