UKZN academic gets R7.7m grant for her work aimed at fighting pandemics

Published Feb 14, 2023


Durban – A University of KwaZulu-Natal academic has been awarded a R7.7 million grant for her work in advancing rapid genomic surveillance to respond effectively to pandemics.

UKZN academic, virologist and platform manager at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp), Dr Jennifer Giandhari, has been awarded a National Research Foundation grant.

According to UKZN, Giandhari, of Chatsworth, was inspired to become a scientist after she witnessed family members facing health issues.

“I always wanted to try and understand their illnesses better. This led to me studying medical sciences. During my studies, I became intrigued by the role of viruses and bacteria in disease progression. This inspired me to become a scientist where I could explore diseases and disease-causing pathogens to better understand their characteristics and pathogenesis,” Giandhari said.

She is excited about her work which will advance knowledge of pathogen genomics in terms of transmission and drug resistance.

“We, together with the rest of the world, realise the need for fast genomic surveillance in order to respond to pandemics. Therefore, this project aims to set up whole genome sequencing of various pathogens such as HIV, hepatitis C virus, hepatitis B virus, dengue, monkeypox and Ebola. This will allow us to understand the level of genetic diversity circulating in the country. This information can be used to understand and monitor the spread of the virus at population level,” Giandhari said.

Professor Tulio De Oliveira, director of the KZN Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform, professor of bioinformatics, genomics expert and a leader of African science in the Covid-19 pandemic, said: “We are very proud of Jennifer as she is the first female scientist of colour to move from a junior to senior position. It is very important to capacitate women scientists to become group leaders and to have access to the best technology in the world.

“This grant will fund a state-of-the-art new DNA sequencer at UKZN that will quickly help to identify pathogens and characterise them in the country and in Africa. Further, the machine will be used at Krisp as the main centre of training of thousands of African scientists, which is a positive for the continent,” De Oliveira said.

Professor Musa Mabandla, dean and head of the School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences, congratulated Giandhari on being awarded this most sought-after grant.

“Since arriving at the school as a postdoc and subsequently an academic, Jennifer (Giandhari) has been at the forefront of the sequencing that is done at Krisp. She was a member of the team that was able to sequence a number of the Covid-19 variants. When she transitioned to academia as a lecturer at the school, she didn’t skip a beat in seamlessly moving from a research-only portfolio to one that includes teaching. She truly does inspire greatness,” Mabandla said.

“By obtaining another sequencer through this grant, this will not only enhance the research done in the school and college but will also ensure that the instrument does pay for itself, in line with the innovation and commercialisation drive of the school.”

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