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Research in the Faculty of Science

As a leading faculty of science in South Africa, the Faculty of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand carries out research in the mathematical, physical, biological and earth sciences. This broad scope of research activities ranges from the fundamental to the more applied, and from the theoretical to the experimental, with some of its activities interfacing with other Faculties. 

The Faculty’s research has considerable international impact, and in 2013, chemistry, physics, geosciences, plant and animal science, and environment/ecology ranked in the top 1% from institutions worldwide based on an analysis of citations to our work. Faculty researchers collaborate with top international institutions. Several researchers are members of large multi-national collaborations, including the ATLAS Collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, and the HESS collaboration in high energy astrophysics.

The Faculty has 112 NRF-rated academics, with 15 having obtained a rating for the first time in 2013. The Faculty hosts six DST/NRF South African Research Chairs, and plays a leading role in the Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials and in the National Institute for Theoretical Physics. The University will host the Centre of Excellence in the Mathematical and Statistical Sciences from August 2014.  The Faculty hosted 52 full time postdoctoral fellows, who were supported by a variety of sources, including the URC, the Claude Leon Foundation, industrial partners and many NRF-derived programmes.

2013 was an excellent research year, with the Faculty contributing 339 subsidy-earning units. If slightly less than the record-breaking 351 units of 2012, this was accompanied by an outstanding growth in the number of completed postgraduate research degrees: 72 PhDs (41 in 2011 and 50 in 2012) and 92 MScs by dissertation (83 in 2011 and the same in 2012). 

Research Achievements

The selection presented below is an example of the achievements in the Faculty.  It is by no means exhaustive, given the scope and depth of the research carried out in the Faculty.

Professor Marcus Byrne of the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences (AP&ES) and colleagues from Sweden were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for their work on dung beetles.

Professor Mary Scholes (AP&ES) co-authored a paper in Science which describes how the productivity of many lands has been dramatically reduced as a result of soil erosion, accumulation of salinity, and nutrient depletion. 

Professor Stefan Weiss of the School of Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) and his team, including researchers from the Faculty of Health Sciences and a German company focussing on therapeutic antibodies, achieved a breakthrough in the field of Alzheimer’s disease. Two back-to-back manuscripts were published in the online journal, Scientific Reports. 

Together with Professor Robin Veale (MCB), colleagues from the Faculty of Health Sciences and collaborators from Germany, Weiss also published three articles on therapeutic tools for the treatment of metastatic cancer types in the online journal, PLOS One.

Professor Dave Billing of the School of Chemistry was one of the guest editors of a special issue of the journal, Acta Crystallographica B.

Wits signed an agreement with the South African Environmental Observation Network to formalise the collaboration between the two entities. The driver of this initiative is Professor Christopher Curtis of the AP&ES and the Wits Rural Facility.

Professors Jasper Knight and Stefan Grab (GAES) announced in a paper in Geomorphology that lightning can act as a shaper of mountains. The news story, which was featured in local and international print and radio media, reached an estimated 1.6 million people.

Professor Lewis Ashwal of the School of Geosciences and colleagues from Scandinavia and Europe co-authored a provocative paper in Nature Geoscience, suggesting that there might be ancient continental crust under the young basaltic lavas of Mauritius. The paper was publicised worldwide, receiving over 1.6 million hits on the BBC website on the first day.

A team of South African geologists and astronomers, including Professor David Block of the School of Geosciences and NECSA, reported the first evidence of a comet fragment found on earth. The story of the fragment from the Egyptian desert reached an estimated 42 million people around the globe.  

Southern Namibia has been singled out as the best candidate site to host the world’s largest gamma-ray telescope, the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA). Astrophysicists in the School of Physics, led by Professor Sergio Colafrancesco, are formally involved as major partners in this bid. Should it be successful, southern Africa will be the largest platform for multi-frequency astronomy, hosting telescopes in gamma rays (CTA), optical waves (South African Astronomical Observatory) and radio waves (SKA), all within a 500km radius, a unique occurrence in the world.

Trevor Derry and Mervin Naidoo of the School of Physics, and collaborators from NMMU, carried out the first successful cross-sectional transmission electron microscopy study of low-energy ion implanted and annealed diamond.

Professor Bruce Mellado’s group in the School of Physics produced the first hardware designs that South Africa has contributed to CERN. 

Research Entities

At the end of 2013, there were 12 URC- and FRC-recognised research entities in the Faculty.  

The Rock Art Research Institute (RARI), now led by Professor David Pearce (GAES), won the prestigious National Heritage Council Golden Shield Award for Academic Excellence in 2013. The award recognises an academic institution that has programmes that promote knowledge production in heritage, but more particularly, it recognises research excellence. 

Dr Sam Challis of RARI was awarded the Journal of Southern African Studies Terence Ranger Prize for best article in 2012.

Professor Somnath Bhattacharyya of the Materials Physics Research Institute co-hosted an international workshop on nanocarbon with the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Strong Materials.

Director of the Protein Structure-Function Research Unit, Professor Heini Dirr, and David Balchin and Stoyan Stochev of the School of MCB, developed and utilised a new hydrogen-exchange mass spectrometry based technique to study the hGST P1-1 enzyme, the first of its kind internationally. 

The Centre for Theoretical Physics, jointly with the National Institute for Theoretical Physics, organised the Fourth International Joburg Workshop on String Theory. The chairman of the organising committee was Professor Robert de Mello Koch.

The Centre for Differential Equations, Continuum Mechanics and Applications had an exceptionally productive year, with its members authoring or co-authoring close to 60 ISI publications. 

Honours and Awards 

School of Chemistry, received a Special Recognition Award for being a Champion of Research Capacity Development in the South African higher education sector. The award is in recognition of individuals within the research community who contribute to the transformation of South Africa’s community and landscape, as measured by the number of students trained, as well as the quality and impact of research outputs of the students. 

School of Chemistry was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa.  

Fellowships of the South African Chemical Institute were conferred on Coville and Professors Jo Michael and Helder Marques.

Professor Jacky Galpin and Sulaiman Salau of the School of Statistics and Actuarial Science (STAS) were re-elected to the Statistics Council of South Africa, two of only six academically related statisticians in the Council.

Professor Roseanne da Silva (STAS) was elected President-Elect of the Actuarial Society, and Mark Hayes and Megan Butler (STAS) received Research Awards at the 2013 Actuarial Convention. 

Professor Judith Kinnaird, director of the Economic Geology Research Institute, was elected President-Elect of the Society of Economic Geologists.

Dr Musa Manzi won the Society of Exploration Geophysicists prize for Best Paper in 2012. 

Professor Sergio Colafrancesco has been appointed as a member of the NRF’s inaugural Astronomy Advisory Council, which will oversee and advise the NRF’s Astronomy sub-Agency.

Wits physicists continue to play leading roles in the South African participation in the LHC and ATLAS, and in the collaboration itself. Professor Bruce Mellado was appointed Member of the LHeC Coordination Group, and Co-convener of Detector Design at the LHeC. He was co-convener of the ATLAS Jet sub-group of the Higgs cross-section group. The first evidence from ATLAS for direct Higgs boson couplings to leptons was obtained by an ATLAS subgroup during the convenership of Dr Trevor Vickey.

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