Q&A with new Associate Member Professor Emile Chimusa
13 Nov 2019 - 13:30
Associate Member Dr Emile Chimusa
1. Why did you get into research?
I did not grow up wanting to be a Researcher. I wasn’t sure it was where I would end up. But I was driven by the passion of impacting and contributing to solving local problems – particularly in the health field. As Africans there’s a lot of challenges in terms of disease and diversity. I questioned how we understand our diversity – why people in the same community can face the same disease and be affected differently – if at all. With Africa as the homeland of humanity I questioned why we all look so different. Having been trained as a Mathematician I wanted to apply Maths in solving these problems.
2. Why specialise in Genetic Epidemiology?
My older sister passed away when I was in my second year of high school. She had cardiovascular disease. I wanted to understand why she was the only one in our family who got it. I learned that there are genes that pre-exposed her as a result of our ancestry.
I also had a good friend who passed away at 17. He had sickle cell – something we didn’t understand back then. What we knew was he was always suffering, always in pain. He couldn’t play with us. This triggered the question of why he had to die. Why he was the only one who got sick in his family. How do people in the same family have different allergies? Where does the variation come from? Why does the same treatment work differently and faster for some people?
My focus came from these personal experiences and trying to understand why we’re different now – and how we are going to be in 100 years. That’s the role of applied Mathematics in the Health Science, it’s predictive. I want to predict health and health risk the way they forecast the weather today. This could be accomplished with multidisciplinary molecular laboratory techniques like, Mathematics, computations, and algorithms that can mine genetic data to address those questions.
3. What would you like people to know/understand about that isn’t necessarily common knowledge?
Good Health is important. It’s the one thing everyone fights for. If everyone could know what’s going to happen with their health in a year or so they could plan for it. When our people are still young, they would have a better understanding of what to eat and how to behave to help maintain a healthy lifestyle. Of course, it would also depend on your lineage – your genetics. It’s a scientific prophecy on how to survive.
4. How does your work practically impact society?
It doesn’t always impact the way we want. For instance, with South African Coloured people the reality is that history shows them as being a neglected people. And so some carry a lot of anger, and some have turned to criminal behaviour. Genetics shows this population that they are unique in the world. That they can serve the world to help understand future traits of mixed ancestry. And this is an important step in helping them understand their identity and build confidence.
When we try to map/locate genes associated with diseases like TB and HIV we can find a gene susceptible to TB in South Africa. That person will have that gene because of their ancestry. And so they should behave differently to reduce the chances of getting ill; cut down their smoking if they do. The knowledge people can get from genetic testing could allow the population to shape their lifestyle accordingly. Genetic tests can show mutations or that genes are susceptible to certain illnesses – that’s where the counselling come in, informing the public about their health risks.
5. Practically – what does this accolade, becoming an Associate Member, mean for your work?
The IDM (Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine) is well-known and has great members who do great work. It’s among the best-ranking institutions in the world. In this era of machine learning and big “OMICS” data science, joining the IDM for me was an important next step. It meant working with Professors Colette Dandara, Ambroise Wonkam, Nicola Mulder and Raj Ramaser – people I’ve worked with before. But becoming an Associate Member has meant moving to the next level with big “OMICS” data – using my expertise. Working with established people at the IDM will encourage my work – the science – to go to the next level.
6. What do you hope to achieve, career-wise, in the long term?
Health forecasting. If I could do that I’d retire. I’d move onto my other passion – making music.
7. What do you enjoy about your work?
There’s a lot of pain in my work because the nature of it is so hectic – so challenging. I have 1 4 00 terabytes of data that can be lost at any moment as they are in Scratch disks of High-Performance Computing. All the students’ works is on there. We have a huge storage and big genomics data management problem. But for a single petabyte storage capacity you’re looking at R2million. That’s the same as buying a house. Even with these challenges I enjoy it when graduate students offer positive testimonies of the training they’ve received from the group. That’s very satisfying.
Also when people and researchers around the world read my articles and research and acknowledge me it’s a great feeling. It’s encouraging when I’m invited to come teach or present my work or do training overseas. And in the community when we offer feedback to patients/study participants and they respond with a smile after learning something about themselves – that’s very rewarding.
8. Advice to early-career researchers looking to follow in similar footsteps?
To be passionate. That’s the motivation you need. Long ago Isaac Newton etc. didn’t have funding but he did the work. I do the work because I’m excited to help my people. The recognition will come later. You must be driven and focused on solving local demands. We have an issue of infectious diseases in Africa. We have different environments and so exposure to the infections will be different for different people in different geographical spaces on the continent. Our gut microbes will be different and so we will our ability to resist infections. That’s a challenge and opportunity for those entering into research in this space. For them to focus on a local problem – we have a lot of those. For them to be driven by passion to solve that problem like it’s their own.
One for the kids: Explain what you do to a five-year old:
I have young twins; a boy and a girl. And when they asked me what I did I put different food on the table. I then asked them to help themselves. The boy took some things. The girl took others. I then asked them why they chose what they did if they are twins – they weren’t sure how to answer. I then explained that my research is to try and understand the origin and case of those differences and variations. Recognising that those characters may come or be inherited from me and their mom.