Rising Star Award recipient Dr Sabelo Hadebe on forging a career out of immunology

14 May 2024 | Story Rebecca Crowie. Photo Rebecca Crowie.

Dr Sabelo Hadebe, a senior lecturer in the immunology division in the Faculty of Health Sciences, was one of 15 global recipients of the Rising Star Award from the International Union of Immunological Society in December 2023. The award recognises outstanding early-career professionals who have made significant contributions to the field of immunology and their communities.

Hadebe was born and raised in a village outside Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. His parents, like many of their contemporaries, had only obtained a high school education. Hadebe may have been predisposed in this direction but, through his exposure to paragons of science and his strong spirit of curiosity about them, chose to take responsibility for his destiny by investigating immunology as a career prospect. The rising star has certainly reaped the rewards of his determination, having attained global distinction as an immunologist at only age 38.

Rebecca Crowie (RC): What got you interested in immunology?
Sabelo Hadebe (SH):
I only discovered immunology when I got to university. As you can imagine, in South African villages the only career paths we knew about were being a doctor, a nurse (although frowned upon for a heterosexual male), a policeman or a teacher. I commenced my BSc in life sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) in 2005. The previous year, UKZN was formed through a merger between the University of Natal and the University of Durban-Westville, and Professor Malegapuru Makgoba was elected the first vice-chancellor of the merged university. I researched a bit into him only to discover that he was an immunologist and had done medicine and a PhD in immunogenetics at Oxford University.

I asked my lecturer in first-year biology — Dr Finley — what I needed to do as a major if I wanted to be an immunologist. At the time, a master’s and a PhD in immunology were only offered at UCT and overseas. Ten years later, I graduated with a PhD in immunobiology in the United Kingdom and did my first postdoctoral fellowship through the National Institute for Medical Research at Mill Hill Laboratory, London, before I joined UCT as a research fellow.

RC: You took home the Rising Star Award in December 2023, a triumphant way to close a year. What skill or ability served you well in achieving this?
The people who received this award were all high-flyers and all came from superb institutes across the world. I was therefore extremely pleased to be recognised alongside them. Generally, the criteria are an excellent publication record and good science. Most of the rising stars have been published in leading journals in their respective fields.

I think scientific rigour is important. Don’t chase numbers or trends — produce science that you are happy with. Also, scientific discovery is not a sprint; it is a marathon, so take your time to hone your craft. Always choose collaboration over competition. Never be afraid to say you don’t know. Discovery begins when one doesn’t know and wishes to know.

RC: Are there any inspiring mentors you’d like to credit?
I have been very lucky to have worked with bright immunologists in various institutes who all shaped my career in different ways. I do give credit to Professor Alain Boulangé, a researcher in molecular parasitology who gave me my first lab experience as a third-year student in parasitology (the study of parasites and their hosts). I appreciated the scientific rigour I received at Mill Hill Laboratory, where no idea was impossible. Siamon Gordon, a British-South African pathologist, is still one of the sharpest immunologists South Africa has produced. He is very generous with his time and ideas.

RC: Allergies are increasing at breakneck speed. A growing number of people are developing allergies to nuts, for instance, which is confounding as nuts are fruits. What explains the modern-day proliferation of allergies?
This is quite a complex topic. Currently, there are several theories on why we developed allergic diseases. We have the hygiene hypothesis (“we are too clean for our own good”, coined by David Strachan in the late 1980s) and the barrier defect hypothesis (“industrialisation and detergents have worn off our first line of defence.”)

The questions scientists are really focused on are, “Why did Type 2 immunity [an arm of the immune system designed to deal with parasitic infections] evolve when it would be detrimental to the host, as seen in allergic diseases? Was it intended to be detrimental, or was it seized by the dust, the pollen or the nut to cause a random allergic reaction?” The answer probably lies between these theories.

RC: What energises you in your profession?
I enjoy discovery science, and immunology provides me with that. The immune system is so complex and so intricately controlled. I think we only know a fraction of what the immune system can do, despite numerous Nobel prizes given to immunologists in recent times. I think the possibility of what we can learn about our immune system in a healthy state can tell us a lot about other processes like ageing, health and human adaptation to the environment.

RC: Beyond UCT, what causes do you support?
I currently am involved in two non-governmental organisations and one nonprofit organisation, which are all around education. One of them looks at how we improve literacy and numeracy in people as young as 7. We often don’t think about how we learn maths and it’s a skill that can be taught at a young age. I also teach much older people how to develop a good and sound master’s or PhD proposal. You are very likely to find me in any organisation that seeks to address transformation and structural changes in the higher education sector.

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