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Wits names three scholars as Friedel Sellschop Fellows

- Wits University

The University awarded the prestigious Friedel Sellschop fellowship award to Dr Mitchell Cox, Dr Eloise van der Merwe, and Dr Abhishek Pandey.

The 2023 Friedel Sellschop fellows are pictured left to right Drs Mitch Cox, Eloise van der Merwe and Abhishek Pandey

The fellowships are awarded annually to recognise and encourage exceptional early-stage researchers.

Untangling structured light in turbulence using all-optical neural networks

The digital divide, or the gap between those with access to high-quality internet connectivity and those without, is a major issue in developing countries.

Long range wireless optical communications technology, such as that being developed by Cox and his team, may be a viable solution for bridging the last few kilometres in an affordable manner.

Cox is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering and co-founder of the Wits Optical Communications Lab.

The Friedel Sellschop Award recognises Cox's exceptional research and his potential to become an international leader in the field of structured light optical communications.

His project aims to use unique patterns of light to build an optical neural network with lasers and no conventional computational components that can combat the negative effects of the atmosphere on long-range wireless optical communication systems.

This technology has the potential to provide high-speed wireless communication using low-cost optical components without the need for complex and expensive digital signal processing, and could also have disruptive applications in other fields that require machine learning ‘at the speed of light’, such as in Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems like Chatgpt (which was cleverly used to write parts of this story).

Cox’s work has gained recognition in the international research community, with several highly cited papers published in leading journals. He is passionate about developing a love of hands-on engineering and problem-solving in the students with whom he engages. Through his work at the University and his lab, he is helping to train the next generation of engineers and researchers.

Discovering ‘material of possibilities’

 New-generation materials are the gateway to future technologies. These technological advancements require novel materials that exploit complex electronic and magnetic interactions and exhibit desired application-oriented properties. 

Dr Abhishek Pandey is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Physics. The overall objective of his research is to discover novel materials that open new directions in the field of materials physics that lead towards technological applications.

“We try to discover applied materials in their pristine single-crystal form as well as investigate and optimise their properties in our recently developed Novel Quantum and Applied Materials Laboratory. While a lot more still needs to be done, we are ready to put our efforts into this important technology-oriented research field, which was largely absent in South Africa,” says Pandey.

The Friedel Sellschop awardee aims to discover a ‘material of possibilities’ towards achieving a ‘property of interest’ as well as unravelling the physical phenomena that govern fundamental interactions and excitations within the material. Excitations refer to the process in which an atom or other particle adopts a higher energy state when energy is supplied.

Experimental research needs continuous uninterrupted funds to cover running expenses. The support that comes with the Friedel Sellschop award is going to be very helpful in this regard,” he says.

Metabolic processes and Alzheimer’s disease

Dr Eloise van der Merwe is a Lecturer in the School of Molecular and Cell Biology.

Her research interests in biochemistry and cell biology span Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, aging, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, with a focus on Alzheimer’s disease and cancer research.

Alzheimer's disease is a devastating neurodegenerative disorder characterised by debilitating mental decline that results in reduced quality of life and ultimately, death.

Currently, there are limited treatments available, creating an urgent need to develop targeted therapies to stop, or slow, disease progression and ultimately to prevent the onset of this disease.

There is a clear link between Alzheimer’s disease and disruptions in glucose and lipid metabolism and metabolic disorders drastically increase the predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease development.

“I have identified a class of nuclear receptors that play a significant role in glucose and lipid metabolism as well as neuroinflammation,” says van der Merwe. “The data I have obtained thus far suggest that these receptors are a potential therapeutic approach for targeting multiple Alzheimer’s disease pathologies."

She and the members of her lab are identifying compounds to regulate glucose and lipid homeostasis in the brain. Through correcting key drivers of Alzheimer’s disease, these compounds could potentially be novel therapeutics for the treatment, and possible prevention of this fatal disease.

Commenting on her Friedel Sellschop fellowship, Van Der Merwe says: “It is a tremendous honour to receive an award bearing the name of an esteemed Wits, South African and international researcher. Additionally, the associated funding is an extremely welcome support of my research into metabolic processes and Alzheimer’s disease. Ultimately my aim is to translate my cellular research into the clinical setting, with which this award will assist immensely.”

Who was Friedel Sellschop?

Professor Friedel Sellschop (1930-2002) was the Dean of the Faculty of Science at Wits University from 1979 to 1983 and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, from 1984 to 1996. He was part of a research group that identified the first neutrino found in nature in one of South Africa’s gold mines. Neutrinos are tiny particles which are produced in stars and make up a considerable amount of matter in the universe. The University awards these fellowships annually in honour of Sellschop.

What it takes to become a Friedel Sellschop Fellow

The award is worth up to R145 000 per annum for three years. All members of academic staff in all faculties are eligible, subject to their being permanent members of staff; have completed a PhD or have comparable demonstrable achievement; be within five years of their first academic appointment; have produced a substantial body of research which is internationally recognised or will likely establish an international reputation as a leader in the field. A National Research Foundation rating is advantageous but not required.