Dr Jennifer Giandhari, a UKZN academic, virologist, and platform manager at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) has been granted a prestigious National Research Foundation (NRF) grant of R7.7 million for her work in advancing rapid genomic surveillance to respond effectively to pandemics.
Giandhari, who hails from Chatsworth, Durban was inspired to become a scientist after she witnessed family members facing health issues. She said, ‘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.’
With a host of degrees under her belt, Giandhari boasts a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Sciences, an Honours in Medical Biochemistry, a Master’s in Virology, a Doctor of Philosophy in Medical Virology and has served two postdoctoral fellowships, one at UKZN and the other at the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA). With a passion for life-long learning, Giandhari went on to qualify with a Masters of Business Administration from Regent.
Currently on maternity leave with her two-month-old daughter and also mother to a nine-year-old daughter and a six-year-old son; Giandhari is excited about her work which will advance knowledge of pathogen genomics in terms of transmission and drug resistance, subjects ranked high on the national research agenda by South Africa’s National Department of Health. ‘Together with the rest of the world, we 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 was part of the group at KRISP at the forefront of SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance in South Africa. ‘As part of the Network for Genomic Surveillance South Africa (NGS-SA) we set up a network to help respond rapidly to the pandemic. Through a collaborative effort with the Africa Centre for Disease Control, we also provided genomic surveillance to many other African countries. As part of our collaborative efforts we trained delegates from all over Africa in laboratory sequencing in order to increase sequencing capacity,’ said Giandhari.
Director of KRISP, professor of bioinformatics, genomics expert and a leader in African science during the COVID-19 pandemic; Professor Tulio De Oliveira commented, ‘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. Furthermore, the machine will be used at KRISP as the main centre to train thousands of African scientists which is positive for the continent.’
Dean and Head of the School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences, Professor Musa Mabandla congratulated Giandhari on being awarded this sought-after grant: ‘Since arriving in the School as a postdoc and subsequently an academic, Jennifer 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 in the School, she didn’t skip a beat in seamlessly moving from a research-only portfolio to one that includes teaching. She has also been pivotal in hosting the workshops run by the School and College for staff and students, and has lived our aim of becoming the Premier University of African Scholarship by being involved in training researchers through the continent on sequencing. She truly does inspire greatness. Obtaining another sequencer through this grant will not only enhance the research done in the School and College but will also ensure that the instrument pays for itself in line with the School’s innovation and commercialisation drive.’
Words: MaryAnn Francis