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29 September 2021
Research Week explores UWC’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) kicked off its 5th annual Research Week yesterday which focuses on the institution’s contribution to fighting and understanding the COVID-19 pandemic. Academics, researchers, and scientists from all seven faculties will come together online over the next four days to discuss the impact that the university has made as an “engaged institution that conducts research that has local and global relevance”.

UWC Research Week is held annually and is hosted by the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Professor José Frantz. 

Professor Frantz welcomed presenters and attendees to the event, describing it as an opportunity to reflect on how the university has “responded to making research count”. 

“The theme, The UWC’s Contribution to Fighting and Understanding the COVID-19 Pandemic, provides us with an opportunity to gain insight on how we, as a university, have tackled this continuing challenge through a multidisciplinary approach. A multidisciplinary approach allowed us as a university to engage with this pandemic through different lenses in an attempt to find solutions to a multifaceted problem,” said Prof Frantz.

She explained that the pandemic has also allowed the academic and research community at UWC to further understand how they can contribute to South Africa reaching the 2030 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).  

Professor Burtram Fielding, a molecular biologist and Director of UWC's Research Development Office, presented an overview of the institution’s response to the challenges posed by the pandemic. This included UWC’s concerted efforts to communicate academic knowledge and research to the public in an easily understandable manner through the media, and finding better ways to combat vaccine hesitancy and vaccine opposition. 

“This is a multidisciplinary problem and we need to have a multidisciplinary approach to addressing vaccine hesitancy in the communities that we serve, as they have many questions,” explained Prof Fielding.

Dr Tasmin Suliman, a post-doctoral research fellow in the Faculty of Natural Sciences, who managed to “inoculate cell cultures with samples from the COVID-19 patients to grow the virus in a laboratory”, discussed the techniques to conduct research on the SARS-CoV-2 virus in her presentation.  

Dr Suliman gave overviews of the molecular, serological and virus culture techniques the team used in their research, explaining how the virus culture technique was used to isolate the virus to grow it inside a living organism by introducing it to other living cells to observe the rate of infection and other significant changes. The faculty, in collaboration with Stellenbosch University, started researching SARS-CoV-2 – the first project of its kind in the country – using the virus culture technique in April 2020. According to Dr Suliman, some of the benefits of the virus culture technique include generating material for research, understanding how the virus works and mutates, and vaccine development. 

Afternoon presentations by academics from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities delved into the role of social justice during a pandemic. According to one of the speakers, Dr Megan Robertson, social justice in research can be understood through three Ts – which she borrows from a pedagogic article she has co-authored with Dr Johnathan Jodamus and Prof Sarojini Nadar

 “They are transdisciplinarity – the pandemic forced researchers to cross disciplinary boundaries; transgressiveness – questioning how we measure our research success; and, transgressing the normative research outcomes and; transformation – how we produce critical citizenship through our research,” she said. 

Professor Siza Ngabaza touched on photovoice research – visual research methodology – and how it can be used to interrogate issues of social justice, on campuses and in communities of practice, while Dr Lorato Mokwena from the Department of Linguistics shared her experiences doing research in small towns in the Northern Cape, and coming to the realisation that social justice should also include fostering mutually beneficial research relations with communities of practice and giving back to them in some meaningful way. 

“Mutually beneficial research relations are important as they move away from taking knowledge from communities without giving back,” she said, “but it also means respecting boundaries and acknowledging that sometimes, researchers are not entitled to certain information or knowledge from local communities.”

In his presentation, Professor Bernard Bladergroen, Head of the Energy Storage and Fluid Treatment Centre, Deputy Director of the South African Institute for Advanced Materials Chemistry Innovation Centre (SAIAMC) and professor in the Faculty of Natural Sciences, discussed the dynamics around the design and local production of ventilators and face masks, which was driven by an inadequate supply of devices needed to prevent the transmission of the virus.

“The practices of personal hygiene and social distancing helped to slow down the pandemic, but the masks that were on the market at the time and used to slow down transmission did not offer adequate protection against airborne viruses, because they did not seal well, were uncomfortable, and/or were incompatible with people wearing glasses.”

They found that while “K95 masks are designed to keep particles out and seal better, they were less comfortable, while surgical masks are not designed to form a perfect seal. 

“The fogging of glasses is proof that the majority of exhaled air bypasses the filter,” he added.

The faculty set out to design and manufacture a personal shield and masks to prevent or lower the transmission of the COVID-19 virus and shield the T-zone – the eyes, nose and mouth, which are the main virus entry points. In addition, they wanted to purify the air that enters lungs from the T-zone, purify exhaled air to prevent transmission and ensure comfort when wearing the items. To do this, UWC, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, international scientists working on similar projects and local companies and SMMEs came together in order to access resources such as a 3D scanner and printer, materials, and draw on different ideas while also bringing individuals on board with appropriate skills.

Prof Bladergroen was also involved with the team working on the National Ventilator Project to ramp up the production of the project. 

Other topics that were covered yesterday included the Faculty of Natural sciences contribution in the fight against COVID-19,  with presentations delving into Computer Science's role in addressing remote learning for under-served communities, leveraging technology for innovation with regards to online teaching, learning and assessment, and the opportunities for technological developments during the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The Research Week will continue today (29 September) with presentations and discussions on the Faculty of Law's contribution in the fight against COVID-19,  and Research and innovation support during the COVID-19 pandemic.