Throughout her career, senior chemical pathologist Prof Annie Zemlin has always had a passion for capacity building, transformation and collaboration within Stellenbosch University (SU), South Africa, the African continent and beyond. Since her appointment as new head of the Division of Chemical Pathology at SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences in January 2019, she has made it one of her key priorities.
"My vision for the division is strongly aligned with the three core duties of SU and the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), namely research, teaching and learning, and service and outreach," says Zemlin.
"As a division, it's not only important to teach and train undergraduate and postgraduate students, and deliver a quality laboratory service to our clients, it's also crucial to help others grow their careers, encourage research and the sharing of knowledge, and further collaboration with national and international partners."
When it comes to expanding chemical pathology’s African footprint, Zemlin has already done much groundwork. She is a founding member of the College of Pathologists of East, Central and Southern Africa (COPECSA), which was founded in Kampala, Uganda, in 2010. And, in 2014, along with the Royal College of Pathologists, UK, and COPECSA, she assisted in developing the LabSkills Africa programme which was rolled out to five countries in sub-Saharan Africa. She is also chair of the first Audit Committee in Africa and has performed numerous laboratory audits with other countries in Africa.
Zemlin points out that she was fortunate to become head of a very well-run and developed division, thanks to her predecessor and mentor Prof Rajiv Erasmus. "I have been involved with the division for 20 years already. I started out as a registrar in 1999, qualified as a pathologist in 2004 and was made associate professor in 2014. During the last few years, I worked closely with Prof Erasmus in running the division.”
Going forward, she would like to ensure more exposure of chemical pathology in undergraduate teaching, the training of more quality chemical pathologists to fill the current shortage in NHLS, greater involvement in the translation of research results into service and attracting more PhD candidates.
“I would also like to ensure continual quality improvement to deliver an optimal laboratory service. This involves clinical liaison and outreach to clinics, the maintenance of our lab accreditation, addressing complaints and non-compliances, audits as a continuous quality improvement tool, the introduction of new tests – specifically point-of-care testing (POCT) and pathology-supported genetic testing (PSGT) – and national coverage.”
Zemlin’s research interests include laboratory management and operational research, evidence-based laboratory medicine, diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease, and HIV and inflammation. “I obtained my PhD in 2016 on diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease in a local community. The results of this study found that the diagnosis of diabetes in our population needs to be re-evaluated and I am subsequently spearheading a study in countries across Africa, using an emerging biomarker of glycaemic control, namely glycated albumin.”
Zemlin has published several papers in peer-reviewed journals, presented at numerous national and international conferences, and received an NRF C2 rating in 2016. She is also chair of the International Federation of Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine (IFCC) committee for evidence-based laboratory medicine.
Asked why she chose to specialise in chemical pathology, Zemlin admits that she only developed an interest after qualifying as a doctor. "As a medical student, I cannot say that chemical pathology was one of my favourite subjects," she laughs. "However, after qualifying, I came to appreciate the significance of chemical pathology and that it is truly the basis of disease. I heard about a vacancy for a registrar post at the Division of Chemical Pathology and decided to try my luck. The rest is history."