Scientist Spotlight: Meet Vanessa Hayes

Geneticist Vanessa Hayes does not think small nor move slowly—from completing her post doc in six months (the US National average is 3 to 7 years) to completing the first South African Genome Project in 2010 with her goal set on defining the extent of human diversity in all populations, she is on a mission.  Just 11 years outside her post doc she has the credentials of someone who has been in science much longer. Her work and talent has taken her to remote regions of Southern Africa, all over Australia, Europe, the U.S. and now to the J. Craig Venter Institute with her appointment as Professor of Genomic Medicine at the San Diego facility.

Of Cartoons and Men…

Born and raised in South Africa, Vanessa first headed a laboratory near Cape Town to investigate genetic susceptibility to HIV/AIDS after earning a Ph.D. in 1999 in Medical Genetics at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. After three years at the University of Stellenbosch she moved to Sydney, Australia to become group leader of Cancer Genetics first at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, and later at the Children’s Cancer Institute of Australia. During those years she began two major cancer research projects that continue today. One is a study to assess how ethnicity impacts prostate cancer risk and outcomes by genetic profiling men with and without prostate cancer from different ethnic and geographical locations (initially South Africa and Australia). “I believe in going to the extremes of phenotypic diversity to understand genotype – for example the clinical disparities of prostate cancer in Africa compared to non-African populations has not been adequately explored,” she said explaining that the genetics of ethnic diversity is one of her main research interests. “We don’t always have clear clinical definitions to describe phenotype, but genomics can help to define disease,” she added.

This cancer research then led her to what might seem like an unlikely suspect–the Tasmanian devil. The inspiration for a much beloved Looney Toons character and the largest carnivorous marsupial indigenous to Australia, Vanessa became acquainted with the devil when learning that it was a good model for human cancers. She partnered with Stephan Schuster of Pennsylvania State University to sequence the animal using next-generation (gen) sequencing, in turn establishing the then first next-gen sequencing research laboratory in Australia.  By establishing a Tasmanian devil genome, she and her team were able to define the extent of dwindling genetic diversity within the devil population as a result of an unusual infectious facial cancer. The hope is that this information and tools developed will be used for the insurance breeding program, which has been established by Australian authorities to save this iconic species from inevitable extinction within the next decade.

Putting Africa on the Genetic Map

In early 2010 Vanessa embarked on another collaborative effort with Schuster’s lab, this one to help get African populations represented in genetic databases and reap the benefits of human genomics research. The initiation of the South African Genome Project was a key step in helping to define the extent of human variation, the relevance to assessing disease risk, and the response to various medicines. The effort was conceived out of Vanessa’s frustration in earlier studies with African populations when she found a complete lack of African reference genomes and susceptibility gene array profiles in existing databases. Africa, believed to be the birthplace of mankind with the oldest populations, offers a much greater diversity than found in individuals of European decent. Another issue with the existing databases was that the little African genetic data represented in early 2010 was based on one population – the Yoruba people from Nigeria. Demonstrating that the Yoruba people are clearly not representative of the majority of the over 500 different linguistic groups in central to southern Africa, Vanessa was determined to change the face of European-driven genomic research.

Vanessa and a Bushman lady from the Southern African Kalahari desert in deep discussions about what we can read in the blood (aka genomics). This lady is one of only a few click-speaking hunter-gatherer peoples left who represent an ancient line for all modern humans.

Vanessa and a Bushman lady from the Southern African Kalahari desert in deep discussions about what we can read in the blood (aka genomics). This lady is one of only a few click-speaking hunter-gatherer peoples left who represent an ancient line for all modern humans. (photo credit: Chris Bennett -

Ingenuity and perseverance led Vanessa to knock on the door of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He was, she knew, a critical step needed to gain access to a potential treasure trove of South African genetic data. She made her case directly to the Archbishop in front of a room of advisors who told him not to participate in a genetic study. However, much to her surprise, Tutu agreed to be the first South African to have his genome sequenced. Vanessa believes he did so, against the advice of his advisors, because he knew the importance of this type of research to the people of his country. The Archbishop’s participation was both critical and significant as he represents not only the Bantu linguistic group to which 80% of the South African population belongs, but he is also a survivor of TB, polio, and prostate cancer. The researchers were able to correlate his genetic markers (genotype) potentially associated with disease susceptibility with his family and medical history (phenotype), providing valuable information about the Bantu people. Vanessa and her team also sequenced the complete genome and three exomes (protein-coding genes only) from four individuals representing diverse ethnic groups of what are known as the Kalahari Bushmen. Bushmen (or San) is the term for the click-speaking hunter-gatherers who inhabit the Kalahari Desert, which spans parts of Botswana, Namibia, and Angola. Her studies, published in Nature in 2010, showed that two different linguistic groups of Kalahari Bushman were as genetically divergent as Europeans and Asians. Some found this finding surprising, however, the extent of the diversity should not be surprising considering these Bushman represent the oldest living lineage of modern humans.

By this time in 2010 Vanessa decided she had reached the technological limits of her research in human genomics in her current position in Australia. She was searching for a place to expand her capabilities, particularly in next generation (gen) sequencing and bioinformatics. She was interviewing last spring in Melbourne at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research where Dr. Craig Venter happened to be giving a keynote lecture. The JCVI was not on her radar at the time as she had several job offers within and outside Australia, but Craig was able to convince her to come to work with him and the team at JCVI.

Sleep is overrated

The sequencing of Archbishop Tutu was only a start to Vanessa’s plans in human genomics research. She is continuing to expand her work with indigenous groups in Africa. Much like the aspirations (and accomplishments) of her new boss, she claims a ‘modest’ goal: “To define the extent of human diversity that exists globally so we can have a true picture of variation that human genomes have and to help make sense of that variation by linking genotype to phenotype.” Phenotype cannot only mean disease conditions (associated with genes) but also evolved behaviors. For example, how the Bushmen are able to go for a week without water in the desert climate is a phenotype that may be encoded in their genes. Understanding the genetic basis for disease and behavior in different populations will certainly be a challenge, but clearly Vanessa is a person who thrives when presented with challenges.

Vanessa’s limited spare time revolves around her family, including two children — each born on different continents — who keep her busy with the latest goal to teach mom how to surf! A keen soccer player in Australia, she has turned to a new adventure since her move to San Diego, kickboxing.  She says she doesn’t get much sleep, particularly little in the past three years, but at least now she’s working mostly on U.S. time rather than two opposite time zones.

If she had time for another career, “it is hard to think of another career as I am doing exactly what I love, combining my passion for the rich-diversity of people from Southern Africa (and globally) from whom we have so much to learn, with the speed and dynamics of everyday life of 21st century science. What better place to combine these two worlds than here at JCVI.” Vanessa hopes via her new position to understand and educate others about the breadth of human genetic diversity existing in populations worldwide.

28 Responses to “Scientist Spotlight: Meet Vanessa Hayes”

  • Madam, what u have done, it is more than the best within this short time period .science always should be for better life and should be for all categories of people that what exectly u r doing .my best wishes for ur great future.

  • Ramakrishnan Vasudev

    I have just read about your achievements. Inspirational. Salute your will, you have set a great example.
    Best wishes. Celebrating being human.

  • You have a great job! You command respect for your work!
    I hope all is alright with the family.
    With love, Ria (your great-aunt from Holland)

  • Roy D. Schickedanz

    sAs a Lamarckian Evolutionist fronting the core component of organic life in terms of Life and Living, sensing congratulatory appreciation of science in turning to Africa, the birthplace of man, and making his debut standing erect as a solution of forelimb issue of a female chimpanzee by birth defect or accident of injury began walking and running to be confirmed by female’s offspring through imitation (life’s congratulatory thanks) confirming those first steps to be supplanted more dynamic developments and needs for survival through hunter-gather techniques leading to responsive speech and language assuring the past and the present into the collective and individual will for a future minimizing risks and dangers and upon migration and radiation through Eurasian land bridge into Europe and Asia having already developed the modern form unlike the Neanderthals going bipedal closer to land bridge exiting in archaic form and remaining so until its extinction as result of its poor setoff strategies of life in forming its specie(SEE) Specific Environmental Evolvement responses to reality and natural environment.

    Your Genome South African project seeing Inside Out versus the reality of life being Outside In. Nonetheless, lost, no doubt, are the challenges and hardships faced by the earliest of our kind.

    Just maybe your project will show us how these lean and mean machines were able to pull it off……………

    Here, the arrogant and superior attitudes of our scientists in the field should strip down to the same nakedness of our Bushmen, showing the over weight against age and height. No doubt, our bushmen are smaller, bonier perspire less where such hydration issues have produce a toll in longevity of life. Nonetheless such adaption was necessity against the sacristy of water, finding such strategies in its own cognitive nature.


    Why not do GENOMES on animals/birds that have unusual LIFE SPANS ? For example, the TURKEY BUZZARD/VULTURE lives to be about 118 years old compared to about 75 for man! We might discover the fountain of youth in our genes !! My email address is: Nathan Hale Rosenstein

  • Vanessa.

    As a photographer and videographer, it has been a great pleasure to have been involved with your field work, in some small way. I haven’t met anyone who works harder, or is more passionate about what they do. I have to think hard to recall you sleeping at all during the times I have worked with you. I also know for a fact that you are active during the working hours of at least four continents. I can now see that to be great in a lifetime you must fit at least two of them into the space of one. Keep up your remarkable work.

  • Dominique Bennett


  • incredible is what i would say! hats off to u ma’m..!

  • Dominique Bennett. A genome is the complete DNA sequence of an organism. Best, Vanessa

  • SWETA. Many thanks for your comment. Best, Vanessa

  • Chris Bennett. Many thanks for your kind comments – your photography captures the beauty of these wonderful people that have so generously given of their time to be part of this research. The passion is easy. Best, Vanessa

  • Nathan Rosenstein. You are certainly correct. You will be happy to learn that there is an endeavor underway to sequence 10,000 animal genomes – there will be much learnt from this knowledge generation. Best, Vanessa

  • Roy D. Schickedanz. There is certainly much we can learn from the people living within the greater Southern African region. Not all of these lessons are written in the DNA code. Best, Vanessa

  • Ria de Nijs. Many thanks for your wishes. Groete aan amal – ik sal altijdt dankbaar wees vir my tijd in Nederland (niet zo maklik om Nederlands te skruiven!!). Beste Vanessa

  • Ramakrishnan Vasudev. Many thanks and I love your comment about celebrating being human, lets extend that to celebrating our diversity and learning from each other. Best, Vanessa

  • prabir das. Although we have diversity and that should be celebrated, in the large scale of things there is not much difference between us – we are all human are we not? Best, Vanessa

  • Vanessa~
    It is such a pleasure to follow your work! I admire your voracious approach to population genetics. We ARE all human! Thank you for having such a strong work ethic…it is inspirational!

  • Beste Prof. Hayes

    Dit is vir my as ‘n jong wetenskaplike ‘n groot inspirasie om te lees van die baie interessante werk wat u doen.


  • Martin Munene Nyaga

    Bravo Prof.

    I had the honour to listen to your presentations at the ‘Empowering Genomics in SA w/s-Applications to infectious disease’ sponsored by the J. Graig Venter Institute, the NIAD and UL.
    Your work in Genomics has truly inspired me and i hope to follow in your footstep, keep your game up prof. en you will certainly solve a lot of problems globally. Well done.


  • Science in the last few years has been stagnated by the Economy, Politics and Bureaucracy.
    When ever I get depressed by the lack of Progress in Science, I go to the Craig Venter site and get an uplift that there still is progress.

    Now that I know about Vanessa Hayes, my hope is doubled— Well, with your energy
    Make that a “Triple”

    Thank you for what you do.

    David Smith

  • Dear David,

    That is very kind, one can only do ones best. There is certainly a great team here at JCVI.


  • Dear Meg, many thanks for your support. Vanessa

  • Beste Petrus,

    Dit is altyd oplifting om inspirasie aan immand to geer – jammer vir my Afrikaans, ek kan goes lees, maar my spel is nie so goed nie (en vir n ou matie nogal).

    Alas van die best,

  • Dear martin,

    I am so glad you enjoyed the Symposium, I know the JCVI and NIAID team were very impressed by all the local presentations. We were all happy to have the opportunity to bring our work to the University of Limpopo and South Africa (and Botswana).


  • Ms. Hayes,

    What a career, already – congratulations !

    3 questions and 2 comments arising from ScienceDaily releasing its summary of the new paper on the “museumomics” with the Tasmanian devil.

    1) Are you aware of any groups trying to use that kind of backwards looking “museumomics” to examine genetic changes in animal populations exposed to DDT or other known/suspected carcinogens or endocrine disruptors ?

    2) Same question but as to human groups exposed to any form of suspected or known carcinogen. For example, Vietnamese families exposed to Agent Orange and chronicled in Vanity Fair about 3 years ago as to apparent multi-generational cancer clusters.

    3) Same question but as to tumours found in groups persons given (versus not given) the Salk vaccine during the SV 40 contamination years which some suspect played a role in the disturbingly steady increases since 1974 in the rates of Non-Hodgkins lymphomas.

    Comment 1. Thank you for all you do. Some day more people will appreciate what you and others have done and are doing to try to find many needed answers.

    Comment 2. You scientists are moving way faster and far more globally and in teams than do lawyers and various other institutions, such as government agencies and legislatures ( a lesson I’ve learned from almost 30 years as a lawyer dealing with “toxic tort” issues for both defendants and plaintiffs.) Hoping to push more lawyers to look ahead into new science, I write a blog that touches on law and science. This morning’s post presented information on your group’s work, with cites and links. But my little blog has only a small reach. So, the larger point is that it would be great if there were more science meetings/forums that included a session or two aimed at helping other professionals look ahead to see the types of changes and issues that will be arriving over the next few years as science drives forward. And, maybe we can dream of another result – better funding for basic research !

    Again, congratulations and thank you for all you’ve done, and will do.

    Kirk Hartley

  • It would be interesting to know if the human mind affects the genome (sorry, not a scientist so I might not use the right words). Might we be able to change our genetic configuration by changing our thinking and expectations.
    If we do not expect to age quickly, can we stay younger for a longer time?
    Who does research on this subject?
    Best regards

  • hello,
    My name is pravin and i am working on NGS. currently i am working on the pigeon pea genome assembly and SNP identification. I need your guidance because i am struck in assembling such a complex genome.
    can you please help me to find out a way out of it.

    Pravin Pawar
    Research Associate

  • Dear Vanessa

    Congratulations on all your achievements, Have lost touch with your progress in your research but amazed at where you are right now, Hope you and your family are well.

    Sudden awareness came about that you appeared on Carte Blanche TV programme which I missed but then did a search and amazed at your achievements.


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