On the passing of Professor Vladimir Bajic

It is with sadness that I heard of the passing of a friend, and colleague, Professor Vladimir Bajic. Vlad (as he was known to many) had a prolific scientific career. Born in Slovenia, Vlad completed his studies at the University of Belgrade in Serbia and the University of Zagreb in Croatia. His career spanned academic or research posts in Serbia, South Africa, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia.

Vlad was an elected member of the Academy of Nonlinear Sciences in Russia for work done in stability theory of singular differential systems. His research in artificial intelligence and modeling resulted in the development of internationally acclaimed promoter prediction tools and a knowledge extraction platform called Dragon.

Staff and students at the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) and the broader UWC community were fortunate to have interacted with him. Vlad joined UWC in 2006 as a Professor of Bioinformatics at SANBI. His training in engineering and mathematics shaped his insightful contribution to computational biology. Over the past decade, he has developed analytical tools to assist in the interpretation and understand of biological data. Among his prolific number of publications – more than 400 –  is a suite of software tools that includes promoter prediction tools to understand gene regulation ( http://vladbajic.org/). Vlad meticulously went about building modules to identify the DNA signals that trigger genetic messages through a process called “transcription”.  For those of us that knew his work, it was clear that he symbolized interdisciplinary research-using engineering principals to improve our understanding of mechanistic biology.

In 2007 Vlad was among the first DST/NRF Research Chairs (SARChI) awarded in South Africa. He was appointed the SARChI in Bioinformatics in Human Health and was based at SANBI. Here is cemented his methods for predicting the start of a genetic message i.e., promoter prediction, and various biological resources to analyze data related to ovarian cancer and hepatitis C.

I worked with Vlad between 2006-2009 before he took up a post as the director of Computational Bioscience Research Center at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Jeddah. For the three years that I had worked alongside Vlad at SANBI, I observed an academic who was concerned for the wellbeing of students and staff. He would generously assist students with funding to complete their studies. He would give of his time to any student who was struggling to complete their thesis even if he was not formally associated with their graduate studies. Many postdoctoral students and graduate students would recall the time spent in his home reviewing data for a publication. No-one would leave his home until a draft manuscript had been written.

On a personal note, I was fortunate to have interacted with Vlad between 2001-2005 when both of us lived in Singapore. As fellow South Africans living abroad, he felt a responsibility to look out for me. Over time I saw him as a mentor. I fondly recall Saturday mornings trying to sleep late and Vlad would phone me and ask why postdocs are not in the lab doing research. He would report that he has been in the office since 8.30 am and he expected to see me also working. I would reluctantly get out of bed and go to campus on a Saturday morning. But within one hour of interacting with him on a scientific topic, I found myself engulfed in my research and he would remind me in the evening that its time to have dinner.

Vlad will be missed by the many students and colleagues whom he has interacted with across the globe. And certainly, by me – a former postdoc whose scientific philosophy has in part been shaped by the many hours of interaction around a computer or a pasta and bruschetta (his favourite dish after a hard day’s work).

Professor Alan Christoffels PhD, M.ASSAf
Director & DST/NRF Research Chair in Bioinformatics and Health Genomics
MRC Bioinformatics Unit
South African National Bioinformatics Institute
University of the Western Cape

Fungiwe Mpithi