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Wits PhD Seminar Winners

- Wits University

Finalists at Wits’ first cross-faculty PhD Seminar kept judges and audiences on the edge.

The event was held online on the 29th and 30th of September 2020.

The adjudicating panel (made up of nine judges) had a hard time deliberating on the winners of this challenge where 22 finalists from various faculties brought their respective disciplines to interpret ‘pandemic’.

More than 100 abstracts submitted for the competition were screened by a cross-faculty panel of 16 judges who narrowed it down to 22 finalists.

Topics ranged from the arts to chemistry, legal to business analysis. The top three presenters received R35 000, R25 000 and R20 000 respectively.

Wits PhD Winners: Tamlyn Naidu (Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering), Zakhele Ndala (School of Chemistry) and Leigh Crymble (Wits Business School)

The top prize was awarded to Tamlyn Naidu from the School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering for her presentation arguing for the use of analyzing waste water to detect infections.

 Naidu held that direct testing that is currently used is not the only way to confirm infection rates. Infected people can shed viral particles in faecal matter, even while asymptomatic. This enters a local wastewater treatment plant (WWTP). Monitoring viral load at these plants would therefore allow for greater accuracy of infection statistics, allow early detection and thus prevention of outbreaks, and give countries a better representation of where infections are located.

The second prize winner, Zakhele Ndala from the School of Chemistry, wowed judges with his super-mask designed to render airborne viruses useless.

He observed that airborne viruses include the common cold, measles. The influenza viruses are common and can be transmitted through small droplets that travel through the air. There is mounting evidence that suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may be an airborne pathogen. With the future uncertain and the possibility of masks being common gear, Ndala proposed the use of nanomaterials to design a new mask containing three components, thus giving it new capability that will increase the efficacy of the mask.

Leigh Crymble from the Wits Business School who came in third place and walked away with R20 000 offered a solution that deals with one of the greatest challenges – changing human behavior. Crymble offered a new approach to behavioural change using a framework that is currently in development (Behavioural Linguistics) to promote the adoption of non-pharmaceutical interventions to reduce the spread of the virus, and other behaviours that impact human beings.

One of the nine judges on the panel, Prof. Bruce Watson from the School of Mathematics, was highly impressed with the quality of the presentations during the two-day challenge adding that the delivery “made for enjoyable listening”, something that is rare in academic endeavours of this nature.

The public was equally involved in the competition and had the opportunity to vote for their favourite candidate.

Chia-yu Chen (School of Molecular & Cell Biology), Anza Thiba (Clinical Medicine), Jorge da Rocha (School of Pathology) and Mwansa Lubeya (School of Public Health)

The People’s Choice Award was bestowed on Mwansa Lubeya from the School of Public Health with a presentation titled Impact of the COVID 19-Pandemic on delivery of the human papillomavirus vaccine to adolescent girls in Zambia. Lubeya discussed  the impact of the Covid-19 virus on attempts to protect women from cervical cancer.

According to Lubeya about 2,994 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer annually in Zambia, making it one of the most prevalent female cancers in the country. The HPV vaccine has proved to be an effective strategy for cervical cancer prevention. In 2019, Zambia rolled out a vaccination programme for girls aged 14. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened the potential gains made by this vaccination program. Dr Lubeya, who works in Zambia’s public health, presented on a project that will determine the extent of the virus on cervical cancer. She walked away with R7000 as The People’s Choice.

Consolation prizes of R3000 each were awarded to Jorge da Rocha from the School of Pathology, Chia-yu Chen of the School of Molecular and Cell Biology, and Anza Thiba from Clinical Medicine.

View abstracts of the 22 finalists.

Competition convener Prof. Robert Muponde, Director of Postgraduate Affairs in the Research Office, congratulated all the participants and commended them for their spirit and camaraderie.

The much-delighted Director of Postgraduate Affairs  pronounced the inaugural event a success adding that the event is in line with the University’s mission to elevate and give recognition to exceptional PhD scholarship within the University.

It is well-known that developed nations with strong economies also boast a significant population of PhD holders who produce the critical knowledge that is required to rejuvenate and lead society, remarked Muponde in his speech at the closing ceremony.

“Students are a resource in the knowledge economy and we should aim to get as many of our students on this route and immerse them in activities that support their academic journey.

“Seminars and conferences are not only about the prize but the networks from peers who become valuable cross-collaborators in research activities”, Muponde shared with the audience attending the virtual event.