The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM) Transformation Committee (ITC), has awarded four grants to two professional, administrative support and service (PASS) staff and to two postdoctoral research fellows, as part of a strategy to empower internal stakeholders crucial to the IDM’s research enterprise.
Transformation is one of the ways the institute aims to accomplish its vision to be an international centre of excellence where world-class scientists collaborate to tackle diseases of major importance in Africa. Together with excellence and collaboration, these values are guided by a strategy which aligns with that of the Faculty of Health Sciences and the broader UCT. The university’s Vision 2030 strategy centres around three key pillars: excellence, transformation and sustainability.
The PASS staff award and the Postdoctoral Technical Skills Development Grant are part of a deliberate and broad-based initiative to change the IDM’s research culture, provide support to emerging researchers, and foster an inclusive working environment and sense of belonging with which staff and students can identify through initiatives and programmes.
The awards are part of a growing offering of initiatives including a mentorship programme that matches mentees drawn from postgraduate students, postdocs and early-career researchers with volunteer mentors drawn mostly from the IDM membership; a postgraduate student publication competition designed to foster a culture of research publication among postgraduate students based in IDM member groups; as well as the introduction of the IDM Fellows membership category and the IDM Junior Research Fellowship scheme, which focus on the development of emerging researchers.
“PASS and postdoctoral fellows are key IDM stakeholders. Their work is essential in promoting the excellent research that makes the IDM a world-class research institute.”
“PASS [staff] and postdoctoral fellows are key IDM stakeholders. Their work is essential in promoting the excellent research that makes the IDM a world-class research institute. As ITC, our role is to carry forward the mandate of the IDM, as part of the Faculty of Health Sciences and [the] university as a whole, giving people a sense of belonging and making them feel valued as part of the IDM community,” said Dr Muki Shey, the chair of the ITC.
Excited to see their faces upon receiving the award, Dr Shey, a member of the IDM whose work straddles the Department of Medicine and the Wellcome Centre for Infectious Diseases Research in Africa (CIDRI-Africa), which is hosted by the IDM, is eager to witness how this opportunity will make a difference in the recipients’ career paths.
Referencing the ITC strategy, he said: “Empowering the PASS staff and postdoctoral researchers to be better at what they do and gain more skills also indirectly empowers the research at IDM.”
The objective of the PASS award is to afford staff the opportunity to attend a conference, course or related activity that would encompass personal or organisational development, or educational opportunities within the staff member’s scope of work.
The grant will support Nchimuya Hapeela-Dube, a clinical research coordinator, in attending a face-to-face consortium research meeting in Newark, New Jersey, United States. The meeting is part of the National Institutes of Health-funded Feasibility of Novel Diagnostics for TB led by Professor Susan Dorman at the University of South Carolina and Professor Jerry Ellner at Rutgers University, along with the Foundation for Innovative and New Diagnostics.
The meeting aims to update consortium members on new TB diagnostics currently being evaluated through the consortium, while providing a platform for sharing experiences across the different research sites.
“Attending this meeting is key in fuelling my career growth through engaged interactions with collaborators, gaining perspective on future prospects and how completion of my Master of Public Health can best position our research site towards excellence in clinical research trials,” said Hapeela-Dube.
As a professional nurse, PASS award recipient Ida Oliphant has experience working in the public health system as well as in the corporate world as both a research and clinical nurse. With this award she plans to do the clinical research coordinator course presented by Academic Advance, a division of the Wits Health Consortium at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“This will strengthen my skills as a research nurse coordinator, which I can directly apply at work. In the long run this has the potential to improve the day-to-day workflow of our clinical trial, strengthen our trial outcomes and ultimately benefit our participants too,” said Oliphant.
The Postdoctoral Technical Skills Development Grant
As a research-intensive institute striving to be at the forefront of international technological developments within its areas of interest, the ITC recognises that exposing young researcher scientists to the best technological training opportunities is a key aspect in achieving this goal.
The ITC invited applications from postdoctoral research fellows to motivate for skills development training in technologies that will add value to the research effort of the IDM. The awards will go towards international travel and subsistence for the two successful applicants.
Sherazaan Ismail is examining barriers to HIV cure and has been invited to serve as a rapporteur at the International AIDS 2022 conference in Montreal, Canada. She’ll then head to the University of Louisville, Kentucky, to train on a novel HIV measurement assay that has recently been validated for use in samples from people living with HIV. The assay will be used to characterise the HIV latent reservoir in African women, generally underrepresented in research, and is particularly useful in clinical trial settings, making it crucial to transfer this technology to South Africa.
“The AIDS conference will provide an excellent networking opportunity and a chance to put my writing skills to good use when writing up conference session summaries,” said Ismail.
“This novel HIV measurement assay will allow us to perform measurements on small volumes of samples while generating large amounts of data; data that can be compared directly to that generated in other parts of the world. [This is] a major achievement for HIV cure sciences.”
Through this grant, Simone Fouché will travel to the Shalek Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Unites States to learn a new genomic sequencing technology. HIVEs, developed in part at the lab, is a method for single-cell RNA sequencing sample preparation specifically for clinical samples where scientists have limited starting material and fragile cells.
“I plan to use this technique to decipher the immune response to Mycobacterium tuberculosis in tissue samples and blood from a post mortem cohort study which will ultimately help to identify novel candidates for therapies and vaccine strategies,” said Fouché.
At the IDM, her research is performed in a biosafety level three (BSL3) laboratory where researchers work with live pathogens with the potential to cause serious disease. Other single-cell RNA sequencing technologies require expensive specialised equipment to prepare the cells.
She explained that she would need a “specialised machine” for the BSL3. The HIVE technology enables for cells to be captured in wells via gravitation instead of with specialised machines, improving the recovery of fragile cells. Therefore, this technology makes it possible to perform this study in BSL3 and will improve the quality of the data.”