University of Zululand: a focus on innovation

The only comprehensive university north of the Tugela River in KwaZulu-Natal, the University of Zululand (Unizulu) is not content to simply educate thousands of students from across the country: the institution strives for academic and research leadership, pitting its minds against the best in the country to address a broad range of challenges in South Africa.

As part of Unizulu’s drive to broaden its reach and strengthen its academic and research focus, the International Linkages Office has established partnerships with institutions of higher learning across continents to increase research capacity, sport and recreation, academic exchanges, scholarly visits and development of new projects that are of benefit to the university community. In addition it offers mentorship and support programmes for staff and postgraduate students applying for scholarly exchange programmes and visits.

Current partners include Manchester University, the Netherlands Organisation for International Co-operation in Higher Education, Philipps-Marburg University, Appalachian State University, University of Michigan, Jackson State University, Oxford University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Benedict College, Elizabeth Minority Health International Research Training, Italian Laboratorio dei Materiali TASC and ELETTRA, American Councils for International Education and Moi University.

Breakthrough for cancer treatment

Illustrating the university’s excellence in supporting research and innovation, Unizulu PhD (Biochemistry) graduate Rekha Dunpall is making headlines for her breakthrough nanobiotechnology project, which could pave the way for improved cancer treatment. Dunpall, supervised and mentored by well-known materials chemist Professor Neerish Revaprasadu (South African Research Chairs Initiative chair of Nanotechnology), recently presented her research at the 7th international BioNanoMed 2016 conference in Austria, on the use of unique nanoparticles to improve chemotherapies to target cancer cells specifically. 

She explains that the biocompatible nanoparticles are between 7-10nm in size and are surface capped with cysteine, with the ability to be taken up into the human cell, which presents the potential for the nanoparticle to serve as a vehicle to carry the cancer drugs directly into abnormal cells. “It consists of a gold core and a zinc-telluride shell with a capping agent, and it is the first time a structural arrangement of this nature has been discovered in the world. A further achievement is that they managed to register an international Patent Co-operation Treaty patent,” she says.

Plans are underway to commercialise the product once it passes the necessary clinical studies.

SmartDrive innovation

Another noteworthy innovation emerging from the university was the SmartDrive Android App created by Computer Science software engineering students. The mobile app detects when a user starts driving and automatically holds any calls and messages to minimise dangerous distractions.

Uniquely, the app distinguishes between a driver and a passenger, so only the driver’s calls are impacted. SmartDrive has been granted a provisional patent and is currently undergoing additional development. It is envisaged that a full patent application will be pursued.

Faculty of Arts focuses on innovation

Not to be left behind the sciences in the innovation stakes, Unizulu’s Faculty of Arts has committed to becoming a research leader at the university. New Dean Professor Gregory Kamwendo, a full professor in Sociolinguistics and Education, aims to step up mentoring, the appointment of senior staff who can provide academic leadership, and the attainment of PhDs by academic staff. “We need to create an enabling environment. While looking forward to having a research-active faculty, I am also mindful of not losing touch with the quest for quality teaching, with responsible and meaningful community engagement,” he says.

An avid researcher, Kamwendo’s publication record comprises 38 articles published in peer-reviewed journals, with the majority of the articles published in accredited journals. Some of his work has appeared in several international journals such as the International Journal of the Sociology of Languages. He has also published 20 book chapters, three books/monographs and produced eight papers in conference proceedings.

Innovation in business development

Enactus, a global community of student, academic and business leaders committed to using the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives is active at Unizulu, with the university’s Enactus chapter reaching the semi-finals of the Enactus World Cup last year. At the event, the innovative team showcased some its projects, demonstrating how its interventions helped to turn struggling small businesses into sustainable business ventures. These included assisting a small-scale and struggling aquaculture farmer in the province turn around his business. They also helped a co-operative to manufacture and market its vegetable pickle, which proved to be a turning point in the co-operative’s fortunes.

Ongoing excellence

The university continues to invest in innovative and advanced infrastructure to support education. One example of this is the state-of-the-art, multi-million rand clinical simulation laboratory, where the Department of Nursing Science provides students and educators with broad access to the practice environment, directly at the point of learning.  

To encourage research and innovation excellence, Unizulu hosts an annual Research Awards Gala Dinner to recognise the noteworthy contributions to the university’s research endeavours.  At the most recent awards, the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology won the role model award and the Department of Chemistry won the award for the most productive department per capita, followed by the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology in second place and the Department of Psychology in third place.

With over 17 000 students registered this year, Unizulu offers over 250 accredited degree, diploma and certificate courses across its Faculties of Arts; Education; Science and Agriculture; and Commerce, Administration and Law at the KwaDlangezwa and Richards Bay campuses.

Unizulu is up among the leaders in the field of nanotechnology and chemistry, while its law department has produced a string of judges in the past, with famous alumni including renowned jurists such as Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng and retired Judge AEB Dhlodhlo, ministers Blade Nzimande and Jeff Radebe as well as many other influential leaders including AU Commision Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Fifty-eight percent (10 284) of the total 17 617 registered students for 2016 are women. The empowerment of women has been very strongly by supported the university, which is not surprising given the fact that the university has had three female vice-chancellors, including the incumbent Professor Xoliswa Mtose.

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