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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.

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