The African Academy of Sciences (AAS) has nominated three University of Cape Town (UCT) academics as 2019 fellows. The fellowships are awarded to scholars who have achieved academic excellence and have contributed to significant scientific advancements in their fields of study.
The AAS is a pan-African organisation that aims to pursue excellence by funding and awarding prizes for research that is relevant to resolving the various challenges faced in Africa. The academy’s work is focused on six areas in particular: climate change; health and well-being; food security and nutritional well-being; water and sanitation; sustainable energy; and science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
To achieve these objectives, the organisation recognises scholars and academics by granting fellowships and awards; offers think tank and advisory functions to shape scientific strategies and policies; and implements science, technology and innovation programmes that will further advancements on the continent.
In this regard, the AAS has built a network of scientific leaders and innovators. These fellows provide strategic leadership to shape AAS programmes, engage with government to ensure wise investment and mentor early-career scientists.
Supporting the best to do the best
Speaking at a plenary talk at the university’s Faculty of Health Sciences in 2018, Dr Thomas Kariuki, the director of programmes at the AAS, highlighted that the academy supports only “the best people in the best places to do the best science”.
Of the 39 fellowships awarded in the academy’s 2019 election year, three UCT academics were elected as fellows: Professor Collet Dandara from the Department of Pathology; Associate Professor Nicki Tiffin from the Wellcome Centre for Infectious Diseases Research in Africa (CIDRI-Africa), the Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Research at the School of Public Health and Family Medicine and the Computational Biology Division in the Department of Integrative Biomedical Sciences; and Professor Harald Winkler from the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment.
Mrs Graça Machel, who was UCT’s chancellor from 1999 to 2019, and Professor Thuli Madonsela, who holds an honorary doctorate from UCT, were both elected as honorary fellows.
Professor Collet Dandara
As the principal investigator for the Pharmacogenomics and Drug Metabolism Research Group at UCT, Professor Dandara investigates how genetic variations affect individual responses to drugs.
“Our group has worked on the pharmacogenomics of HIV, tacrolimus response, warfarin sensitivity, hypertension and herbal medicine to facilitate the development of tailored treatments,” he said.
In the process of catalysing research across Africa, there is a huge opportunity to build human capacity … [and] give confidence to young and emerging researchers across Africa.”
In settings like sub-Saharan Africa, where adverse drug reactions to medications that treat illnesses like HIV and tuberculosis are often the cause of preventable death, pharmacogenomics is a crucial field of study. Dandara has played a significant role in the advancement of the discipline. Having published more than 150 articles in peer-reviewed journals internationally, he is considered one of the leading experts in pharmacogenomics research in Africa and the world.
Dandara has also made a massive contribution to human capital development, supervising at least 54 postgraduates. This, he believes, is the greatest value of the AAS fellowship.
“The AAS fellowship allows connection with other scientists for the crucial collaborative links across the continent – a primer for pharmacogenomics research and translation. In the process of catalysing research across Africa, there is a huge opportunity to build human capacity … [and] give confidence to young and emerging researchers across Africa.”
Associate Professor Nicki Tiffin
Associate Professor Tiffin’s research looks at the overlap between health genomics, health informatics and epidemiology research. The aim is to provide new insights into the drivers, causes and epidemiology of common diseases in African patients, as well as to explore ethical and governance issues related to this research.
Current projects include analysing routine health records and integrating genomic data to understand the drivers of common diseases in South African patients.
“I am excited about increasing opportunities to collaborate with AAS colleagues.”
“In 2020 we have also been working with the Provincial Health Data Centre and other collaborators towards understanding drivers and outcomes in COVID-19 patients,” she said.
With a focus on capacity building and research within Africa, as well as championing African research concerns on the global stage, Tiffin was a natural fit for the AAS. Her election formalises the ongoing working relationship she has with the academy as a member of the AAS Data and Biospecimen Governance Committee.
“I am excited about increasing opportunities to collaborate with AAS colleagues – for whom I have enormous respect and liking – as well as other esteemed fellows and affiliated researchers, who share common goals for advancing science in Africa through equitable, ethical and inclusive practices.”
Professor Harald Winkler
Despite being responsible for only 4% of greenhouse gas emissions, African nations are some of the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to the continent’s economic dependence on climate-related products and activities.
“In the African context, acting on climate change means avoiding the high-emission development paths that developed countries have followed.”
Professor Winkler, whose research interests lie at the intersection of sustainable development and climate change, believes that climate change mitigation can create opportunities in Africa: “In the African context, acting on climate change means avoiding the high-emission development paths that developed countries have followed, while creating jobs and sustainable livelihoods,” he said.
In seeking to find solutions to overcome climate challenges, Winkler has produced research that has informed energy and climate policy both locally and internationally. He sees the AAS fellowship as an opportunity to connect with leading academics to learn how Africa can meet its energy needs while fulfilling its mandate to eliminate carbon emissions.
“African countries need energy for development and, at the same time, are part of facing the global challenge of net-zero emissions by 2050. I hope to learn from brilliant colleagues how we might go about that.”
OCTOBER 2020 | STORY NICOLE FORREST.