Lectures that open the ivory tower up to public understanding

The articles on these pages are edited extracts from a new University of Cape Town publication titled Inaugural Lectures 2012, a booklet edited by Helen Swingler of the university's newsroom and publications unit.

Writers Morgan Morris and Myolisi Gophe are former members of the unit.

Inaugural lectures are a central part of university academic life, the booklet says. They commemorate the inaugural lecturer’s appointment to full professorship, and provide a platform for each lecturer to present the body of research that has been the focus of his or her career. 

The lectures are open to members of the university community and the public.

For more on a particular lecture, visit mg.co.za/ 0507inaugural

 

An evolved approach to a perfect teaching method

There is much to learn about student learning, said Professor Jenni Case when delivering her inaugural lecture in August — Every Generation Has Its Struggle: A Critical Realist Perspective on Student Learning in Contemporary South Africa. 

That applies to her as well, said Case — despite her 15 years in student learning and engineering education, her position as assistant dean for academic development in UCT's faculty of engineering and the built environment, and her reputation as in-house authority on academic development in the department of chemical engineering.

But she said she's picked up a trick or two over the years. She has learnt, for example, that to understand the whole process of learning, she would need to embrace not only a traditional scientific approach to enquiry (Aristotle's episteme) but also an exploration of craft (techne) and wisdom (phronesis).

In evolving her approach, she has now adopted the school of "critical realism" as her underlying research philosophy. This is a school of thought that explores the interaction between structure (the world of material resources, positions and institutions, such as universities) and agency (the world of human intention and action, such as the choices that students make).

For a long time researchers have been working either at the level of the actual or only on the subjective experiences of the students. The time has come to change tack, Case said.

"If we want to generate insights that can help us understand the situation we are in, and identify what we need to do to get to a different place, we need to go to the level of the real."

For Case, that has meant going to classes with her students, attending tutorials and writing tests with them. 

Drawing on the work of British sociologist Margaret Archer, Case said that student agency has become paramount in student development.

"In the arena of student learning research, we are centrally focused on the development of student agency; we aim for students to leave higher education with different knowledge and capacity for action to that with which they entered."

But there's a tightrope that has to be walked. "Privileging considerations of agency, we focus only on students and their choice of, for example, an approach to learning. Privileging structure [produces] accounts that search for the holy grail of the perfect teaching method."

The reality, said Case, is that the observed student learning outcomes for the undergraduate degree in chemical engineering are no "matter of historical accident". Almost by design, the course only graduates two-thirds of its intake, and these graduates go on to successful careers. 

"The role of the undergraduate programme in students' development seems limited to learning to work hard and survive," she said. 

There are a number of problems with this position, not least of which that it takes the current outcomes of the programme for granted. 

Instead, there is a need for a university programme "with a significantly enlarged space for the development of student agency".

On that front, some progress has been made on the degree programme, she said. But only so much academic development can be done within the programme structure. 

As a result, for the past four years she and colleagues have been designing a new undergraduate curriculum that will include a "coherent strand of project work", running for the duration of the degree programme, regular assessment and "bootcamps" — both to help students to catch up in the middle of the year and later to help them to prepare for exams. – Morgan Morris

Still much to learn about HIV

There's talk of "HIV fatigue", of a public that has grown tired of statistics and stories and politics around the disease. 

But Professor Carolyn Williamson, head of the division of medical virology in UCT's Institute for Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, and of the National Health Laboratory Service, illustrated in her inaugural lecture in May that HIV can still make for gripping listening.

In her lecture, HIV: Surviving Under Immense Pressure, Williamson took the audience on a journey through what she termed "the greatest viral epidemic of the current time".

Firstly, she tracked the origins and the spread of the virus in South Africa. She also spoke of the "pressures" she and her team of researchers have encountered in their 20 years of research into HIV.

These included political worries, such as when former president Thabo Mbeki's government appointed a panel to seek "other solutions". 

This while the rest of the world was celebrating the discovery of new drugs that could treat HIV and evidence was surfacing that mother-to-child transmissions could either be curbed or prevented through the use of those drugs.

Williamson was part of that presidential panel, and described the time as "one of the darkest periods of recent South African history".

"It was a bizarre experience. It was like living in an alternative universe, and one that had extreme repercussions for the country."

She reported that it was subsequently estimated that nearly one-third of a million people died as a result of delays in introducing antiretroviral therapy.

There were pressures in the laboratory too, as scientists struggled to find a vaccine that everybody seemed to be expecting imminently. Williamson described finding a solution to HIV as her "true passion in life", particularly her attempts to understand the progression from infection to full-blown disease, and using this work to help to develop an effective vaccine against the virus.

Questions arose about whether that progression was the same in HIV-positive people in Africa as it was among those in Europe, about how people control the virus and about why people progress at different rates.

The findings were complicated, she said. For instance, a study in KwaZulu-Natal by the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa found that roughly 25% of HIV-positive people would need therapy within a year of their infection, based on current guidelines. About 14% of the others  were able to control their virus to low levels, thus extending their life expectancy.

The individual's genes and immune system are important to the control of HIV, said Williamson. 

"If the virus escapes from the immune system, it's bad news; but if it escapes in a region that affects viral fitness, or you have a good immune response which prevents it from escaping, then the person is better off."

But despite the many advances, there is still a vast amount to be learnt about HIV and Aids, she said.

"The truth is, despite 20 years of intense research, we don't understand all the reasons why people are slow or fast progressors."

To Williamson's mind, vaccines are the best weapons to control HIV. One candidate vaccine — the locally developed DNA/MVA, made up of a prime vaccine followed by a booster vaccine — is undergoing trials both in South Africa and in the US. – Myolisi Gophe
 

In nanotechnology development, following is not an option – you have to forge new paths

"Innovation" is a buzzword that industry gurus and consultants like to bandy about. David Britton, founding director of the NanoSciences Innovation Centre and a professor in UCT's department of physics, adopted the word as a maxim — one that he's had to apply.

If you want to keep up with developments in nanotechnology, you have very little choice but to lead rather than follow, Britton said in his inaugural lecture, Nanoscience, Nanotechnology and Nanovation, delivered in October. 

"Nanoscience" is the basic and applied research into nanostructured materials and nanoscale processes — think of structures on the atomic and molecular scale, where you need specialised microscopes to see what you're working with. By comparison, "nanotechnology" is the applied research and development of those nanoscale materials and nanoscale processes. And "nanovation" is social and commercial innovation enabled by nanotechnology and founded on nanoscience.

This is what Britton and his team have been doing at UCT over the past 10 years. While based in the physics department, the group moved from the theoretical to the realm of the applied.

Those efforts led to the formation of UCT's NanoSciences Innovation Centre in 2010. Britton and Professor Margit Härting were the centre's founding directors.

The centre is the principal hub of the USAid-funded Nano-Power Africa Network. This partnership extends over four African countries and aims to build research capacity and promote entrepreneurship through collaborative research. Its ultimate objective is to be hands-on in the development of indigenous solar-cell technology.

As a technical director of PST Sensors, a UCT spin-off company, Britton has driven the development of the company's first products — printed silicon temperature sensors. These can be described as a sort of semiconductor ink, ready for use in most printing processes and full of electronics not visible to the human eye.

To make this kind of technology a reality, Britton said in his lecture, they had to get the "innovation chain" just right. The first step was to make sure they were producing something that was actually wanted.

"The old story about 'build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door' won't work," he warned. "Most intelligent, sensible people have cats."

Inventors also had to get the basics right. "There is no point trying to develop something without knowing how it works — not if you're going to new territory," Britton said.

Scientists need to collaborate with other role players and be innovative, and not just copy others, he said.

This he learned from bitter experience while working on temperature solar cells. "When we developed printed silicon transistors, we had a new material [and] knew how it worked, but tried to copy the technology that was used for the normal thin-film silicon. It didn't work, and after a long time we had to go back to basics."

Britton and his team are now working on a range of commercial and social innovations for those printed sensors. One of the devices they are developing is a time-temperature tag for food and pharmaceutical products, which will tell you whether your milk or medicines are as fresh as the use-by date tells you they are. 

They have also embarked upon a project to introduce low-cost solar cells in African countries. – Myolisi Gophe

Professor yearns for yin in quest to un-yang HIV

The human immune system has almost always fascinated Professor Clive Gray. It started at around age seven, when his mother told him he had little soldiers inside his body protecting him from the flu.

Since then, Gray, professor and chair of immunology in the department of clinical laboratory sciences, has heard a few more versions of how the immune system works, as he explained in his inaugural lecture, Moving Targets: HIV and the Immune System — In Search of Self-Preservation, delivered in October.

In his undergraduate studies in the United Kingdom, Gray encountered the theory of Nobel laureate Niels Jerne, who held that the immune system works as a network of antibodies that create a mirror image of the offending antigen. Gray became captivated by the central role of the "major histocompatibility complex" – the name for a collection of genes that are unique for each person and which is found on the sixth human chromosome. This complex plays a vital in the function of immune responses – allowing discrimination between self and non-self (or foreign).

At Wits University, where he studied for his MSc and PhD, Gray developed his understanding of immunological tolerance — a process in which the immune system fails to, or "chooses" not to, launch an attack on an antigen. There, he worked on ways to induce immunological tolerance to kidney transplants.

It was in 1994, at the National Institute for Virology (later the National Institute for Communicable Diseases), that he first ventured into HIV research. He then spent three years at Stanford University in the United States. 

He returned to the National Institute for Virology and established an internationally respected HIV immunology laboratory, where he and others explored aspects of T-cell immunity associated with viral control and disease progression.

Gray showed how there is a close relationship between the virus being a moving target for the immune system, and how the CD4 cell is a moving target for HIV. This tight interplay of moving targets is established at the point of initial infection — ground zero. By studying the immune events during acute infection, valuable insights have been gained into understanding the course of the disease.

It would appear that the patterns of CD8 T-cells targeting HIV are all-important. If these cells target portions of the virus that are conserved, then that may help slow progression. However, when CD8 cells target parts of HIV that can mutate, the virus escapes the immune response. Thus, the moving viral target may not be good for the infected host.

Gray then turned to "self-preservation" — that is, when there is peaceful coexistence between pathogen and host. An example of this is found in HIV's primate cousin, SIV. It is widely accepted that sooty mangebeys — a monkey found in Senegal and Ghana — can live "peacefully" with the virus without disease, Gray said. It is also known that another monkey, the macaque, succumbs to disease when infected with SIV.

The distinguishing feature is immune activation. "It is often the case that the immune system does more harm than good when it over-responds," Gray said. Thus a line could be drawn between peaceful coexistence and pathology — the "yin and yang of immunology", he said. 

"We are all focused on the yang, which is activation. We're all looking at immune activation and how this is related to disease."

Perhaps, he noted, it is time to begin paying some attention to the yin. In this case, yin would be "tolerance" — the ability of the host to survive and function despite infection. – Morgan Morris

Computers reshape chemistry

In the beginning, there were the theorists. The natural philosophers, of whom Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was perhaps the prime example, interpreted observations made in nature through debate and logic, said Professor Kevin Naidoo, director of UCT's Scientific Computing Research Unit and holder of a national chair in scientific computing, in his inaugural lecture in October.

In time, however, the theorists were upstaged. The likes of Robert Boyle (1627-1691), one of the pioneers of the modern scientific method, insisted that no reputable science could be conducted without experimental observation.

For centuries, the back-and-forth interplay between theory and experiment would define how the sciences were practised and preached.

But, as suggested by the title of Naidoo's lecture — The Computational Revolution and How It Is Reshaping the Scientific Method in Chemistry and Chemical Biology — changes are afoot. Experimental observation has run into technological limits, Naidoo argued.

Using animated Lego blocks to explain how atoms move and how molecules are built, he illustrated the limits of modern experimental observation. Working in a lab, scientists would not be able to create a new reaction using an enzyme as a catalyst, for example, because for now they cannot send video cameras into the recesses of the complex enzyme to see and then modify the chemical reaction. 

And even the best cameras would not be able to zoom in on a molecule measuring one-billionth of a metre, or capture a chemical reaction taking place at one-millionth of one-billionth of a second.

"We don't have the tools to perform the experiments," Naidoo said. "Or do we?"

The advent of high-performance computers has allowed modern-day scientists to push the boundaries of what scientists can do.

Of particular interest to Naidoo have been the advances in the once overlooked field of chemical glycobiology — the study of glycans, better known as carbohydrates. These carbohydrates, or saccharides, play a critical role in protecting viruses from attack; a sheath of protective complex carbohydrates surrounds the HI virus, for example. 

They also help to stop tumours from being eliminated by our natural defences: there's a telling modification of the carbohydrates that sit on the surface of cancer cells, preventing the body's antibodies from attacking the tumour and then allowing them to spread through the body.

Carbohydrates also have a part to play in renewable energy, in the form of long-chained cellulose, which can be broken down and converted into a biofuel known as ethanol.

"It's the most abundant organic molecule in the biomass," he said.

Two of the five techniques that international agencies, such as the United States's national institutes of health and its department of energy, have listed as critical to advances in the glycosciences are molecular modelling and informatics, Naidoo explained.

That is because "critical experiments that are not possible with physical models can be performed using computational models".

He said that this "is an argument by a computational scientist — much like Boyle argued centuries ago, in the face of lots of resistance from theoreticians, that one should introduce an experiment into the scientific method — to introduce computational simulations into the scientific method to understand nature". – Morgan Morris

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Morgan Morris
Morgan Morris works from Lebanon, TN. Husband of Amy, father of Morgan. Doesn't get better than that. Digital Content Manager & editor of award-winning website at https:t.co/eRo4noieNx. Morgan Morris has over 1019 followers on Twitter.

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