After nine years at the helm, Dr Jane Morris retired as Director of the ACGT at the end of January 2011. With this move, she winds down a professional career characterised by significant growth and dedicated leadership.
Dr Morris – along with Dr Terry Watson (ex CSIR) and Profs Mike Wingfield and Henk Huismans of the University of Pretoria (UP) – was a founding member of the ACGT in 2001, in its first incarnation as the SERA (Southern Education and Research Alliance) Task Team on Biotechnology. “The idea of the Task Team was to look at the ‘white spaces’ in Biotechnology that were not really being addressed, as well as identifying where CSIR and UP could work together in this context. It was at a time when big breakthroughs were happening in sequencing the human genome and a whole new area of genomics began opening up. We were concerned that South Africa might end up being left behind in this genomics revolution if we didn’t start to make earnest efforts to work together”, she says.
It was under the auspices of this Task Team that a business plan was put together for a centre for genetics and, consequently, the African Centre for Gene Technologies was born – the acronym for which represented the four bases of DNA. As the Strategic Technology Manager at what is now the CSIR Biosciences unit, Dr Morris was then appointed to officially head up this new centre in 2002.
According to her, the task of leading the ACGT was never an easy one – even in those very early days. “The concept of what the ACGT actually was really developed as we went along. It had always been a point of contention whether or not to grow it into an independent entity. Eventually the view that prevailed was that maintaining the link to its partners in fact acted to strengthen the Centre. This way it could also serve as a vehicle for the partner institutions to have a single face to the world, allowing them all to be represented on a whole host of stakeholder forums”.
Being based on the notion that the advanced biotechnology space was too wide for any one institution to try to tackle on its own, there had always been a drive to involve other players in the region. “In attracting new partners, the big question became ‘Can you demonstrate success?’. We had to show that we were able to get ourselves into big international programmes”, says Dr Morris.
Through successes like the South African Malaria Initiative – which had itself grown out of the ACGT, and participation as the only African partner in the CGIAR Generation Challenge Programme consortium, the ACGT has been able to grow from a four-member task team to a regional centre that now boasts five partner institutions.
For Dr Morris, this achievement of attracting additional partners is a major highlight of her tenure as ACGT Director. “I feel now like I can move on, secure that the ACGT is on a solid base”. Another highlight for her has been the ability of the ACGT to drive outreach into the rest of Africa. “We’ve been associated with a lot of programmes that have involved different countries in Africa and I have personally enjoyed being a part of these international initiatives”, she says.
Although the ACGT’s successes have been significant, Dr Morris points out that the journey has not been without its challenges. “One thing that we have grappled with is the issue of finding the space where we can add actual value. A lot of things happen within the partner institutions and people collaborate one-to-one without necessarily needing to do it through the ACGT office. You have to ask where the ACGT can add value to a particular collaboration and be very careful not to try to force everything under an ACGT umbrella”, she says.
Related to this is the issue of identity. “What we want people to understand is that the ACGT is not just this office. It is the individual scientists within the partner institutions. We try to encourage the scientists to ask not only ‘What can the ACGT do for me?’ but also ‘How can I contribute to the ACGT?’”, explains Dr Morris.
Additionally, as the Centre grows to include more partners, Dr Morris believes that the task of identifying synergies between the institutions will become more intricate. “When looking at their individual strengths and weaknesses, the ACGT will need to be able to recognize the specific points where the partners will see benefit in working with each other”.
According to her, challenges such as these are complex and ongoing, but not insurmountable. She cites the recent establishment of regular forums where scientists from different institutions can get together, and the compilation of the ACGT database, as meaningful strides that the Centre has made towards identifying some of the synergies that may not be immediately apparent.
In Dr Morris’ estimation there are also a number of opportunities that lie ahead. Among these is the development of a working framework for mutual sharing of equipment. “If we can achieve easy access to equipment between institutions and minimise the cost of access, we can remove one of the biggest current limitations to the science – particularly in our more under-resourced institutions. We have an opportunity to create a situation where there are virtually no boundaries between the institutions”, she says.
She also maintains that the ACGT has the potential to make a global mark in the health sciences sector. “We are well positioned to raise some very big grants and really get things going”, she adds. In this regard, she believes that in the short to medium-term funding will have to largely be from international sources. “I think local funding will continue to be patchy for a while. Long-term continuity is still a big issue in this country. The norm is currently funding cycles of about three years which are not sustainable for really good science”.
Looking back, Dr Morris contends that while the ACGT has come a long way under her leadership, she could not have achieved what she has without the support of the partner institutions and the contributions of every scientist that has been involved over the years. “I particularly want to thank Prof Robin Crewe of the University of Pretoria who has provided great support throughout this entire journey”, she says.
Dr Morris will stay on with the ACGT in a part-time consulting role for six months to assist the new ACGT manager, Dr John Becker. Thereafter she hopes to continue her work here and in other parts of Africa through her private consultancy company.