Dr Graeme Jocobs. Picture: Supplied
Dr Graeme Jocobs. Picture: Supplied

’Humble but determined’ A tribute to award-winning SA virologist Dr Graeme Jacobs

By Time of article published Jan 16, 2021

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Award-winning virologist Dr Graeme Jacobs was born without a heartbeat, but went on to carve out a glittering academic career for himself. He died last Saturday from Covid-19.

The youngest of two children born to Lawton and Mildred Jacobs, he was born via an emergency Caesarean section on April 14, 1982 but would go on to matriculate with distinction from DF Malan Hoërskool in Bellville at the age of 17 in 1999.

Proceeding to Stellenbosch University, he graduated with a BSc in medical technology in 2002, followed by his Honours degree the next year and MSc in virology in 2005. His academic prowess was such that he was awarded a scholarship to pursue a PhD at the Institute for Virology and Immunobiology at the University of Wuerzburg in Germany, where he graduated magna cum laude, receiving full marks for his thesis on HIV/Aids.

The new Dr Jacobs returned home to South Africa as a post-doctoral fellow in Stellenbosch University’s medical virology division at Tygerberg hospital under the mentorship of Professor Susan Engelbrecht before being appointed senior lecturer and research scientist under the National Research Foundation (NRF)’s Next Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP) in February 2019.

He mentored many post-graduate students, collaborated internationally and published copiously, yet still continued to study. This year, he would have received his MBA degree from the University of Stellenbosch’s Business School. He had also just been approached to consider collaborating on a virology project by a member of Dr Anthony Fauci’s staff, after Fauci who had just been named incoming US President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, read one of Jacobs’s research papers.

Highly regarded by his peers, colleagues and students as a scientist and an academic, Jacobs was also a much-loved family man. He married Estronita Swartz in December 2017.

The last family picture. Supplied.

“As a family we are extremely proud of all his achievements in the science world, and accomplishments in his career, but what we are most proud of, is the person he grew up to be: a humble and caring human being to all who crossed his path, extremely down-to-earth but determined to succeed in the field of science,” the family said.

A passionate and patriotic South African, he returned home to make a difference to the lives of its citizens, to help encourage other South Africans to become scientists and find solutions for the HIV/Aids pandemic as he explained in a poignant tribute in 2014 to the late Professor Axel Rethwilm, who had been instrumental in getting him to Wuerzburg, in which he shared his vision for a successful and sustainable post-apartheid South Africa (see below).

* Jacobs leaves behind his wife Estronita, his parents Lawton and Mildred, his sister Chantal Carls, brother-in-law Hayden Carls and nephew Troy Carls.

Life as a scientist in post-apartheid South Africa

A tribute to Professor Axel Rethwilm (Institute for Virology and Immunobiology (Born August 3, 1989 - died JuIy 29, 2014).

I was 12 years old when apartheid ended in1994. As I was still a child apartheid didn’t phase as much and I knew very little about my surroundings at that time. I knew that as a person of colour, a person of mixed race, we were only allowed to go to certain schools and have certain jobs. I was generally protected and unaware of the conditions in our black communities and the horrible poor conditions faced in everyday life in the townships or squatter camps. Aspirations of becoming doctors, lawyers, businessmen, leaders and even sport stars, were generally reserved for white people, although not impossible to achieve.

I come from a highly educated family, as my mother is a teacher, and many other family members as well. My parents believed it was imperative to have a good educational background in order to rise above our circumstances of the time.

To quote our beloved leader and world icon Nelson Mandela “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”.

Thus in 1994, when South Africa entered its democratic era, me and my sister were sent to what was then known as “Model C” schools, schools with education systems previously reserved for only the more privileged. This gave me the opportunity to excel in my education, giving me an advantage to achieve success in whatever career path I chose.

I always had a love for the world of micro-organisms and the diseases they cause. Therefore, I chose to study molecular biology at the University of Stellenbosch.

As HIV/Aids touches everyone in South Africa I decided to specialise in medical virology during my postgraduate studies. In 2005, while presenting my Master’s work at a conference in San Francisco, US, I was approached by Professor Axel Rethwilm, offering me the chance to do my PhD at the Institute for Virology and Immunobiology at the University of Wuerzburg, Germany. He was tasked with initiating collaborations with universities in the Western Cape and with South African scientists working on HIV/Aids and other infectious diseases.

This led to a fruitful collaboration between Germany and South Africa, with many research projects still in progress.

After completing my studies in Germany I returned to South Africa, as this is my home and I feel this is where my knowledge and expertise are most needed.

With 11 official languages South Africa is a dynamic multi-cultural country with ample resources such as gold, diamonds, platinum and copper. It has the second biggest economy in Africa after Nigeria.

However, crime levels are still extremely high, especially in the poor communities. The levels of inequality caused by apartheid are still visible in everyday life.

Good quality education is still lacking and is sometimes only accessible to the more privileged middle and upper class.

“According to the World Economic Forum report South Africa ranks second last in mathematics and science education in the world. The poor who want to educate themselves at higher education institutes still mostly rely on government grants, private funding or high bank loans, which often take years to pay off.”

Thus, there are many challenges that South African scientists face today.

As a result of apartheid and the education system, we still lack many good quality scientists. Those who are qualified often leave our shores for more lucrative job opportunities in places like England, Europe, US and Australia. There is a push from the government to increase the number of PhD-qualified South Africans and to keep qualified professionals in the country.

However, it will probably take many more years to achieve education levels as seen in the First World. As a medical scientist we are faced with the task of doing research to help improve the quality of health in South Africa. Diseases such as H[V/Aids, tuberculosis and heart diseases are all common.

Research in these fields is not always supported as many of the local cultures believe in traditional medicine, rather than taking the medicine and d*gr from the Western backed pharmaceutical companies.

For myself, the biggest challenge is to use my knowledge and scientific background to teach others, from all cultures and races, to uplift and empower themselves through education, despite their social and economic backgrounds. I sincerely hope that my research into HIV/Aids in South Africa makes a valuable contribution towards curbing the epidemic we are fighting every day in my country.

Dr Graeme Jacobs (PhD magna cum laude University of Wuetzburg, Germany)

Medical Research Scientist

Division of Medical Virology

University of Stellenbosch, South Africa

Current research focus (2014): Tracking HIV/Aids resistance patterns in South Africa, sponsored by the National Research Foundation of South Africa.

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