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Research possibilities for postgraduate students

The School of Physiology offers a wide range of research possibilities with high-quality supervisors that will assist you in getting your postgraduate degree. In order to avoid any disappointment we advise that you approach a member of staff as soon as possible to discuss the possibility of doing an MSc project. This will also enable you to apply for bursaries and other means of funding offered by the University and other external bodies where the application deadline is often early in the preceding year.

Research Entities and possible projects

The Brain Function Research Group (BFRG)

BFRG Postgraduate Opportunities

Cardiovascular Pathology and Genomics Research Unit (CPGRU)

There are currently a number of main areas of research in the CPGRU that encompass a wide variety of projects. Our main focus is the prevention and management of hypertension and obesity as well as the understanding of the mechanisms of heart disease related to these risk factors.

The main themes and sub projects presently being addressed in the African Program on Genes in Hypertension (APOGH) and associated clinical studies include the following:

The role of ambulatory and central aortic blood pressure (BP) in groups of African descent:

  • The role of ambulatory BP and white coat response in the prediction of cardiovascular outcomes and the presence of cardiovascular damage beyond office BP
  • The role of exercise training and other lifestyle changes on clinic, ambulatory and central BP

The determinants of blood pressure in an urban, developing community of African ancestry:

  • Genetic determinants and contribution to higher peripheral and central BP in an African population
  • The role of genetic variations in the control of BP in urban, developing communities of African descent by genotyping participants to attempt to identify a number of candidate gene loci that may play a role in determining the genetic contribution to aortic and nocturnal BP
  • The role of salt intake, insulin resistance and the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system in the development of hypertension and cardiovascular disease

Effects of obesity on the cardiovascular system in an urban, developing community of African ancestry:

  • Although a high prevalence of obesity has been noted in urban, developing communities in South Africa; we are investigating whether excess adiposity promotes the development of adverse cardiovascular effects (including ECG criteria, echocardiographic parameters and other non-conventional cardiovascular risk factors) independent of conventional risk factors.
  • The role of lifestyle changes and exercise training on cardiovascular effects in overweight and obese persons.

The effects of high grade inflammation on large artery function and the heart

  • It is well know that inflammation is a risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease and specifically atheroma. However the mechanisms whereby inflammation increases cardiovascular risk is uncertain. Hence we are investigating the role of inflammatory markers on large artery function and cardiac structure and function in persons with rheumatoid arthritis.

The effects of traditional and non-tradition risk factors in the risk of stroke and peripheral artery disease

  • To identify the relative contribution of traditional (including obesity and either undiagnosed, poorly managed, or severe hypertension defined using accurate criteria) and non-traditional (mainly human immunodeficiency virus [HIV], its therapy and inflammatory markers) cardiovascular risk factors and the relative role of atherosclerotic and non-atherosclerotic large artery changes to the burden of hospital admissions for stroke, peripheral arterial disease and coronary artery disease in HIV positive and negative black South Africans (previously disadvantaged) in urban settings.

The main themes and sub projects presently being addressed in basic research studies include the following:

Mechanisms of pump dysfunction

  • The mechanisms of the progression from compensated hypertensive hypertrophy to decompensated pump dysfunction and cardiac dilatation in rat hearts
  • The mechanisms and associations of telomere attrition in chronic heart failure

Mechanisms of inflammation on large artery function and the heart

  • The mechanisms of large artery dysfunction and left ventricular dysfunction to chronic low grade inflammation in rats

Mechanisms of dietary interventions on cardiovascular risk

  • The effects of a high-fat high-sucrose diet and exercise on cardiovascular risk factors in rats
  • The effects of a low potassium diet on salt sensitive hypertension and other cardiovascular risk factors in rats.

Please contact Gavin Norton ( or Angela Woodiwiss ( for more information on the projects. Alternatively contact Richard Brooksbank (, Frederic Michel ( or Aletta Millen (

The Exercise Physiology Laboratory

The main focus of the work we do in the exercise lab centres on the role that exercise and habitual physical activity (and inactivity) play in relation to health and chronic disease. We are able to offer masters and PhD projects centred around this theme. Recently completed and current projects which we have on the go are listed below. We welcome the opportunity of taking on new postgraduate students for projects which fall broadly within the themes listed below.

Bone health

  • Effects of WBV training on bone health in sedentary adults
  • Volumetric bone health in elite South African adolescent football players: a pQCT study
  • Effect of multiday cycling on bone metabolism in well-trained cyclists

Rheumatoid Arthritis

  • The role of actigraphy in the measurement of physical activity and inactivity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • A WBV intervention and resistance training programme in patients with RA

Cardiovascular and endothelial health

  • Flow mediated dilatation in healthy sedentary and active adolescents boys
  • Metabolic health and sedentary activity in South African office workers (Masters degree)

Physical activity/sedentary activity assessment

  • Quantifying sedentary behaviour in adults using actigraphy

Please contact Jo McVeigh ( or Rebecca Meiring ( for more information.

Molecular Physiology Research

G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) are the largest family of membrane proteins in the human genome. They mediate a great diversity of physiological functions and are particularly amenable to modulation by small molecule drugs. All GPCRs communicate an extracellular signal across a biological membrane, via a change in the conformation of the receptor protein. Our research aims to understand how binding of ligands to the extracellular surface of GPCRs induces distinct cellular responses.

As we are part of the MRC Research Group for Receptor Biology, the MSc and PhD positions that are available will contribute towards the research outputs of our group. We focus on two GPCRs, the gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) receptor, which regulates reproduction, and the CCR5 chemokine receptor, which mediates HIV infection. We use site-directed mutagenesis of the GnRH and CCR5 receptors combined with a range of in vitro functional assays to study GPCR function, which has application in development of new drugs. Better understanding of the receptor-ligand interactions can guide design and discovery of improved pharmaceuticals and may help to design improved vaccines in infectious diseases and prevention strategies in reproductive health.

Please contact Colleen Flanagan ( or Michael Madziva ( for more information about specific projects for postgraduate studies and availability of bursaries.

The Nutrition, Metabolism and Gastro-intestinal Physiology Laboratory

Chemical, in vitro and in vivo characterisation of Litchi chinensis (Litchi) seed.

Project description: Indigenous and exotic tree seeds are potential sources of biomass. They could contribute to intensive animal protein production by being alternative sources of energy and or protein in feeds. However, the seeds’ chemical potential needs to be determined before they could be tested using in vitro and in vivo models. This project seeks to chemically characterise Litchi seed (proximate, mineral, fibre and ANFs) then determine from the chemical analysis whether the seed “fits” as an energy or protein source. This will be followed by formulating diets with the replacement of energy (maize) or protein (soya bean meal) with the Litchi seed meal. The digestibility of the diets in vitro and in vivo will then be determined after which the effects of the Litchi seed meal based diets’ effect on growth, metabolic substrate storage, GIT morphometry and general health will be determined. Four major experiments will be conducted – chemical, in vitro and in vivo (digestibility and nitrogen balance trial & growth performance trial) characterisation.

Effect of substituting maize meal with Mimusops zeyheri seed meal on nutrient digestibility, nitrogen balance and growth performance of Sprague Dawley rats.

Project description: Mimusops zeyheri is an indigenous fruit baring tree whose seed has been demonstrated to have a high oil yield which (oil) has a high concentration of oleic acids and PUFAs. The seed meal has a gross energy amount comparable to that of maize. The project seeks to determine in vitro and in vivo the potential of M. zeyheri seed meal as an energy source in animal feeds. The digestibility of M. zeyheri seed meal based diets will be determined both in vitro and then in vivo (rat model). The effect of a graded dietary substitution of maize meal with M. zeyheri seed on growth performance and general health profile will be determined. Three major experiments will be conducted – in vitro (digestibility – total tract and ileal using in vitro approaches) and in vivo (digestibility and nitrogen balance trial & growth performance trial) characterisation.

In vivo and in vitro studies on extracts of some commonly used South African medicinal plants used for metabolic dysfunction.

Project description: Worldwide, the prevalence and incidence of dietary induced metabolic disorders is increasing at an alarming rate. These disorders include diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Conventional pharmacological agents used in the management of metabolic dysfunction are expensive and generally inaccessible to poor communities.  Medicinal plants are widely used and explored as cheap therapeutic and prophylatic interventions. Unfortunately the health benefits and toxicity potential of these plants have not all be fully characterised. Consequently, there is a need to scientifically validate their efficacy and establish their safety. This study will investigate the in vitro and in vivo prophylatic/therapeutic effects of extracts (alcohol and aqueous) of some commonly used medicinal plants in South Africa.  The aerial parts of plants will be collected dried and alcohol and aqueous extracts obtained using standard methods. Standard in vitro methods (alpha amylase inhibition and alpha glucosidase inhibition) will be used to determine the anti-diabetic activity of the plants. The extracts will be screened for flavonoids, tannins and saponins. Brine shrimp nauplii will be used to the toxicity studies. Feed trials to investigate the protective effects of the extracts against high fructose-diet-induced metabolic dysfunction in growing rats will also be undertaken.

Please contact Kennedy Erlwanger ( or Eliton Chivandi ( for more information about available projects.

Biomechanics Laboratory

In the Biomechanics Lab, we are interested in how the physiology of a person results in- predicts the pattern of- or results from movement. The resulting research areas are:    

  • the physiology and biomechanics of exercise and sport
  • the physiology and biomechanics of clinical neurology
  • the relationship between the physiology and biomechanics of horse and horse rider
  • pure biomechanics

We welcome the opportunity of taking on new postgraduate students for the following projects:

  • Kinematic and electromyographic assessment of spinal excitability and reflexes (supervisors: Chloe Dafkin and Sam Kerr)
  • The effects of resistance and rugby specific training on scrumming kinematics and performance (supervisors: Warrick McKinon and Andrew Green)
  • Kinematic assessment of the relationship between horse and rider (supervisors: Sam Kerr and Warrick McKinon)
  • The effects of injury on rugby scrumming kinematics and performance (supervisors: Andrew Green and Benita Olivier)
  • The accuracy of human centre of mass measurement (supervisors: Warrick McKinon and Andrew Green)

For more information contact Warrick McKinon (, Sam Kerr ( or Chloe Dafkin (

Stress Physiology Laboratory

For more information contact Neville Pitts (