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National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Professor Bruce Mellado

For his contribution in SA through the management of the SA contribution to the Large Hadron Electron Collider at the CERN facility, the oversight of the development and production of a unique 16-layer electronics circuit board and numerous other contributions in physics and artificial intelligence.

 

The winner of the 2020/2021 TW Kambule-NSTF Award Researcher is Professor Bruce Mellado from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) won the award for his contributions to the discovery of the Higgs boson with the Large Hadron Electron Collider at the CERN facility, and the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. His other contributions include the oversight of the development and production of a unique 16-layer electronics circuit board; and numerous ones in physics and AI.

Fundamental science provides the answers to life, the universe and everything

If you were wondering what the Covid-19 pandemic and particle physics have in common, look no further than Professor Bruce Mellado, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, who has made significant contributions to the discovery of the Higgs boson particle, the proposal of the Large Hadron Electron Collider, and the application of artificial intelligence (AI) for the management of the Covid-19 pandemic in Gauteng.

“Fundamental sciences are important for society, and we need to invest in developing these skills,” he says. “We look at the fundamental interactions and matter in the universe, which entails solving complex problems.”

“While AI has become a bit of a buzzword, we need a clear path to developing human capacity so that we have people to implement algorithms to meet challenges in science and elsewhere,” he adds.

Mellado adds that his team has had to learn to be dynamic in its approach to mathematical modelling around the pandemic, as it has been surprisingly difficult to model the adoption of social distancing, and to predict the scale of vaccine hesitancy.

“We also use AI to gauge sentiment on social media, and it’s become clear over time in how people express themselves on these platforms that they have become indifferent to the problem of transmission, which makes managing the pandemic more complicated,” he says.

It’s the development of AI skills that’s one of the driving imperatives behind the Wits Institute for Collider Particle Physics, where Mellado’s students are trained in the Big Data Problem and Artificial Intelligence — skills that are invaluable in South Africa.

 

The production — in South Africa — of the most complex 16 layer electronics board to date, hints at the sophistication and impact of the institute, and the sheer volumes of data that this electronics project can process.

While the team that works on the Large Hadron Collider is vast, his work on the project is frequently cited by senior members of the international research community, who note that “Professor Mellado has contributed seminal works that demonstrate the feasibility of precision Higgs physics in electron-proton collisions”.

Furthermore, a number of electronics boards designed, developed and fabricated at the Institute under his supervision are used by the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN) for various tasks.

Mellado, who holds a PhD from Columbia University, is a Research Professor at Wits, and senior scientist at iThemba LABS; director at the Institute for Collider Particle Physics at Wits; chairperson of the Institutional Board of the Tile Calorimeter of the ATLAS experiment at European laboratory CERN; a member of the Institutional Board of the Circular Electron Positron Collider; co-president of the Africa-Canada Artificial Data Modelling at York University; co-chair of the Nuclear Particle and Radiation Division of South African Institute of Physics and a member of the Gauteng Premier Covid-19 Advisory Committee.

This is truly a remarkable set of achievements in particle physics research, with more yet to come — from a man who originally contemplated studying medicine but chose not to because he realised that his thinking was not suited to memorising facts, but rather to using logic to solve problems. — Kerry Haggard

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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