Presenter: Prof Trevor Sewell, University of Cape Town
Professor Trevor Sewell was born in Cape Town. He matriculated at St David’s College, Inanda, Johannesburg and proceeded to study Physics at the University of the Witwatersrand. During that time he became interested in using Physics to gain insight into the workings of biological systems especially through understanding their structure. His work on imaging spectrin molecules in the human erythrocyte membrane with the electron microscope led to a Masters degree in 1976. Following this he went to England where he completed his PhD in Protein Crystallography under the supervision of Sir Tom Blundell, initially at the University of Sussex and subsequently at Birkbeck College, London.
The late1970s were an extraordinarily fortunate time to study crystallography. Many modern methods were invented during this period and studying at the Department of Crystallography, Birkbeck College made it possible to meet all the leading practitioners in the field at that time. Trevor studied an aspartate protease and his work led directly to the subsequent recognition of a variant of this molecule in the Human Immunodeficiency Virus. On his return to South Africa in 1980 he worked initially at the National Chemical Research Institute at the CSIR. In 1981, he was appointed as a lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry at UCT, headed at the time by Professor Claus von Holt. He initiated research on the structure of chromatin using electron tomography–a technique that enabled the visualization of chromatin molecules in three dimensions using the electron microscope.
In 1992 he was appointed Director of the Electron Microscope Unit. This was an important career move as it enabled him to introduce the latest techniques in three-dimensional electron microscopy as well as acquire the first modern cryo-electron microscopes in South Africa. The early research successes were a result of collaboration with Professor Helen Saibil at Birkbeck College, made possible by generous funding from the Wellcome Trust.
He was awarded substantial funding by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to establish a joint Masters programme in Structural Biology with the University of the Western Cape. This programme, which produced some twenty graduates, marked the genesis of protein crystallography and established the field of Structural Biology in South Africa. Protein structure determination at UCT has contributed to biotechnology, virology and drug discovery through the study of several proteins and protein families at various levels of resolution. These form the basis of his ‘atomic perspective on biology’.
Developments in the recent past, including South Africa becoming an associate member of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, have made protein structural studies much more accessible to the current generation of researchers and have made the incorporation of structural work into many biomedical projects relatively straightforward.
Trevor has served the scientific community on numerous UCT, regional and national bodies. He is a member of several influential professional societies, and is a member of the UCT Institute for Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine. In 2010, Trevor joined the Division of Medical Biochemistry and was promoted ad hominem to full professor from the beginning of 2011.