UKZN Contributes to International Study Throwing Fresh Light on the Age of the Universe

UKZN Contributes to International Study Throwing Fresh Light on the Age of the Universe
The Atacama Cosmology Telescope measures the oldest light in the universe, known as the cosmic microwave background. Using those measurements, scientists can calculate the universe’s age.

Researchers from UKZN’s Astrophysics Research Centre (ARC) have contributed to an international collaborative study* that is taking a renewed look at the oldest light in the universe, suggesting that the universe is approximately 13.77 billion years old.

Professors Matt Hilton and Kavilan Moodley from the ARC are contributors to the research led by astronomers with the United States’ National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT), perched on a mountain in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

The results obtained by an international team comprising scientists from 41 institutions in seven countries match the estimate provided by the standard model of the universe, based on measurements of this same light by the Planck satellite. This comes after a 2019 study opened up a debate on the age of the universe when their results, derived from measurements of the movement of galaxies rather than light, calculated the universe’s age to be hundreds of millions of years younger than the Planck team’s predictions and sparked concerns that one set of measurements might be incorrect, or that a new model of the universe could be needed.

Hilton touched on the disagreements between these methods of determining the age and current rate of expansion of the universe, saying that the fact that this result drawn from completely independent measurements of the oldest light in the universe found the same expansion rate provides confidence that there is not a systematic error in these types of measurements.

‘This could point to an unidentified problem with measurements of the expansion rate from observing the nearby universe, or it could be that both types of measurement are in fact correct - which would mean that there is something missing in our understanding of how the universe evolves,’ said Hilton.

The calculation of the age of the universe is linked to the rate of its expansion, a number quantified by the Hubble constant. ACT’s measurements agree almost exactly with the Hubble constant previously estimated by the Planck team, providing even more confidence in measurements of the universe’s oldest light.

Both the Planck satellite and the ACT observe cosmic microwave background (CMB), the “afterglow” of the Big Bang. To calculate the age of the universe, scientists attempt the challenging task of estimating how far light from the CMB travelled to reach Earth using cosmic geometry. Their measurements take into account subtle variations in temperature and light polarisation in the CMB’s glow, and the ACT team measured the CMB fluctuations with unprecedented resolution. Their continued observations will provide an ever-clearer picture of the CMB and a more exact idea of how long ago the cosmos began.

In their observations, scientists are also looking for signs of physics that do not match the standard cosmological model, which could resolve the disagreement between the predictions of the age and expansion rate of the universe arising from the measurements of the CMB and the motions of galaxies.

UKZN plays an essential role in this collaboration through its contribution to characterising the telescope’s on-sky response, and in providing the software used to find astrophysical sources and galaxy clusters in the ACT maps. Hippo, UKZN’s high performance computing facility, was used for some aspects of the ACT analysis. Researchers at the ARC, including a number of postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers supported by the National Research Foundation, are using South Africa’s MeerKAT and SALT telescopes to conduct follow-up studies of galaxy clusters detected in the ACT sky maps.

*S. Aiola et al. The Atacama Cosmology Telescope: DR4 maps and cosmological results. Atacama Cosmology Telescope. Posted July 15, 2020.

S.K. Choi et al. The Atacama Cosmology Telescope: A measurement of the cosmic microwave background power spectra at 98 and 150GHz. Atacama Cosmology Telescope. Posted July 15, 2020.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Debra Kellner


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Webinar Tackles the Impact of COVID-19 on the Tourism Industry

Webinar Tackles the Impact of COVID-19 on the Tourism Industry
From left: UKZN’s Professor Joram Ndlovu, Ms Ronelle Pillay, Mr John Aritho, Mr Mel Bongani Ntombela and Mr Dinesh Naidoo.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the tourism industry led UKZN’s Corporate Relations Division to host a public webinar with industry experts on the topic: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Tourism Industry and its Recovery and Strategy Going Forward.

Facilitated by UKZN’s Professor Joram Ndlovu fromthe Cultural and Heritage Tourism programme, the panellists included Mr John Aritho, Chairperson of the Durban Chamber of Commerce Tourism Forum and General Manager of the Beverly Hills Hotel; Mr Mel Bongani NtombelaDeputy Chairperson at the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry Tourism Forum and the Chairperson of INK Tourism; Mr Dinesh Naidooco-founder and Director of Serendipity Tours and president of ASATA (Association of Travel Agents South Africa); and Ms Ronelle Pillay, Revenue and Sales Manager, Tsogo Sun Hotels (KZN region).

The objective of the discussion was to gain an overview of the current situation, understand the impact of the pandemic on the sector and discuss measures to encourage tourists to visit South Africa in the future.

The panellists agreed that job losses are likely to reach about 75% by December with international borders only opening in February or March 2021. Pillay said that 22 Tsogo Sun hotels had opened since 22 June, with occupancy less than 5% but was growing. She remarked that post COVID-19, the world will be on sale and technology will continue to play a significant role when it comes to conferencing.

Ntombela noted that recent research on COVID-19’s impact on tourism businesses in townships and villages showed that 70% of businesses have retrenched employees, 30% will continue to do so if the situation persists and 13% have closed, with 58% stating that they will do so for good if the sector does not open soon.

Aritho added that smaller tourism operators and restaurants are shutting down by the day and that employers cannot afford to retain employees. He commended the government for the three-month tourism relief funds that ended in June as this enabled businesses to pay their employees, but added that he hoped government would consider extending it. Aritho said this month, most businesses would decide whether or not to shut their doors. He highlighted that three-quarters of employees in the tourism industry are female; job losses will thus affect the socio-economic fortunes and livelihoods of many families. 

With regard to the way forward, it was highlighted that domestic tourism is KwaZulu-Natal’s major tourism sub-sector. Aritho said that it is important to get this market up and running by opening up domestic travel, provided it can be controlled. He said that it helps knowing that Durban has a relatively low number of infections and that hygiene has always been the industry’s priority.

On the issue of the industry considering to cut costs, it was noted that the first resort of most companies would be to cut jobs. Naidoo said that companies with no income still have overheads to pay. Pillay added that businesses have been forced to go back to the drawing board. They need to embrace agility and consider hybrid conferencing and cyber sales.

The panellists expressed confidence that all health protocols are in place and that it is now a matter of opening borders. However, tourists and workers needed to understand that they will be returning to a very different hospitality sector.

Recent efforts include constant communication with the minister to negotiate payment for the next three months to ensure that people are paid. Aritho said that tourism is South Africa’s biggest calling card and more pressure needs to be placed on government to acknowledge this. Pillay said she was proud of the work done by Tourism KZN. The province has much more to offer other than its beaches and it is important for the industry to plan the way forward and leverage Tourism Month. Naidoo urged the province and Durban Tourism to speak with one voice and send one message to the international community.

Aritho added that the people of Durban are extremely lucky to live where they live and it is time for the industry to strategise on how they will reach their markets.

The panellists agreed that there is a need to start thinking broadly about opening borders, that there is a need for a comprehensive recovery plan and that this is an opportunity for companies and industry to rethink their strategies.

Corporate Relations Acting Executive Director, Ms Normah Zondo, thanked the panellists for taking part in the webinar and Ndlovu for facilitating the robust discussions. She said that it is clear that the province and industry need to work together to reinvent themselves and take advantage of the opportunities presented by the pandemic. ‘Stay safe, we are going to travel again, and we will do so with a great sense of consciousness and unity,’ said Zondo.

Words: Sithembile Shabangu

Photographs: Supplied


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Vision via Digitisation the Focus of Mechatronics Master’s Research

Vision via Digitisation the Focus of Mechatronics Master’s Research
Ms Ingrid Botha, UKZN master’s candidate.

Ms Ingrid Botha, a master’s candidate in Mechatronic Engineering at UKZN, is focusing her research on using integrated mechatronic systems to digitise written and printed text and transcribe the data into braille for the visually impaired.

Botha’s research investigates the viability of a wearable reading device that scans written text and transcribes it into braille, using optical character recognition and output data by way of haptic feedback to do this in real-time. This could open access to books, journals and newspapers for visually impaired people without reliance on assistance or waiting for the production of a copy of the text by braille embossing printers.

The project involves the use of novel dielectric elastomer actuators (DEA) to form the braille cell on the reader’s finger. Botha explained that this emerging technology in the field of soft robotics proposes a unique approach to actuation and sensor miniaturisation. The DEAs comprise an elastomer layer sandwiched between two flexible electrodes to which voltage is applied to create a force of attraction, resulting in a reduction of elastomer thickness that results in a proportional expansion of area.

Initially setting out to improve accessibility for blind and visually impaired people in the industrial workplace, Botha became aware of the challenges faced by this group of people in accessing quality education, with many schools for the blind in South Africa lacking resources such as textbooks published in braille or Perkins braille typewriters for students to use to take notes in class.

Understanding the correlation between access to quality education and employment, and given that 97% of blind or visually impaired individuals in South Africa are unemployed, Botha considered how she could use her studies to target the global problem of accessible braille transcribed textbooks for the visually impaired. She hopes this will improve the availability of information and the quality of education, and enable visually impaired or blind students to complete their schooling and access opportunities to contribute to society.

Botha, who completed her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering at UKZN, was drawn to engineering by her drive to understand the workings behind scientific and engineering phenomena. Laboratory work and her final-year design project were highlights, giving her valuable practical experience and demonstrating the real-world results she could achieve through her education. After completing her master’s, Botha hopes to pursue a career in academia, saying she finds teaching a rewarding pursuit.

Outside of her studies, Botha is a passionate equestrian, horses having been her passion since childhood, and she spends her weekends coaching young riders at Redwoods Riding Centre. She describes the animals’ wisdom, gentle nature and courage as a source of inspiration for the person she has become.

Botha also gave credit to her parents for encouraging her to believe that nothing is out of reach if she strives for it, and for encouraging her to pursue a career in Engineering despite it being a male-dominated industry.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied


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Team UKZN are the 2020 Enactus South Africa National Champions!

Team UKZN are the 2020 Enactus South Africa National Champions!
Enactus UKZN scooped top honours at the Enactus South Africa National Championships.

UKZN Enactus took top honours at the annual Enactus South Africa competition, held virtually due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, and will go on to compete against 36 other countries at the 2020 Enactus World Cup in September.

Enactus UKZN President, Mr Muhle Ndwalane said the team is thrilled at being crowned the national champions. ‘It is who we are, we always strive for victory. What makes it even greater is that it is confirmation that we have effectively used the spirit of entrepreneurship to respond to socio-economic challenges by developing effective solutions that positively impact the lives of beneficiaries in our communities,’ said Ndwalane.

‘The excitement is real, but what matters most is the work we did, the passion and drive we put in to make a difference even when at times the odds were against us,’ he added.

Ndwalane believes that Enactus UKZN’s culture of excellence and discipline set their team apart from other finalists. ‘We have a mind for business and a heart for communities. We were also voted the Most Passionate Team, and our passion shows in our work. We capitalise on support and guidance from our alumni, business advisors and UKZN staff members.’

The team pitched their 2019/2020 flagship projects SmartGro and Ubuntu Social Enterprise at the virtual competition held last week.

SmartGro is a social tech start-up responding to the pressing needs brought about by COVID-19. ‘We developed a web-based application allowing customers to order their groceries and other essentials online and have them delivered to the comfort and safety of their homes. We have been operating in and around the Durban CBD and surrounding areas. We will now start to focus on serving our student community,’ said Buthelezi, who holds a BCom in Information Systems and Technology from UKZN.

Ubuntu is a social enterprise that uses entrepreneurial leadership to respond to South Africa’s fundamental challenges of poverty, unemployment and equality, through the development of sustainable co-operative businesses. ‘We have introduced our co-op farmers to the possibilities of drone technology in agriculture. We also developed UbuntuHub a digital platform for business development. The focus has been in the community of Mbumbulu in partnership with Asikhule Co-operative Development Corporation,’ she added.

This is the sixth national championship Team UKZN has secured since the inception of the organisation in 2003. Holding the competition during a global pandemic presented new challenges to the team of highly committed and goal-driven students. ‘This came with a lot of challenges as our work requires us to physically go to our communities to empathise and understand the socio-economic challenges we will be addressing,’ said Ndwalane, who is currently doing a Postgraduate Diploma in Local Economic Development at the University. ‘Our team members all had to leave campus and were scattered all over the country. We couldn’t access any of our financial and logistic resources. Despite that, our lean and agile strategic abilities enabled us to fully utilise technology to stay connected as a team and with our beneficiaries,’ he said.

Ndwalane thanked the University for backing the team in the run-up to the competition. ‘UKZN supported us with a licensed Zoom account for our meetings and preparations. When the competition came, we were already geared up and ready to win.’

Acting Executive Director of Corporate Relations Ms Normah Zondo congratulated the team for taking first place in South Africa and for living up to the “Inspiring greatness” ethos of the University. She wished Team UKZN Enactus well in the upcoming World Cup and ongoing success with all their projects.

The Durban University of Technology team took second place in the national competition, followed by the University of Venda and Vaal University of Technology.

Apart from the Enactus South Africa 2020 Championship title, Enactus UKZN won nine awards in various categories, including from Harmony Gold, Nedbank, MTN and the Ford Fund Company. ‘Our Head of Research and Development Luyanda Sokhela won the WM de Wet Leadership Potential award which recognises an Enactus student that has demonstrated the most leadership potential,’ said Ndwalane.

Ndwalane also acknowledged Alumni Network member Mr Skhulile Ndlovu who won the Alumni of The Year Under 30 Award which recognises an Enactus alumnus who has best exhibited positive engagement with the team that yielded positive results.

Enactus UKZN is working on a number of different projects – to read more, click here: https://enactus.ukzn.ac.za/projects-profile/

To collaborate with the team, feel free to contact them on muhle.enactusukzn@gmail.com

Here’s an eNCA interview with Enactus UKZN President Mr Muhle Ndwalane: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpKoNevgW6g

*Enactus is an international student organisation committed to using the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a more sustainable world.

Words: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer

Photograph: Supplied


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UKZN Alumni Pioneer Detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in Sewage

UKZN Alumni Pioneer Detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in Sewage
Dr Cara-Lesley Bartlett (left) and Dr Shaun Groenink.Click here for isiZulu version

GreenHill Laboratories in Hilton, KwaZulu-Natal, where South Africa’s first case of COVID-19 was detected, is the first contract laboratory in Africa to extract and detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA from sewage, a feat accomplished in early June as part of a full-service virus risk forensic programme, and involving the work of three UKZN alumni.

The Proof of Concept delivered by GreenHill Laboratories involved collaborative work with Professor Anthony Turton of the University of the Free State and Amanzi-4-All, co-ordinated by Mr Neil Madgwick of Praecautio, with sampling undertaken by Mr Kevin Lindsay of Instru-Serve, and instrumental sponsorship of the trial from the Impuma Group through Amanzi-4-All.

Working with samples taken under strict conditions from wastewater treatment plants in Gauteng, GreenHill Laboratories director Dr Shaun Groenink oversaw the processing and analysis of the samples by principal Molecular Biologist Dr Cara-Lesley Bartlett. They used protocols published by the Dutch KWR Water Research Institute and the USA’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention to extract and identify the viral RNA, applying polymerase chain reaction in the detection process.

Detectable levels of viral RNA were picked up in three of the five samples and procedures were developed to enhance the sensitivity of the test. The Proof of Concept they developed demonstrated that COVID-19 can be detected in wastewater; South Africa has the capability for this testing; statistically relevant sampling and timeous delivery to the laboratory are possible; and existing protocols and kits can be used without the need to develop new ones.

The team said that using the Proof of Concept to develop additional parameters could enable community-wide viral load to be monitored in order to assess whether or not various mitigation strategies are working, and this service can now be scaled up and offered to both the public and private sectors.

Interest has been expressed in this technology by a range of role players in North America, Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia and the South African government.

These sampling and testing capabilities could play an important role in providing robust information to both government and private sector decision-makers in their efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus while reopening the economy. They will assist in assessing the true extent of SARS-CoV-2 infections, especially as more testing is done and the national database grows, and in predicting and monitoring potential COVID-19 hotspots to focus interventions.

The laboratory will continue to develop and refine these protocols and expand on their scope and application. They say rapid deployment of this kind of sampling and testing across all sectors of society is key to limiting the pandemic’s effects.

Madgwick, Groenink and Bartlett all graduated from UKZN; Madgwick with his BScAgric in Microbiology, Groenink with his undergraduate and honours degrees in Biochemistry, his Master’s in Animal Sciences and his PhD in Biochemistry, and Bartlett with her undergraduate, Honours and Master’s degrees in Biochemistry. She obtained her PhD in Internal Medicine from Stellenbosch University.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied


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Law Postdoc Awarded a Place in the Top 50 Women in Cybersecurity in Africa

Law Postdoc Awarded a Place in the Top 50 Women in Cybersecurity in Africa
Dr Trishana Ramluckan, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Law.Click here for isiZulu version

Dr Trishana Ramluckan, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Law, was honoured for her research by her inclusion in the inaugural Top 50 Women in Cybersecurity in Africa awards, announced at the online quarterly cyber security conference Quartercon.

The awards were to be announced in March; however, the ceremony was delayed and eventually moved online. According to the awards invitation, ‘this list recognises women in cybersecurity in Africa in 2019/20, who have made significant contributions to advance the industry, and are shaping the path for future generations of professionals among other vital contributions.’

The awards were sponsored by Cyber in Africa, a cybersecurity media company based in Nairobi, and WISECRA (Women in Security and Resilience Alliance), an international organisation promoting security-related careers for women, including cybersecurity. There were over 300 nominations for the 50 places, with the nominees representing a variety of professional levels and sectors across seven African countries.

Ramluckan was nominated for her research in governance and international law related to cybersecurity.

She has presented at numerous academic and professional conferences both internationally and locally, some with international collaboration. She also has multiple journal articles published or in press focusing on the international cyber law related to a South African context. This is a particularly pertinent topic as South Africa has seen a significant rise in the number of cyber-attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and globally the number of state-sponsored cyber-attacks is increasing. This year there have been reports of cyber-espionage on medical research facilities working on COVID-19 vaccines and cyber-attacks between Iran and Israel, with Australia falling victim to state-backed cyber-attacks.

Words: NdabaOnline

Photograph: Supplied


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Graduate Employer Association’s Research Reveals UKZN Among the Best for Student Career Development

Graduate Employer Association’s Research Reveals UKZN Among the Best for Student Career Development
Students at previous career fairs held by the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.Click here for isiZulu version

The South African Graduate Employers Association (SAGEA) recently conducted an employer benchmarking exercise and its research summary revealed that according to industry, UKZN is among the top 10 universities in South Africa when it comes to its career fairs and Career Development Services. SAGEA will announce the top three universities in these categories later this year.

The research summary comprised feedback from 79 employer organisations across a wide range of industries, many of whom engage with universities to hire graduates to join leadership development programmes, recruit graduates for entry-level positions, and hire graduates with in-demand or technical skills.

The College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES), which provides training and degrees in many of the areas in demand by employers surveyed by SAGEA, hosts annual career fairs for students in the College and beyond. At the events on the Pietermaritzburg, Westville and Howard College campuses, students meet with representatives of a variety of companies and organisations who are actively recruiting or have programmes targeted at developing graduates through bursaries, internships or leadership programmes. Students also gain insight into the careers their degrees could lead them into.

Career fairs are always well-attended by students and receive strong support from industry. Feedback from companies like the South African National Space Agency (SANSA), OVC Work Study Travel, Citrus Academy, and SAS Institute consistently notes the positive engagement companies receive from well-informed students, the helpfulness of student and staff assistants, and the well-organised and smooth running of the events.

Student attendees have noted the positive interaction with industry that has introduced them to alumni who have followed similar study and career trajectories, yielded interview and job application tips, and informed them of available opportunities and career paths.

In addition to hosting career fairs, the CAES also prioritises the provision of various forms of support for its students during their studies and as they begin to plan their steps into their chosen professions. The College’s Student Support Services not only provides counselling for personal and emotional challenges faced by students, but academic support in the form of study skills and time management workshops.

Students are able to book sessions with the CAES career development officer, and can access tools on the website to improve CV writing, boost interview and presentation skills, provide career assessment information, and view videos and posters about career choices.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the CAES has tailored its support to students in their career development to allow for online engagement, offering online life skills workshops, online counselling sessions, online support groups and more.

Partnering with SAGEA, the CAES will also participate in the VirtualGradExpo since career fairs cannot take place physically this year. Scheduled over three days on 21 July, 29 July and 13 August with the participation of more than 20 tertiary institutions, the first of these days will focus on careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Students can register for the event online.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied


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CCMS Receives Generous Laptop Sponsorship for Postgraduate Remote Teaching

CCMS Receives Generous Laptop Sponsorship for Postgraduate Remote Teaching
Some of the CCMS honours students with their new laptops.Click here for isiZulu version

The Centre for Communication, Media and Society (CCMS) within the School of Applied Human Sciences proudly distributed sponsored laptops with bags to their 2020 honours cohort recently.

The generous sponsorship from telecommunications company RewardsCo comes at a critical time when the University has transitioned from residential to remote teaching to cater for the safety and wellbeing of staff and students.

Academic Leader of CCMS Professor Eliza Govender, highlighted that ‘the CCMS staff worked tirelessly to prepare for remote teaching, but this generous grant from RewardsCo has created an enabling learning experience for students to study remotely.’

CCMS honours student Ms Minenhle Mnguni said, ‘I couldn’t do my assignments and sometimes my cellphone wouldn’t allow me to download documents from Moodle because of space, but today I am able to do my assignment without being inconvenienced. Receiving a laptop really brought hope and renewed my spirit of studying. We can never show enough gratitude to the CCMS staff and our sponsors for blessing us with these laptops.’

Mr Simphiwe Mabona added, ‘It has been a tough academic year for me as a student, since universities transitioned to online learning. I did not own a laptop and online learning became impossible. I would like to thank Professor Eliza Govender and the CCMS team for doing their best in saving our academic year. It is up to us now to do the rest and use this opportunity very wisely.’

Managing Director of RewardsCo, Mr Dylan Koen said, ‘RewardsCo believes in creating brighter futures for all. We are delighted to know that our donation to UKZN has equipped students with the tools and opportunities to learn, grow and prosper within their chosen careers. Education is the cornerstone of a better South Africa, and we see the value of investing in this sector to help grow our nation.’

The UKZN Foundation is also grateful for the continued support from RewardsCo. Director of the Foundation Professor Anesh Singh said, ‘Due to their generosity, 18 students were given the opportunity to complete their studies during these trying times. This donation helps us achieve greatness at UKZN.’

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photographs: Supplied


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Maths PhD Candidate Participates in Prestigious MIT Workshop

Maths PhD Candidate Participates in Prestigious MIT Workshop
PhD candidate in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science, Ms Maurine Songa.

Ms Maurine Atieno Songa, a PhD candidate in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science participated in a virtual conference run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the topic of Applied Category Theory (ACT).

During Songa’s master’s studies, she became interested in the field of Category Theory, the study of how objects relate to one another, and its real-world applications after her supervisor, Dr Gareth Amery, introduced the idea. In the course of her research, she discovered a thriving community of applied category theorists. Wanting to learn more about the general tools of Category Theory for her research, and explore potential collaborations, Songa applied to MIT’s ACT Conference.

Participating students from around the world prepared for this event from March onwards, as organisers regularly released preliminary papers for participants to read, discuss and present on during biweekly online seminars. The five-day conference in July, intended to be held at MIT but moved to an online event due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, was preceded by a research week in which participants worked together in different areas of ACT to resolve various problems, receiving guidance and advice from ACT experts and teaching assistants (TAs).

‘The research week was highly intense, but I learnt a lot from our advisor, the TA and my three group members,’ said Songa. ‘They were helpful in expanding my understanding as I am new to Category Theory, and we have formed friendships and a great network.’

In the subsequent conference, students and advisors presented what they learnt and new discoveries made, with the goal being for different groups to continue collaborating on various projects. Songa said it was good to meet the larger ACT network.

Songa completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, followed by a postgraduate diploma at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences and a master’s at UKZN on the topic of categorical systems biology. She is conducting PhD research exploring the use of causal-set theory to unify notions of gravity and the quantum realm under the supervision of Amery and Professor Dharmanand Baboolal.

Songa said Amery and Baboolal led her to consider how gravity and the quantum realm connect. She chose to continue PhD studies in South Africa, and opted for UKZN’s Discipline of Mathematics because of its welcoming and focused environment.

‘This research has been interesting as it is the perfect blend between topology and quantum gravity, and I hope this project advances the knowledge base of the fundamental Mathematics required to develop the causal set approach to quantum gravity,’ she said.

Songa is applying Category Theory to investigate properties of the category of interval domains that make it an ideal method to describe and understand spacetime. Based on the literature that suggests a strong connection between domain theory, or the study of partially ordered sets, and general relativity, she hopes her research will answer questions concerning the uniqueness of manifolds that approximate causal sets.

Songa also hopes her research will contribute to developing research capacity in the scarce skill areas of pure mathematics and gravitational theories, an important interface given Africa’s increasing investment in observational cosmology and astrophysics.

Songa plans to carve out a career in academia, hoping to use her expertise not only to produce new knowledge, but also to inspire an up-and-coming generation of young researchers in Africa, particularly women, to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied


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MCom Graduate Debuts at International Conference

MCom Graduate Debuts at International Conference
Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches (left) and Ms Ayanda Makhaye presented a paper at the 26th Conference of the International Association People-Environment Studies.

Ms Ayanda Makhaye, a Master of Commerce in Leadership Studies graduate of the Graduate School of Business and Leadership (GSB&L), and the supervisor of her master’s research project, Professor Cecile Gerwel Proches, attended their first virtual conference and presented a paper at the 26th Conference of the International Association People-Environment Studies (IAPS), which was meant to be held in Quebec City, Canada.

The IAPS is a gathering of researchers, experts and specialists in the field of people-environment studies as well as built environment.

Their joint paper titled: Bridging the Urban-Rural Gap in Facilitating Local Economic Development (LED): The Case Study of a District Municipality in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, was based on Makhaye’s master’s study. It highlighted the skewed levels of economic development within the district and its commitment to promoting LED. The challenges include poor prioritisation of rural areas, high levels of inequality and limited funding for LED, as well as gaps in LED planning and resource provision between urban and rural municipalities.

Recommendations include the need to support and empower rural municipalities to play a more critical role in facilitating LED within their localities; on-going interaction among all LED stakeholders; and resource sharing to enable smaller and rural municipalities to effectively approach LED planning and facilitation. The district municipality also needs to improve basic service delivery and resource provision, especially in more rural areas to enable access to opportunities, while traditional leaders need to be motivated to assist with LED facilitation. Finally, increased funding is required for LED and skills development and mentorship, the development of rural development strategies and the promotion of collaborative governance.

Makhaye said that the first day of the conference was of major interest to her as it featured the Young Researchers Workshop involving presentations on sustainability, restorative environments and caring for the elderly. ‘I found the constructive feedback given to young researchers useful as I’m currently working on attaining my PhD in the School of Management, Information Technology and Governance,’ she said.

She described the virtual conference as a great learning experience: ‘I particularly enjoyed the intensive paper sessions, finding out what researchers in other parts of the world are researching and the methods utilised. It was exciting to see how similar challenges faced by the various countries in different regions are being tackled and what recommendations are proposed.’

Makhaye presented their paper in a session on revitalisation of precarious environments and received valuable feedback through the discussions. The session chair, Professor Denise Piché from Université Laval in Quebec, Canada, commended Makhaye for her presentation and work.

Gerwel Proches said she felt extremely proud to see Makhaye presenting her master’s research at an international conference and in so doing, also showcasing UKZN and South Africa. ‘It was great to see how her work was warmly received by an international audience - the appreciation from the Session Chair was most welcome, especially when she acknowledged how critical Local Economic Development is,’ she added.

Makhaye is the Managing Director of Bantu Developments and Consulting, a consulting company that she established in 2017. 

Words: Hazel Langa

Photographs: Supplied


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Decolonising of the Curriculum Using Anthropology

Decolonising of the Curriculum Using Anthropology
Dr Nompumelelo Zodwa Radebe, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of South Africa.

The Culture Cluster in the School of Social Sciences hosted an online workshop on Decolonising of the curriculum using Anthropology as a model presented by Dr Nompumelelo Zodwa Radebe, a lecturer at the University of South Africa in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology.

Radebe focused on teaching that draws from her culture, leading to exposure of a Zulu way of knowing. ‘I come from a culture that believes it takes a village to raise a child; in this sense, every child that is close to me is my child. A mother, in my culture, is tasked with the responsibility to teach because education is a basis for responsible and responsive citizens,’ she said. ‘In this context, education is not just a right that you can choose but mandatory. As such, teaching is not my profession and passion, but an obligation to ensure that our future has properly educated citizens who will be responsible and responsive.’

She noted that the decolonisation project is multifaceted and that decolonisation requires decolonised bodies, ‘It is a matter of life and death. It is refusing to die, to participate in our erasure. It is an obligation to take the responsibility of teaching our children,’ argued Radebe.

Academic Leader for the Culture Cluster in the School Dr Maserole Kgari-Masondo said, ‘Decolonisation is key in curriculum transformation and it is important to keep workshopping ourselves so we ensure that our curricula are on par with what our society entails - different knowledge. We cannot continue focusing on one-sided knowledge (western); other epistemologies must be embraced in our teaching. We should continue to look at the practicalities of implementing decolonisation in our course outlines and how to teach it.’

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photograph: Supplied


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Teacher Well-Being: Coping Mechanisms to Deal with the Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Teacher Well-Being: Coping Mechanisms to Deal with the Consequences of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Top from left: Professor Anja Philipp, Professor Lesley Wood and Mrs Miriam Arnold. Bottom from left: Dr Rebecca Collie, Mr Ndabenhle Terry Mdluli and Ms Nompumelelo Nzimande.

The College of Humanities recently hosted a public webinar series on the topic of Teacher well-being: Coping mechanisms to deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It featured Professor Lesley Wood (North West University), Mrs Miriam Arnold (Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research, Germany), Dr Rebecca Collie (University of New South Wales, Australia), Mr Ndabenhle Terry Mdluli (School Principal) and Ms Nompumelelo Nzimande (Primary School Teacher), and was chaired by Professor Anja Philipp (UKZN).

The webinar brought together the experiences of teachers and principals from South African schools and the expertise of national and international researchers to discuss the new challenges confronting teachers under COVID-19 and how this affects their well-being.

‘Teacher well-being has been the focus of attention in research for decades, and several factors have been identified that influence it. Under conditions of COVID-19, teachers suddenly faced a novel set of challenges. The work of teachers has changed tremendously to accommodate remote teaching while gradually moving back to contact teaching,’ said Philipp.

The webinar also examined resources to support teachers to manage the effects of COVID-19 on their well-being as well as coping mechanisms they can engage in to manage the current situation.

Collie discussed some of the challenges imposed by COVID-19 on teachers and the impact these are having on their well-being. Based on her research, she examined strategies that teachers can use to help navigate these challenging times while discussing research on strategies that schools can adopt to support and sustain teachers’ well-being during COVID-19 (and beyond).

Wood’s presentation proceeded from the view that teachers are the heart of the school, and if teacher wellness is at a low level, the whole school is impacted negatively. ‘However, conditions in many rural and township school in South Africa (eg, poor infrastructure, a lack of resources, overcrowded classrooms, learner violence, poverty-related social problems) could be the root cause of teacher distress. Teacher wellness, even pre-COVID, seems to be at an all-time low in under-resourced schools in South Africa,’ said Wood.

She suggested ‘that the crisis we are now facing may be an opportune time to instigate school-wide, sustainable practices to reduce social injustices in schools, thereby improving teacher wellness in the process.’

According to Arnold, when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Germany in March, the country went into lockdown where schools closed, leading to remote teaching. ‘Teachers and school principals had to adapt quickly to the new circumstances and to develop strategies for remote teaching,’ she added.

Arnold discussed the preliminary results of a survey of 288 teachers and principals in Germany between April and June to understand the situation at schools during COVID-19 restrictions. She found that support and positive leadership behaviour by school principals during the pandemic is important while high awareness among principals of the health of the teachers at their school also reduces emotional exhaustion.

‘When teachers feel confident with their competence to conduct digital lessons, they are more engaged. On the other hand, when the school offers support for digital teaching, this does not affect teachers’ work engagement, but does reduce their emotional exhaustion,’ said Arnold.

Mdluli looked at theautobiographical reflections of a school principal’s experiences of being at the coalface of school reopening within the COVID-19 context. He noted that basic education is one of the areas that have faced the wrath of the novel coronavirus and focused, among other things, on areas such as remote teaching and learning, teacher emotionality, safety and regulations in schools, school infrastructure, and learner and teacher well-being.

‘The weight of our past still weighs heavily on the shoulders of many teachers, parents and learners. These deep fissures of our history and their interplay with the other novel COVID-19 challenges have far-reaching consequences for teacher well-being,’ said Mdluli. ‘For teachers to safeguard their well-being, they need to regulate their coping mechanisms in the right way to avoid possible adverse effects. The outbreak of COVID-19 has not only been a public health crisis; but also a grave psychosocial issue for teachers in schools.’

Nzimande shared her personal experiences of remote learning and contact teaching, particularly how accommodating it is for learners and the challenges that arise. She reflected on the backgrounds of her learners; her own experiences regarding the change associated with COVID-19; the standard operating procedures within the school environment and her well-being; available resources and overall coping strategies to ensure fair distribution of learning.

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photographs: Supplied


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