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Accolades for advancing public health, for good

- Wits University

Medals for health scientists at South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) Scientific Merit Awards.

Professor Rachel Jewkes received a platinum Lifetime Achievement award, while Wits recipients of SAMRC Gold Medals included Professors Cheryl Cohen, Penny Moore, Wendy Stevens, and Stephen Tollman. Doctor Jinal Bhiman received a Silver Medal.

SAMRC Scientific Award Winners Wits 600x300

Cohen, Moore, and Bhiman are join-staff members of Wits and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

Platinum award for research into what works to prevent violence

The Platinum Lifetime Achievement Award is for an outstanding scientist who has raised the profile of South African science and helped build the foundations of health research in the country for future generations.

Awardee Professor Rachel Jewkes is the Director of the What Works to Prevent Violence Global Programme, as well the Executive Scientist: Research Strategy in the SAMRC Office of the President, and Secretary of the Sexual Violence Research Initiative.

She is an honorary professor in the School of Public Health at Wits and a public health physician.

Jewkes has spent 20 years undertaking research into violence against women and girls and gender inequity and health, mainly in South Africa.

She was the lead technical advisor to the UN Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific, is a member of the WHO Expert Advisory Panel on Injury and Violence Prevention and Control, and the WHO Scientific and Technical Advisory Group on HIV.

She is an author of over 150 peer reviewed journal publications, and more than a 100 book chapters, reviews, and technical reports.

Future looks golden for public health in developing countries

The SAMRC Gold Medals are awarded to accomplished senior scientists who have made seminal contributions that have had a profound impact on the health of people, particularly those residing in developing nations. Witsies awarded in this category were Professors Cheryl Cohen, Penny Moore, Wendy Stevens, and Stephen Tollman.

L_R Dr Jinal Bhiman silver medal, Prof. Steve Tollman gold medal, Prof. Rachel Jewkes platinum lifetime achievement SAMRC scientific merit awards 600x300.j

Who catches and transmits ‘flu in SA and the implications for vaccination

Professor Cheryl Cohen is a medical doctor who specialises in clinical microbiology. The Wits alumna is Professor of Epidemiology in the Wits School of Public Health and Head of the Centre for Respiratory Disease and Meningitis at the NICD.

Cohen works closely with the National Department of Health to generate evidence that guides policy about the control and management of respiratory diseases.

She leads a research team in the field of respiratory diseases with a focus on the burden of disease, risk groups and transmission, as well as assessments of the impact and effectiveness of interventions to reduce disease burden.

During the COVID-19 epidemic in South Africa, she led the workstream for surveillance programmes and public reporting and she is a member of the Ministerial Advisory Committee for COVID-19 vaccines.

In 2022, her profile featured in Lancet Infectious Diseases – Promoting Evidence-based Health Policy and, in 2020, she received a personal profile feature in the World Health Organization’s Bulletin.

In 2009, Cohen led the establishment of a national surveillance programme for severe acute respiratory infections in South Africa.

She serves on several national and international advisory committees and working groups concerned mainly with influenza and other respiratory viruses, including serving on the Board of the International Society for Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses, and she chairs the African Network for Influenza Surveillance and Epidemiology.

She previously received the SAMRC Silver Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Health Research. 

WATCH Cohen’s SAMRC Gold Medal video

Understanding the immunology and virology of HIV and COVID-19

Penny Moore is a Research Professor and Head of the Divisions of Immunology and Virology at Wits University and the NICD and Director of the Antibody Immunity Research Unit (AIRU) at the SAMRC.

Professor Penny Moore wins a silver medal at the SAMRC Scientific Merit Awards 600x300.jpg

She leads a multi-disciplinary team of more than 15 scientists and 10 postgraduate students who work largely in the fields of HIV and COVID-19 vaccine discovery, combining Virology, Immunology, Protein Biochemistry and Bioinformatics.

Moore has worked in the HIV vaccine field for more than 20 years and has made seminal contributions to understanding how broadly neutralising antibodies develop in HIV infection.

Understanding the pathway to neutralising breadth has provided a template for HIV vaccine design strategies, many of which are now being tested in human clinical trials.

During the pandemic, Moore and her team adapted their skills and platforms to conduct research on SARS-CoV-2. Moore emerged as a globally recognized leader in defining and characterising variants of concern, and her lab published several high impact papers defining the humoral response to SARS-CoV-2 infection and vaccination.

Moore has a very strong focus on mentorship and capacity development. She supervises several postgraduate students and post-doctoral fellows within her lab and across several other institutes.

She serves on the advisory committees of national and African capacity development and training initiatives, as well as on the scientific advisory boards of several international virology institutes and research consortia in Europe, America and Australia.

In 2020 Moore received the National Research Foundation B1 rating.

In 2018 she was awarded the South African Medical Research Council Silver Medal.

WATCH Moore’s SAMRC Gold Medal video

Innovations in diagnosing HIV, TB

Professor Wendy Stevens  is a specialist pathologist whose research priorities over more than 25 years have been predominantly in haematological malignancies, HIV and TB.

She is Divisional Executive Director and initiator of the Wits Diagnostic Innovation Hub (Wits DIH). This hub, established in October 2022 and managed as a syndicate by the Wits Health Consortium, has as its primary objective the continued provision of affordable and accessible innovative diagnostics to those who need it the most. The hub has expanded the diagnostic portfolio to include non-communicable diseases and molecular oncology.

Stevens has contributed significantly to the diagnosis, monitoring, and capacity-building in the field of HIV and TB. In this regard, Stevens has been responsible for the roll out of affordable CD4, viral load, EID and HIV drug resistance programmes in South Africa and at 60 centres in sub-Saharan Africa – including national molecular TB testing to 207 sites. These programmes have been extended to vulnerable populations such as the Correctional Services and peri-mining communities.

In 2020 she pivoted her team’s focus towards COVID-19 activities and leveraged their experience in laboratory medicine to respond to necessary diagnostics for COVID-19. In this regard, her team was responsible for National assay validation; molecular, serology and antigen/antibody-based testing.

Her success is due to the development of a strong research, operations and translational laboratory medicine, and multi-disciplinary implementation team to support national disease priorities.

This has included many innovations to address weaknesses in the pathology value chain to strive towards sustainable laboratory capacity in Africa.

WATCH Stevens’s SAMRC Gold Medal video

Advancing South African rural health research over the life course

Stephen Tollman is a Research Professor and Head of the Division of Health and Population at Wits University’s School of Public Health.

He is also the Director of the SAMRC/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt).

Agincourt is one of six Health and Demographic Surveillance Sites (HDSS), of which the South African Population Infrastructure Network (SAPRIN) is comprised.

Tollman introduced the Agincourt HDSS In 1992/3, which today covers a ‘whole population cohort’ of about 120,000 people in 22,000 households and 31 villages in Mpumalanga Province in South Africa – adjacent to the Kruger National Park near southern Mozambique.

He played lead roles in establishing SA and African research networks that harness the strengths of longitudinal research platforms for example SAPRIN and INDEPTH Network.

These all generate vital insights into health and population transitions covering dramatic socio-political change, the HIV/AIDS epidemic and rise in cardiometabolic conditions, coupled with mental ill-health and COVID-19, which together render multimorbidity a pervasive challenge.

WATCH Tollman’s SAMRC Gold Medal video

Ascending the podium after postgraduate research

SAMRC Silver Medals are awarded to scientists who have made important scientific contributions within 10 years of having been awarded their PhD or Master of Medicine (MMed).

This year, the Silver Medal awardee from Wits was Dr Jinal Bhiman. She is a Lecturer in the SAMRC Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics Research Unit (Wits VIDA). 

Exploring HI viral evolution to design HIV vaccines

Dr. Jinal Bhiman is Co-principal investigator for Global Immunology and Immune Sequencing for Epidemic Response in South Africa (GIISER-SA). She researches HIV virus-host dynamics, with a focus on how viral evolution during chronic HIV infection can be exploited to design preventative vaccines. Other research interests in the viral respiratory pathogen field focus on influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Transformative, innovative, collaborative research

Chairman of the SAMRC Board, Professor Johnny Mahlangu, said: “I am filled with profound gratitude and admiration for the remarkable achievements we have witnessed at these awards. Allow me to extend my heartfelt thanks to each of you for your unwavering commitment to advancing the frontiers of science and medicine.”

Mahlangu is also a Professor and the former Head of the School of Pathology at Wits.

Glenda Gray Wits Prof and SAMRC CEO and President at the SAMRC Scientific Merit Awards600x300

Professor Glenda Gray, President and CEO of the SAMRC, said: “Medical research remains fundamental for transformation, innovation and collaboration in advancing scientific discovery. Celebrating medical research excellence not only honours the achievements of researchers but also inspires progress, fosters collaboration, and enhances the overall impact of scientific advancements on global health and well-being.”

Gray, who is a Wits alumna and Research Professor in the Paediatric HIV Research Unit (PHRU) at the University,  steps down from the helm at the SAMRC in 2024 to return to research at her alma mater.