NAS Featured scientist: Prof Jan Verschoor (Research Leader: Tuberculosis Research Group in the Department of Biochemistry, Genetics and Microbiology)
Q: Why did you choose to study Biochemistry?
A: I dreamt of developing laboratory solutions against diseases already from the age of 10. Nothing fascinated me as much as biology. Since my secondary school years, I preferred to read books on biology and nature, rather than fiction.
Q: Why is science, including Biochemistry, important?
A: All of humanity are burdened by two vices that have to be overcome in order to live happily: Fear and Laziness. Fear thrives on a lack of knowledge and is used to justify Laziness. The study of science provides that kind of energy and substance to overcome Fear, while simultaneously making it fun to work, thereby suppressing Laziness. It is such a privilege to be able to understand how TB, Covid and AIDS came about and therefore to be able to behave intelligently to help people deal with these pandemics. Biochemistry is the discipline that is best focused on understanding diseases of all kinds.
Q: How did you get involved in research on Tuberculosis?
A: From being called to UP to launch a course in Immunology at the Department of Biochemistry in 1976, my desire was fulfilled to study at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel in 1982-1983 to become the first scientist to develop monoclonal antibodies in South Africa. I first applied this wonderful technology to study cancer, but the political change of 1994 provided better research opportunities to study infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. A South African pharmaceutical company helped me to become established in this field, in which I am still active, even after my retirement in 2018.
Q: Why do we need to celebrate/observe World TB Day?
A: Thematic days are there to stop the usual work for a moment in order to reflect on the purpose of it all, much like the Sabbath day in a week of work. Are we still on track? How did the world change over the last year to impact that? Are we grateful for successes and alert to new challenges? It speaks for itself that this year’s World TB day will reflect on the impact of Covid-19 on the fight against TB. It is important to understand both pandemics to be able to make the right decisions for the road ahead.
Q: Please give us a glimpse of your most recent research.
A: The most important tool for the management of a pandemic is accurate diagnosis at the point of care that is affordable, robust, easy to operate, independent of sophisticated infrastructure and amenable to high sample throughput. Since 1994, I was bent on achieving that for diagnosing active tuberculosis at point of care. Having established the basic tenets for such a device with my students by 2018, I am now involved in a UP start-up company with a number of my postgraduate students to overcome the challenges of innovation to convert our inventions into a handheld TB diagnostic product ready for validation and clinical trials to determine its suitability for the market.
Q: Highlights of your career?
A: After my training in Israel, The Netherlands and the UK as an immunochemist, the other highlight of my career was to thrive on the positive energy from undergraduate students in sharing each research breakthrough with them in the undergraduate curriculum and then to see them grow into postgraduate research to achieve goals of innovation towards a better life.
Q: What qualities does a good scientist need?
A: It is to be spiritually called for such a career. It requires endless patience and is not a fast way to wealth and fame; yet is one of the most fulfilling careers that one can undertake.
Q: If you can be somebody else for a day, who would it be and why?
A: That would be the trumpet player and singer, Louis Armstrong. To be black and underprivileged, yet achieve world fame and stay humble and grateful, thereby radiating encouragement to and empathy with suffering people. Besides that, I believe he was an excellent teacher of music to underprivileged children. My favourite song by Armstrong is “What a wonderful world”. In my current golden years of retirement, I share my continued scientific involvement with learning to master music and the saxophone under the tuition of a Nigerian saxophone player, who is also a PhD student in Molecular Biology at UNISA.
Q: What words/beliefs do you live by?
A: By knowing that God’s spirit lives in me, the prayer “Hallowed be Thy Name” directs integrity of attitude, thoughts, words and acts in every hour, day, week and year of my life.