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Wits Dean of Science a Royal Society Fellow

- Wits University

The Dean of the Faculty of Science at Wits University has been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa.

Ebrahim Momoniat, a Professor of Computational Science and Applied Mathematics at Wits, joined the ranks of the prestigious 109-year old Society on 22 November 2017.

The Royal Society of South Africa is an independent, interdisciplinary organisation that aims to further all branches of science in South Africa. The Society: 

  • recognises research excellence
  • organises scientific conferences, expeditions, workshops and seminars
  • fosters science education
  • publishes an accredited international journal; and
  • promotes public awareness of all aspects of science and technology. 

Fellows and members occupy senior positions in universities, research agencies and industry.

According to the Royal Society of SA citation, Momoniat “has advanced significantly research into fluid mechanics in South Africa and internationally. He has played a distinguished leadership part in the administration of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand and more broadly within South Africa through the Centre of Excellence in Mathematical and Statistical Sciences." 

About Professor Ebrahim Momoniat

Momoniat’s entire career has been spent at the University of the Witwatersrand. He obtained the BSc degree in 1992, the BSc Honours degree in Computational and Applied Mathematics in 1994 and the degrees of MSc and PhD in 1996 and 1999. His Master’s dissertation and Doctoral thesis were on fluid mechanics in the area of thin fluid films. He joined the staff of the School of Computational and Applied Mathematics in 1996 as a Junior Lecturer. He received the Convocation Distinguished Teacher’s Award in 2003 and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2004 and to an ad Hominem Chair in Computational and Applied Mathematics in 2009.

His research output includes 116 papers in ISI [International Scientific Indexing] journals. He has made significant contributions to the application of Lie group analysis of differential equations and computational methods to thin fluid film flow, to the Lane-Emden equation extending the work of Chandrasekhar, to power law and second, third and fourth-grade non-Newtonian fluids and to travelling waves in smectic liquid crystals. He was among the first researchers to apply Lie group analysis to these fields. He has modelled the processes which drive thin fluid films including higher order nonlinear effects due to surface tension.

Professor Ebrahim Momoniat is Dean of the Faculty of Science at Wits and a Fellow of the Royal Society of SA

He has successfully supervised eight MSc students and 6 PhD students and published 25 papers in ISI journals with his graduate students. He is rated B3 by the National Research Foundation and has a Google Scholar h-index of 17. As a young researcher, he received the Friedel Sellschop Research Award for the period 2008 to 2010. His distinction as an outstanding researcher was recognised by Wits University when he received the Vice Chancellor’s Research Award for Research Excellence in 2016.

Momoniat has taken on significant leadership and management roles. He was the driving force behind the establishment of the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in the Mathematical and Statistical Sciences and the lead author of the proposal. The Centre of Excellence was established in 2013 with Momoniat as Deputy Director. The Centre brings together for cooperation in research in the Mathematical and Statistical Sciences Departments of 10 universities and institutes in South Africa.

He was Head of the School of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Wits from 2011 to 2015. During his tenure as Head, the School was the top publishing School in the Faculty of Science. He oversaw the merger with the School of Computer Science to form the School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics. In 2016 he was Assistant Dean (Research) and Deputy Dean of the Faculty of Science. In July 2017 he was appointed Executive Dean of Science. He was elected a Member of the Academy of Science of South Africa in 2013.

More Royal Society SA Fellows from Wits 

The following Wits professors are amongst those who have become Fellows of the Royal Society of SA since 2000: 

  1. Marion Bamford(2006), Paleobotanist
  2. Lee Berger(2011), Paleoanthropologist  
  3. Ronald Clarke(2002), Paleoanthropologist
  4. Maureen Coetzee(2011), Entomologist
  5. Charles de Koning(2013), Organic Chemist
  6. Arnold Knopfmacher(2010), Mathematician
  7. Fazal Mahomed(2010), Mathematician
  8. Paul Manger (2013), Neurobiologist
  9. Helder Marques(2004), Bioinorganic Chemist
  10. Joseph Michael (2001), Organic Chemist
  11. Lynn Morris(2015), Microbiologist
  12. Norman Owen-Smith(2003), Behavioural Ecologist
  13. Richard Pienaar(2002), Botanist
  14. João Rodrigues(2005), Physicist
  15. Bruce Rubidge(2003), Paleoscientist
  16. Mary Scholes(2003), Biogeochemist
  17. Lyn Wadley(2014), Archaeologist

Little Foot takes a bow

- Wits University

After 20 years of painstaking excavation and preparation, Professor Ron Clarke introduces the most complete Australopithecus fossil ever found to the world.

South Africa’s status as a major cradle in the African nursery of humankind has been reinforced with today’s unveiling of “Little Foot”, the country’s oldest, virtually complete fossil human ancestor.

Little Foot is the only known virtually complete Australopithecus fossil discovered to date. It is by far the most complete skeleton of a human ancestor older than 1.5 million years ever found. It is also the oldest fossil hominid in southern Africa, dating back 3.67 million years. The unveiling will be the first time that the completely cleaned and reconstructed skeleton can be viewed by the national and international media.

Little Foot's skull embedded in a bank of breccia.

Discovered by Professor Ron Clarke from the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, the fossil was given the nickname of “Little Foot” by Prof. Phillip Tobias, based on Clarke’s initial discovery of four small footbones. Its discovery is expected to add a wealth of knowledge about the appearance, full skeletal anatomy, limb lengths and locomotor abilities of one of the species of our early ancestral relatives.

“This is one of the most remarkable fossil discoveries made in the history of human origins research and it is a privilege to unveil a finding of this importance today,” says Clarke.

Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe After lying undiscovered for more than 3.6 million years deep within the Sterkfontein caves about 40km north-west of Johannesburg, Clarke found several foot bones and lower leg bone fragments in 1994 and 1997 among other fossils that had been removed from rock blasted from the cave years earlier by lime miners. Clarke sent his assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe into the deep underground cave to search for any possible broken bone surface that might fit with the bones he had discovered in boxes. Within two days of searching, they found such a contact, in July 1997.

Clarke realised soon after the discovery that they were on to something highly significant and started the specialised process of excavating the skeleton in the cave up through 2012, when the last visible elements were removed to the surface in blocks of breccia. 

“My assistants and I have worked on painstakingly cleaning the bones from breccia blocks and reconstructing the full skeleton until the present day,” says Clarke.

In the 20 years since the discovery, they have been hard at work to excavate and prepare the fossil. Now Clarke and a team of international experts are conducting a full set of scientific studies on it. The results of these studies are expected to be published in a series of scientific papers in high impact, peer reviewed international journals in the near future.

This is the first time that a virtually complete skeleton of a pre-human ancestor from a South African cave has been excavated in the place where it was fossilised.

Ron Clarke excavating Litte Foot's skull“Many of the bones of the skeleton are fragile, yet they were all deeply embedded in a concrete-like rock called breccia,” Clarke explains.

“The process required extremely careful excavation in the dark environment of the cave. Once the upward-facing surfaces of the skeleton’s bones were exposed, the breccia in which their undersides were still embedded had to be carefully undercut and removed in blocks for further cleaning in the lab at Sterkfontein,” says Clarke.

The 20-year long period of excavation, cleaning, reconstruction, casting, and analysis of the skeleton has required a steady source of funding, which was provide­­­­d­­­­­ by the Palaeontological Scientific Trust (PAST) – a Johannesburg-based NGO that promotes research, education and outreach in the sciences related to our origins. Among its many initiatives aimed at uplifting the origin sciences across Africa, PAST has been a major funder of research at Sterkfontein for over two decades.

Professor Adam Habib, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand says: “This is a landmark achievement for the global scientific community and South Africa’s heritage. It is through important discoveries like Little Foot that we obtain a glimpse into our past which helps us to better understand our common humanity.”

PAST’s chief scientist Professor Robert Blumenschine labels the discovery a source of pride for all Africans. “Not only is Africa the storehouse of the ancient fossil heritage for people the world over, it was also the wellspring of everything that makes us human, including our technological prowess, our artistic ability, and our supreme intellect,” he says.

The scientific value of the find and much more will be unveiled in a series of papers that Prof Clarke and a team of international experts have been preparing, with many expected in the next year.

African genetic diversity to unlock disease susceptibility

- Wits University

Wits scientists and partners have sequenced the genomes of 24 South African individuals of different ethnolinguistic origins.

The first government-funded human genomics research study performed on African soil, aimed at unlocking the unique genetic character of southern African populations, has revealed a high level of genetic diversity. 

“This study supports our understanding that African genomes are likely to yield many more unique genetic variants,” says Professor Michèle Ramsay, Director and Research Chair in the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience (SBIMB), Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University.

“The next step of progress is to use this knowledge to decipher what potential impact the genetic variants can have on the health of individuals, when we conduct health-related research,” added Professor Michael Pepper, Unit Director of the South African Medical Research Council’s (SAMRC) Stem Cell Research and Therapy Unit, Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Pretoria.   

Understanding African health through genetic diversity

Funded by the National Department of Science & Technology (DST), the focus of the Southern African Human Genome Programme (SAHGP) was to capture a full spectrum of diversity in under-represented populations. The programme, therefore, included ethnically self-identified individuals of different ancestries.

Whole-genome sequencing was used to study the differences in some of the major ethnolinguistic groups in the country. In this pilot project, eight admixed or Coloured individuals from the Western Cape, seven Sotho speakers from the Free State, eight Xhosa speakers from the Eastern Cape and one Zulu speaker from Gauteng constituted the sample group of the study. 

Two study aims were to use novel whole-genome sequence data to (1) study possible correlations between language groups and genetic clustering, and (2) investigate the ancestral compositions of these individuals, including maternal and paternal lineages. 

Wits scientists and peers have sequenced the genetic makeup of 24 South African individuals of different ethnolinguistic origins.

The results indicate that despite a short period of geographic and cultural separation between the Nguni and Sotho-Tswana speakers, there are measurable genetic differences between them. These differences are in part the result of varying regional ancestral contributions, but also of a random process of genetic drift. The paternal ancestry was almost exclusively of African origin, while the maternal ancestry was often of Khoesan origin, which is consistent with previous studies showing cross-cultural assimilation of female hunter-gatherers into Nguni and Sotho-Tswana speaking farming communities. 

Coloured individuals showed varying proportions of admixture with Khoesan, African and European populations as well as populations from the Indian sub-continent. After the inclusion of additional representative populations in the analysis, the study revealed a much stronger South Asian ancestry in the Coloureds compared to previous studies. 

“We have a richer understanding of the past, as the study confirms general historical accounts of African migration and admixture”, says Dr Ananyo Choudhury, Senior Scientist at the SBIMB at Wits University. 

Hope that Africans benefit from genomic medicine

African populations harbour the greatest genetic diversity and have the highest per capita health burden, yet they are rarely included in large genome studies of disease association. This diversity provides both a challenge and an opportunity for biomedical research and the hope that Africans will one day benefit from genomic medicine. The study highlights the potential implications for disease susceptibility in Africans. 

“South Africa has cemented a critical stone in the foundation to advance precision medicine for its people,” concluded Glaudina Loots, Director for Health Innovation at the DST.

Wits’ optics research among best in 2017

- Wits University

Research into optics and photonics by Wits physicists has been highlighted as some of the most influential in 2017.

Optics and Photonics NewsThe Optical Society of America (OSA), the leading international society for the field of optics, has named research into light and quantum communications by Professor Andrew Forbes and his team at Wits’ Structured Light Laboratory as one of the 30 most exciting peer-reviewed optics research to have emerged over the past 12 months.

The top research has been published in a special issue of OSA’s monthly news magazine, Optics & Photonics News.

OSA says a panel of editors reviewed 125 research summaries from scientists from around the world and selected 30 that they felt most ‘clearly communicated breakthroughs of interest to the optics community’, among them Forbes’ article, titled: Blurring the Classical-Quantum Divide.

Forbes and his team published this research earlier this year in Nature Physics, in a paper titled: Characterising quantum channels with non-separable states of classical light.

The research shows that sometimes Nature cannot tell the difference between the quantum and the classical (or real) worlds, and that a grey area does exist between the two worlds called classical entanglement. This has exciting implications for fast and secure data transfer in the future and will aid technological advances that seek to establish more secure quantum communication links over long distances.

About the Optical Society of America (OSA)

Founded in 1916, the Optical Society (OSA) is the leading professional organization for scientists, engineers, students and business leaders who fuel discoveries, shape real-life applications and accelerate achievements in the science of light. Through world-renowned publications, meetings and membership initiatives, OSA provides quality research, inspired interactions and dedicated resources for its extensive global network of optics and photonics experts.

Tackling the missing miner problem with wireless sensor networks

- Wits University

A matchbox-sized circuit board with a short aerial could save lives by transmitting the vital statistics and location of miners missing underground.

This fledgeling wireless sensor network technology is the result of collaboration between the Wits Mining Institute, the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits, and the Communication Networks Laboratory at the University of Bremen in Germany.

"Through this collaboration, we are designing, developing and testing a technology for tracking miners trapped inside a collapsed underground mine, using a scenario that assumes that the injured, missing miners are not able to send distress calls," says Professor Fred Cawood, Director of the Wits Mining Institute.

Mining today and in future involves penetrating deep into the Earth and encountering extremely harsh environments. This requires innovative techniques to ensure the health and safety of miners. A challenge of particular interest to researchers is to track trapped miners when a part of the mine has collapsed.

"Most of the currently employed communication technologies would fail in this scenario, leaving rescuers with the impossible task of finding the trapped miners when it is not possible to communicate with them," says Dr Asad Mahmood, senior lecturer in the Wits School of Electrical and Information Engineering, whose research interests include signal processing for communications, hyperspectral imaging, and wireless sensor networks (WSN).

Idrees Zaman, a visiting researcher to Wits and a PhD candidate from the University of Bremen, whose doctorate focuses on wireless sensor networks in agriculture, says: "Wireless sensor networks, which combine through-the-rock, through-broken-earth, and through-the-air communication, have the potential to re-establish the communication link even in a disaster scenario." 

Simulating safety through sensors

As a proof-of-concept, a collapse scenario was created inside the mock mine constructed in the Wits School of Mining Engineering, and a network based on custom-created WSN nodes deployed inside the mock mine. Each miner must wear a WSN node, which is small enough to attach to the miner's helmet, for example.

In a normal scenario, such a network enables tracking the movements of the miner. If a portion of the mine collapses and some WSN nodes stop working, the simulation showed that the rest of the nodes can re-establish communication amongst themselves. The demonstration also showed that if the miner node gets buried under a pile of debris, the WSN node can still transmit signals through debris, solid rock, and through mining voids, thus informing the rescuers about the position of the missing miner. These initial results look promising and further research will be conducted in this area.

"In the connected world, there are opportunities that weren't here before. We have something special here that could be used in a mine of the future. It's about finding a person [miner] before the window of opportunity to find them alive closes," says Cawood.