MIT-Wits Program continues to thrive

Now in its seventh year, the MIT-Wits Program is one of MIT’s most active in Africa. Whether through MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI)-organized student opportunities and faculty seed funds, visiting professors, or its array of edX courses, the relationship is as strong as ever.

Known fondly known as Wits (and pronounced “Vits”), the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg is one of South Africa’s oldest and most celebrated universities. Much like MIT, Wits has evolved alongside society — from a small technical institute focused on mining to a dynamic, diverse, and progressive research university with 40,000 students, 33 schools, and multiple Nobel Prizes under its belt.

“Generations of South African business and industrial leaders have been educated at Wits; so have many top politicians, trade unionists, and activists. Nelson Mandela is an alumnus of Wits,” says Professor Barry Dwolatzky, emeritus professor in the Wits School of Electrical and Information Engineering. “Our partnership with MIT over the past seven years has grown stronger and has found important synergies between our two important institutions. This has been achieved via the close collaborative engagement between Professor Hazel Sive and myself.”

“I set up this program as Wits is one of the very top research universities in Africa, and a good partner for MIT,” says MIT biology professor and Wits alumna Hazel Sive, who established the MIT-Wits Program. “Wits has a student population representative of South African demographics, and serves as a clearinghouse for students from other African countries.”

Sive, who founded the MIT-Africa initiative, left MIT this June to become dean of the College of Science at Northeastern University in Boston. The momentum the collaboration has built will continue to grow unabated. Since 2012, MISTI has facilitated opportunities for more than 50 MIT students at Wits, both through research internships and in leading Global Startup Labs (GSL) at Wits’ Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct, which Dwolatzky founded.

“The GSL experience at Wits was a highlight of my graduate school experience,” says Ethan Poskanzer, PhD candidate in economics. “I met tons of interesting people and became a part of a South African community in a way that would have been difficult through other ways of traveling. The experience was also formative for my research interests as a social scientist.”

Rising senior Andrea Orji worked as a researcher at the Wits University Centre of Excellence for Biomedical Tuberculosis Research during summer 2018. As a researcher, Orji went through the process of building a genomic DNA library to study a specific set of recurring genes in the DNA of mycobacteria, and improve understanding of their function. “I loved how open people were to answering my questions about the history and politics of the country,” she says. “They were not afraid to share their opinions or ask for mine. It made for really good conversations, as I waited through three-hour incubation periods for my E.coli transfections.”

In May 2020, Wits played a key role in the “Africa Takes on Covid19 Challenge.” The leadership of Tshimologong and several professors are committed to advising teams who participated in the challenge with the implementation of their ideas.

Beyond the MISTI opportunities for students, MISTI has been instrumental in creating research opportunities for faculty. The MISTI Global Seed Funds program has provided early-stage funding for several Wits-MIT research collaborations in both political science and physics.

Wits faculty have also had the opportunity to host their courses on edX. With over a dozen classes on the platform covering a range of topics from media studies to chemistry, learners from across the world have the opportunity to engage with the university. Wits is currently the only African university partner featured on edX and is a leader in establishing the African continent as an intellectual destination on the world stage. The availability of these courses is particularly relevant as the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We feel a strong affinity to MIT, that has similar origins amongst the great universities of the world,” says Dwolatzky. “Our university is a dominant influence on the South African educational landscape.”

“I am a proud Wits alum, having received my undergraduate degrees at Wits in chemistry and zoology. The familiar and vibrant Wits atmosphere made the MIT-Wits relationship a wonderful place to begin MIT-Africa,” Sive says.

Professor Evan Lieberman, who is taking over as faculty director of MISTI’s MIT-Africa Program, has been working with colleagues at Wits since his first trip to the university in 1991 and looks forward to deepening the relationship in the years to come. “Wits is a remarkable institution for its research, its teaching, and its role in South Africa’s future. I look forward to working closely with the faculty and administration to develop new collaborative opportunities with MIT.”

In February 2020, the Wits’ newly appointed vice chancellor, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, visited MIT to underscore the importance of the MIT-Wits relationship and lay the groundwork for more collaboration in the future. During his address to the MIT-Africa Forum, he discussed strides Wits was making to further its research activities across Africa. Wits played a leading role in the establishment of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) – a network of universities across Africa enhancing research and post-graduate training on the continent.

“As a founding member of ARUA, Wits has played a leading role in supporting and growing world-class research in Africa,” says Vilakazi. “Working with Professor Hazel Sive and MIT-Africa, Wits and MIT has developed close collaborative partnerships with some ARUA members, which advances the positive narrative of “Africa Rising.’”

The MIT-Wits relationship is a critical piece of MIT’s overall Africa engagement strategy. Associate Provost for International Activities Richard Lester designated Africa, broadly, as a strategically important region.

“Frontier scientific research on major global challenges, and frontier applications of new technologies to address these challenges, will increasingly involve the African continent. Fostering stronger educational and research ties with African universities and collaborations of all kinds with our African alums will be an important priority for MIT in the coming years and decades,” says Lester.