As the son of a chemist, Eric Strauss was inspired to become a scientist, but when he graduated from the University of Pretoria in 1997, his chosen field of chemical biology was just emerging in South Africa. So the following year, he boarded a plane to JFK International Airport and headed to Ithaca, New York, to attend Cornell University, where he pursued his doctorate in chemistry and chemical biology, studying coenzyme A biosynthesis.
The trip from Pretoria took more than 36 hours, Strauss recalls, and he had to take both a bus and a taxi to get from JFK to Ithaca. This harrowing journey was his first visit to the United States. More than 20 years later, he tells the story of that adventure to encourage his students and interns to be brave and embrace the adventure of learning science.
After graduating from Cornell with his Ph.D. in 2003, Strauss was seeking a postdoctoral fellowship when a teaching position became available in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at Stellenbosch University, a leading bioscience research institution in South Africa. He applied and within months established his independent research program in chemical biology as an assistant professor.
Eric Strauss examines the pipetting robot that his team at the University of Stellenbosch was able to purchase after receiving a 2021 Grand Challenge Africa research grant.
After five years he moved to the Department of Biochemistry in Stellenbosch as an Associate Professor, another five years later he was promoted to Professor, and this year he was appointed Chair of the Department.
Strauss’s work has received over 2,200 citations, and three of his top 10 most cited works were published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry (148, 122, and 80 citations). “My first publication as an independent researcher was an accelerated publication at JBC, co-authored with my first student,” he said. “I was very proud of this achievement.”
The administrators at Stellenbosch must have been proud too—they offered him the job.
“At that time, Stellenbosch was looking to deepen its research footprint by recruiting faculty with international experience who could contribute to this project and expand the scope of the work being done there,” Strauss said. “I felt I could have a greater impact by returning to South Africa and using my network to play my part in this project by creating opportunities for my students to attend international conferences and visit other research groups such as part of bilateral exchange programs.’
This vision allows his students to travel to labs in the US, Spain, Italy, Australia, the Netherlands, and India.
Over the years, Strauss has worked to improve scientific networking and biochemical training in South Africa. Recently, two postdoctoral fellows from his lab participated in the Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology program funded by the UK Grand Challenges Fund. The START program, as it is called, provided training in protein crystallography at the Diamond Light Source, or DLS, the UK’s synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire, and streamlined participants’ access to DLS as part of an initiative to grow the community of synchrotron researchers in Africa.
Eric Strauss, second from left, and the three researchers who worked on the Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology/Grand Challenge Africa:
Strauss himself is involved in XChem, a DLS-based facility that enables drug discovery by using high-throughput crystallography to screen chemical fragments for binders that can be developed into inhibitor leads. As a result of this work, he was awarded a 2021 Grand Challenge Africa research grant that enabled the purchase of an open-source pipetting robot.
Strauss seeks to combine high-tech tools and expertise bridging structural and chemical biology to provide trainees in South Africa and other African countries with access to cutting-edge drug discovery research.
“We are seeing talent move from one side of the world to the other, and as avenues for more global participation open up, we are eager to see how our growing pool of talent impacts the international research scene,” he said.
“Africa also offers many other opportunities – clinical trials in groups that have been largely underrepresented and collections of natural products that still remain unexplored – that with greater visibility will attract more international interest in collaboration. South Africa is in a position to lead these efforts.
Courtesy of Erick Strauss
The three chemical biology research groups at Stellenbosch University enjoy a joint field trip. Eric Strauss is third from the left.