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In four months’ time, the Durban University of Technology’s (DUT’s) doctoral student under the Institute for Water and Wastewater Technology (IWWT), Nonsikelelo Mthethwa will be competing in the finals of the 2021 Guangzhou International Sister-City Universities (GISU) Urban Innovation and Entrepreneurship Online Competition.

This is after making it to the list of the 12 semi-final winners from universities across the globe, selected from 33 entries. Not only will the young aspiring scientist, hailing from Piet Retief in Mpumalanga province represent DUT at the finals but will also be representing South Africa after being the only South African on the list.

Giving insight on her winning project, Mthethwa said it is a solution for the present and the future. She said it is aimed at the further development of a technology called Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP).

“LAMP is cheaper technology compared to other molecular diagnostic methods, such as the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), used extensively in medical and water laboratories. The results from LAMP can be viewed visually due to the visible colour change or precipitates during a positive reaction. We have successfully optimized this technology for the detection of protozoan parasites in wastewater. Additionally, during the current COVID-19 pandemic, we successfully applied this technique for the detection of the SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater. Further showing the potential of this method as a cheaper, faster, and easier alternative to PCR for monitoring COVID-19 infections via wastewater-based epidemiology,” said Mthethwa.

She highlighted that the plan is to produce the first portable LAMP prototype for field applications in microbial water and food quality testing and medical diagnosis. Furthermore, Mthethwa explained that the ultimate aim is to make this technology readily available to all laboratories, especially in resource-constraint areas. These attributes, according to Mthethwa is what made the project stand out among the various project submitted, stating it has the potential to reduce the cost of diagnostics in both the medical, environmental and food sectors.

Making it to the semi-finals left Mthethwa happy and emotional at the same time. She remembered how the project challenged her, when she started her PhD in 2019. The entire year, Mthethwa did not get any good results, however she did not give up until she started getting excellent results in 2020. The conversion of her PhD research work to a business was in the card, however Mthethwa said her team had no idea where to begin. She indicated that she was able to do so with the assistance of DUT’s Technology, Transfer and Innovation Director, Professor Keolebogile Motaung, who further offered training in preparation for the competition.
So far, the results of her PhD studies have been accepted for publication in three high-impact factor journals, and Mthethwa claims she could not have done it without the support of the IWWT team and her supervisors: Dr Isaac Dennis Amoah, Poovendhree Reddy, Prof Faizal Bux, and Prof Sheena Kumari.
“I am looking forward to the finals, and I believe that with God’s grace, hard work, and teamwork, we will win first place. We just returned from a three-day preparatory workshop organized by Prof Motaung and the Entrepreneurial Centre, which I believe will be extremely beneficial in winning the prize. We are also improving our business model and presentation skills in order to meet international standards,” said Mthethwa.

Her main supervisor, Prof Sheena Kumari Pillai, Associate Professor at IWWT said: “I am glad that her hard work and commitment to her studies has finally paid off. She is always ready to take up new challenges, and her dedication and positive attitude towards research are commendable. Based on what she has accomplished in both her Masters and PhD thus far, this recognition does not come as a surprise to me. I have no doubt that an award of this nature will inspire many young and aspiring researchers like Ms Mthethwa to aim higher and accomplish even further heights. I would like to thank Prof Motaung (TTI, Director) and the DUT Entrepreneurship team for the excellent support provided to the student.”

Giving more details on the competition, Ms Nonhlanhla Khanyile, DUT’s Entrepreneurial Centre Manager said through their collaboration with the office of Dr Lin-Wu, Director of Confucius Institute (CI) at DUT, they have been fortunate to be part of this exciting programme from 2019. She added that this year’s student competition is based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals with a specific focus on innovation, multidisciplinary and impactful concepts to include entrepreneurship and innovation. The theme of the competition is: Promoting Sustainable Urban Development with Scientific and Technological Innovation.

“As we are about promoting innovation and entrepreneurship at DUT, we had designed a call out which was shared with DUT community where we were looking/ calling for Innovators, Entrepreneurs, Researchers to apply for such an exciting programme. Upon receiving applications, we were able to identify those with potential and qualifying as per the criteria set. A series of training in terms of business development and growth is being offered to the participants as we are mandated to assist them from the Ideation/ Concept stage to Commercialisation/Industry through the entrepreneurial support interventions, offered by the Entrepreneurial Centres,” highlighted Khanyile.

Pictured: Prof Faizal Bux, Ms Nonsikelelo Mthethwa, Prof Sheena Kumari and Dr Isaac Dennis Amoah.

Simangele Zuma

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