Stellenbosch University
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What a difference a Dave makes
Author: Jackie Pienaar-Brink
Published: 04/01/2018

He is the professor who enlivens a long meeting by an atrocious pun. Also the one who asks you after your presentation why you chose this specific statistical test over another one.

He is the friend who shows up for a visit with a board game under the arm and the photographer who asks you to stand just so. And he is the colleague who grins broadly when he sees you coming down the hallway.

This is Prof Dave Tabb – in his own words.

He is also an American who uprooted himself with some difficulty after a decision in 2015 to become part of the South African story. Yet it seems as if this specialist in the field of proteome informatics found his feet in South Africa personally and professionally quite speedily.

Tabb, who enjoys the company of a local high school teacher when away from the office, commenced his work in the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS) at Stellenbosch University (SU) on 1 December 2015.

He is the younger of two brothers. Until very recently he was the only member of his family with a passport. He does not hesitate to admit that the prospect of moving to a new continent intimidated him. He pressed forward, despite challenges such as a visa process which required six months to navigate and the knowledge that his compensation would be reduced in the new position. “Along the way I have been described as anything from 'stubborn' and 'crazy' to 'brave'. I will settle for 'persistent'."

What attracted him to his current job at Stellenbosch University?

“I wanted to work at an institution where my skills would make the largest possible impact. Although South Africa faces genuine public health challenges, it has a solid research infrastructure to combat it. As more institutions acquire mass spectrometers for use in biomedical research, I believe a critical need will develop for bioinformaticians trained to work with such data. SU advertised a position attached to the South African Tuberculosis Bioinformatics Initiative, and our conversation started soon thereafter."

Tabb has a five year appointment which is partly funded by the Medical Research Council. This means that he serves as a bioinformatics resource for TB researchers countrywide.

He believes in “being useful," is his concise answer when asked about his work approach. “If our division needs me to field biostatistics questions, I will do my utmost to do so. I believe proteomics and metabolomics will see broadening use throughout South Africa, and fostering that development is a priority for me. Ensuring that masters and PhD students in our division are well-equipped in numeracy is quite enjoyable."

Tabb commenced his work in proteomics in 1996, the year when he obtained his BSc degree at the Arkansas University. The focus was bioinformatics, which enabled protein identification by means of tandem mass spectrometry. “I don't generate data, but can help someone determine what it means," he explains.

He obtained a doctorate at the University of Washington in 2003. Afterwards he worked as a postdoctoral student at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and as a tenured associate professor at Vanderbilt University.

 One of his hobbies is to portray the beauty of his new home by means of his blog,

 He has also derived much pleasure from singing in choirs during the past decade. He has joined the “Singing Sensations," a choir consisting of FMHS academics, who elicit a lot of oohs and has during the Faculty's yearly gala evening.

Where does he see himself in ten years?

“I will review the careers of graduate students trained in the South African Tuberculosis Bioinformatics Initiative with intense satisfaction. I will see a Dave-shaped dent in the world and know that I made a difference."

Caption: Prof Dave Tabb

Photo by: Luigi Bennett