You’re a bioinformaticist by trade. Can you tell us what a bioinformaticist does?
Modern biology becomes more dependent every year on advanced technologies such as genetic sequencers (devices to learn the nucleotide or building block sequences for millions of pieces of DNA simultaneously), mass spectrometers (instruments to identify and quantify proteins and metabolites), microarrays (miniaturised grids of biological molecules, often used for measuring gene expression), and flow cytometers (devices that can separate different cell populations based on makers for antibodies). Bioinformatics plays a crucial role in producing data from these instruments and in analysing these data to yield as much information as possible. I train researchers at all career stages how to understand the data they produce.
Where did your interest in this field start?
My parents first purchased a home computer when I was eight years old, and I learned to program while I was in primary and secondary school. During high school, I was particularly delighted by molecular biology, and by the final year of varsity, I had decided to bring these two interests together for my graduate studies.
Why is this such an important area of research, especially in a country like South Africa?
South Africa faces massive challenges in public health from the scourges of HIV/Aids and tuberculosis, among others. Unlike other nations facing such threats, South Africa has an excellent infrastructure for biomedical research. With almost twenty laboratories in the country now offering mass spectrometry services, I saw an interesting environment for my research speciality, focused on “proteomics” or high-throughput protein identification from complex mixtures. Proteomics is a very demanding branch of biotechnology, and I wanted to partner with South African researchers to help them interpret the data they produce.
You’re one of only a few bioinformaticists in the country. Why do you think this is the case?
The most effective bioinformatics researchers develop careers with one foot in biotechnology and the other foot in computer science, and they are able to communicate with researchers in either discipline. It’s difficult to master one of those topics, let alone both. To increase the flow of students into this discipline, South Africa needs widespread computer literacy and numeracy (“mathematical literacy”) in its learners at the earliest possible age. At the same time, every student completing matric in Life Sciences should have a basic understanding of the “Central Dogma” of molecular biology (the processes of replication, transcription and translation).
What aspects of your work do you enjoy most?
I love seeing the “aha!” moment in the students I teach at SU, the University of Cape Town, and University of the Western Cape. I do not want people to look at me and say, “Oh, bioinformatics looks hard; I could never do that.” My career is devoted to transforming this view to, “Oh, bioinformatics looks cool; how can I become part of that world?” At the same time, I am a bit selfish in craving my own moment with the chalkboard. I love publishing a new approach to a big problem!
What makes you tick?
As a young man, I was intensely competitive and determined. Now that I am in my middle years, I can be a better teammate, and I listen more effectively. I hoped that my 2015 move to Africa would teach my body a different rhythm, and it certainly has. The civility of stopping each morning for a reflective cup of tea should not be underestimated!
Looking into your crystal ball, where do you see yourself in ten years from now?
Once my wife finishes her graduate studies in pre-colonial African history, we may travel more frequently to other regions in South Africa or in the rest of the continent. I certainly hope to visit Mapungubwe and Zimbabwe some day! That said, I hope to remain useful to the molecular biologists of my new home nation.
How do you like to spend your free time?
When I have the opportunity to share a board game with friends, I am always delighted. I spend a good chunk of time producing contributions to social media, particularly on YouTube and WordPress. I enjoy performing with the Singing Sensations at each year’s Gala for the medical school. Fixing old computers is always a particular pleasure, too.
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