UCT TB Professor achieves highest SA rating

19 Mar 2015 - 15:15

Colleagues and students in the Faculty of Health Sciences were recently thrilled by the news that Professor Robert J Wilkinson, Director of the Clinical Infectious Disease Research Initiative (CIDRI). Full Member of the Institute for Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM) and Honorary Professor in the Department of Medicine, had been awarded an A1 rating – the highest – by the National Research Foundation (NRF).

Prof Robert Wilkinson talks at recent EDCTP visit, showcasing important work that CIDRI is doing to tackle HIV-associated TB. Photo courtesy of the IDM

The NRF grants an A1 rating to a researcher who is “recognised by all reviewers as a leading scholar in his/her field internationally for the high quality and wide impact (i.e. beyond a narrow field of specialisation) of his/her recent outputs”.  An A1 rating is thus a rare honour, reserved for the most distinguished researchers – he is one of 13 A1 rated scientists among 34 A-rated researchers currently at UCT. Nationally, UCT has one third of all A-rated researchers in the country.

“I’m honoured to gain South African national recognition, and never knew there were so few such researchers so recognised,” was the reaction of Prof Wilkinson.

“We are delighted at the news,” says Interim Dean Professor Gregory Hussey. “Robert deserves this acknowledgement. I want to thank him for the significant contribution he has made to the Faculty over the past 10 - 15 years, adding exceptional value to the Faculty, particularly in deveIopments at the IDM, where he was a founder member, explains Prof Hussey.

IDM Director Prof Valerie Mizrahi says Prof Wilkinson has profoundly influenced strategic thinking for many years as a member of the Institute’s Executive Committee, and currently, as a member of the IDM Management Board. On a personal level, she partly attributes her relocation from Gauteng to UCT in 2011 to Prof Wilkinson for his support in refurbishing a laboratory in the IDM to accommodate her group’s TB research programme at UCT.

Prof Wilkinson joined UCT in 2004 as an Honorary Associate Professor from Imperial College in the UK, became Honorary Professor in 2007, and then Director of CIDRI in 2008. He is a Wellcome Trust Senior Fellow in Clinical Science, an MRC Programme Leader at the National Institute for Medical Research London and a Professor in Infectious Diseases at Imperial College London. His major research interest is understanding and intervening in tuberculosis and HIV-associated tuberculosis. He typically underplays his role at the IDM. When asked about his experience of his time at UCT, he says, “I believe that the IDM has fostered critical mass to become the best environment to research tuberculosis in the world”.

As Principal Investigator of a strategic award from the Wellcome Trust, Prof Wilkinson set up CIDRI to develop human and physical research capacity and promote scientific collaboration in Southern Africa, focusing on high-burden infectious diseases relevant to the African continent. 

“CIDRI is now a model for research capacity development in the Faculty,” says Prof Mizrahi.  

Colleague (and former student) Prof Graeme Meintjes credits Prof Wilkinson with leading the development of an integrated TB research platform in Cape Town that spans from the high burden clinical setting in Khayelitsha to state-of-the art laboratory investigation at UCT over the past 10 years.

“Robert’s work linking the clinical with fundamental research regarding the TB bacteria and the human immune response to TB is internationally recognised,” he says. The research has broken new ground in understanding the spectrum of how the immune system controls or fails to control TB, how HIV, ARVs and vitamin D impacts this, and how the immune system sometimes contributes to the TB disease process through excessive inflammation. His research has also tested new strategies for preventing TB and findings have influenced international guidelines.

The impact of Prof Wilkinson’s contribution to income generation in the Faculty is also particularly impressive.

“Among colleagues there is profound appreciation of the significant funding Rob has generated for research capacity development, and for the Faculty,“ says Prof Hussey. In the process, many entry-level South African researchers have been given the opportunity to be trained and obtain postgraduate degrees working within a research team that has an international impact. 

His contribution to nurturing the new generation of clinician scientist, not only in South Africa, but beyond, is best summed up by IDM Director Prof Val Mizrahi’s observation that “Robert's ability to identify and nurture scientific talent is quite remarkable, as evidenced by his outstanding track record of producing professors!”.  Prof Meintjes is one such bright young researcher developing a name for himself in HIV research under the guidance of Prof Wilkinson.

“He challenges those whom he supervises to think out of the box when defining their research questions, and aim high in terms of the scientific and health impacts of the research to be conducted,” says Prof Meintjes of his colleague.

Wilkinson travels extensively across the world - around 300 000 kilometers per year within Africa, and to Europe and North America -  as a fundraiser, speaker and to further collaboration. The NRF award, he says, could not have been achieved without the dedication of a team of over 50 people. He mentions specifically the help of Rob Morrell and Yolande Harley with respect to the application to the NRF.  Then last but not least, the support of his family, his wife Katalin who also works in the same area, and his two boys, Bertie (13) and Johnny (8).  And, besides enjoying cooking and the outdoors with his family, how does this man with his unrelenting schedule pass his spare time, we ask?

“I stare out of aeroplane windows, preferably from the sharp end”, he says cheekily with the dry wit he is known for.

But it is all seriousness when he confirms that his personal goal is to make a contribution to reduce the incidence of tuberculosis in southern Africa – epitomising the strong passion that has catapulted him as one of the top rated researchers in the country.

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