In so doing, Prof Christoffels - Director of the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) - has become one of only three RSSAf fellows from UWC. The RASSAf is considered South Africa’s “premier” multidisciplinary scientific organisation. He joins Professor Renfrew Christie, former Dean of Research at the University, and Professor Michael Davies-Coleman, former Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences. Both are now retired.
Over the past 15 years, Prof Christoffels (pictured) has managed a successful South African national research chair in Bioinformatics and Health Genomics to deepen the integration of bioinformatics - the use of computational tools to interpret biological data - into public health.
His research team has earned international acclaim for developing methods to analyse next-generation sequencing data. In the context of infectious diseases, for instance, he has worked on genomic variants of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis through projects such as COMBAT-TB.
Prof Christoffels and SANBI have also taken leading roles in the field of pathogen genomics on the continent. In 2018, he supported the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), the public health agency of the African Union, in the development of an Africa-wide plan for strengthening disease surveillance using genomic sequencing. Following this foundational work, Africa CDC in 2020 launched the African Pathogen Genomics Initiative, a US$100-million, four-year partnership to expand access to next-generation genomic sequencing tools and expertise in Africa.
Prof Christoffels continues to serve as a senior advisor to the Africa CDC pathogen genomics and partnerships programmes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, SANBI has been central to implementing the African Pathogen Genomics Surveillance Network, with Prof Christoffels and his team providing both analytics support and leading the conceptualisation of a data platform to facilitate data sharing and analysis in the midst of a disease outbreak.
As of October 2021, he has also led the World Health Organisation Regional Office for Africa’s (WHO AFRO) Genomic Surveillance and Bioinformatics Centre at SANBI. The Centre supports Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries with genomics analysis for locally produced data.
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Internationally, Prof Christoffels leads the Public Health Alliance for Genomic Epidemiology (PHA4GE), an organisation comprising more than 100 members based at academic institutions around the globe. This international network has worked hard to develop analytical tools and ethics frameworks to support public health interventions.
“When one is in the research environment you are constantly growing because you are challenged all the time,” said Prof Christoffels.
One highlight of his research, he added, has been the privilege of conducting research within cross-disciplinary teams.
“I have been fortunate to work with people in the social sciences, in the health sciences, and the legal fraternity, and so this has really shaped my thinking around science being much broader in terms of its impact.”
Being named a fellow of the RSSAf is an honour and a privilege, he explained.
“The Society gives you credibility and recognition. And I think that in turn there is a responsibility on the recipient’s side to ensure that they continue to pursue scientific excellence in what they do.”
He has taken special delight in mentoring the next generation of scholars and scientists in South Africa. Beyond leading a large team of researchers, he has supervised 21 doctoral and 18 MSc students over his academic career - all of whom have graduated. Many more are still cutting their bioinformatics teeth with SANBI. In guiding these young up-and-coming researchers, he takes his cue from his own professors and supervisors.
“We all have a role to play both as mentees and mentors, and I value the exposure that my mentors have provided for me across the years,” he said. “I think I have certainly gained from that experience and from people coming alongside me and training me.
“So in turn, I am hoping that I can fulfill that same role as a mentor to others.”