03 AUGUST 2021 | STORY NOBHONGO GXOLO. PHOTO JE’NINE MAY. Read time 7 min.
Growing up in Yaoundé, Cameroon, Professor Ambroise Wonkam pursued an atypical career path: medical research. Having decided early on in his education journey that he would follow an academic career, he thought one of the best ways to do this was through training in basic science. For him this meant exploring cell biology, which would end up being his gateway into genetics. An award-winning and world-renowned geneticist recognised for his work in sickle cell disease (SCD), he recently completed a three-year term as the Deputy Dean for Research (DDR) at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS). Professor Wonkam is one of two recipients of the 2020 Alan Pifer Award.
The prestigious award is the vice-chancellor’s annual prize in recognition of outstanding welfare-related research. Designed to encourage socially responsive research at UCT, the accolade honours researchers whose work is making a difference in the lives of disadvantaged communities in the country. This year, it is shared between Wonkam and Professor Cathy Ward in the Department of Psychology.
Wonkam’s work is directly focused on both rare and common genetic diseases in vulnerable populations. His introduction to SCD was based on him witnessing its prevalence in his own environment. In the past, there were a lot of affected children in Africa who would die undiagnosed. There was also high morbidity of chronic, debilitating complications in adults because of SCD.
But over time, improved resources and fine-tuned diagnostics tools have led to increased identification of more children with SCD, resulting in improved life expectancy and access to treatment in high-income countries.