IMBM Microbial Biobank Provides Training Opportunities For The Next Generation of Microbial Biotechnologists

The Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics (IMBM) is recognised as one of the leading research units at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and is considered a global competitor in microbial biotechnology and metagenomics.

The Institute hosts a collection of about 4000 bacterial strains from a wide range of South African indigenous environments, including marine bacteria from the South African coastline, medicinal fynbos, and extreme environments. As Dr Anita Burger, Research and Innovation Manager at the IMBM explains: “Bacteria from these unique environments harness novel chemistries and therefore harbour great potential for the discovery of novel, high-value natural compounds/bioactives with applications in the pharmaceutical, cosmeceutical and agricultural industries.”

Due to the extent and novel nature of the IMBM bacterial collection, the IMBM was selected in October 2021 as one of the seven core biobanks of the Biodiversity Biobanks South Africa (BBSA). Thanks to BBSA funding and support, the bacterial collection has since transitioned to a Microbial Biobank with specialised and dedicated equipment, entries that meet international biobanking standards and an information-rich database. Any data associated with an entry, such as phenotypic data (colony and cell morphology), bioactivity and genomic sequence data, are captured in the database.

The Biobank offers an ideal opportunity for the training of young microbial biotechnologists and has since 2021 impacted on the career trajectory of three junior researchers, Ms Stephanie Lawrence, the Biobank Technical Officer, explains. 

BBSA Communications Lead Nicklaus Kruger had the opportunity to interview these young scientists to understand the impact this training has had on their lives.


Jamie van Schalkwyk: Resuming The Resume

Jamie graduated with an MSc in Genetics from Stellenbosch University in 2020. Despite her post-graduate studies, she faced a challenging job market and experienced a prolonged period of unemployment. Determined to make a meaningful scientific contribution, Jamie approached the IMBM Biobank in October 2022 for an opportunity to enhance her skills and gain relevant experience.

“I set out with the aim of gaining new skills, prepared to work without pay. Fortunately, I was offered a stipend for the duration of my internship, which I accepted with gratitude.”

Former IMBM intern Jamie van Schalkwyk

Jamie van Schalkwyk turned her Genetics qualifications and IMBM internship into rewarding work at the Stellenbosch University Biomedical Research Institute.

Coming from a Genetics background, Jamie was experienced in basic molecular techniques such as DNA isolation and amplification – but had minimal microbiology experience.

“I learned about microbiology, and the methods and techniques specific to that field. For example, how to work aseptically, culturing bacteria on agar and in liquid media, performing Gram staining, and visualising bacterial cell morphology using a microscope (it was very interesting and exciting to see the different shapes and sizes of bacterial cells). I even got some exposure to Oxford Nanopore Technologies sequencing through DIPLOMICS. So much happened in just a few months!”

She believes the skills she acquired during her internship made her CV more appealing to positions that required microbial experience. In September 2023, she was offered a position as Assistant Project Coordinator at the Clinical Mycobacteriology and Epidemiology (CLIME) Research Group at the Biomedical Research Institute at Stellenbosch University.

“Life is so ever-changing, and all one can do is make good use of the opportunities that come our way. For that, I am thankful to the IMBM for all I learned and the connections I made during my time there.”


Anelisiwe Sigijimi: A Dream Deferred

Anelisiwe knew from a young age that she wanted to be a scientist. “Working with microorganisms has always been a dream of mine, and I always wanted to be a microbiologist: I really find microbes to be fascinating and amazing.”

With four distinctions in Matric, one of them being Life Sciences, she enrolled at UWC to do a BSc in Biotechnology.

Former IMBM Intern and current IMBM postgrad Anelisiwe Sigijimi

Anelisiwe Sigijimi was so inspired by her internship at the IMBM Biobank that she’s doing her Honours in Biotechnology – and guess where she’s doing it?

“I graduated in 2020 during the height of COVID-19, and with everything that was happening, it was really difficult to secure a job. I was unemployed for the whole year, and then took up a position as an assistant teacher at a local primary school – but I kept applying for jobs in my field. In December 2022 I saw an advert from UWC for an internship on the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme. I applied – and fortunately I was successful.”


In March 2023 she was offered an internship at the IMBM Biobank, under the supervision of Ms Stephanie Lawrence, the IMBM Technical Officer.

“I was tasked with media preparation, culturing of the selected bacterial strains, Gram staining, preparation of glycerol stocks for -80°C storage, DNA isolation, as well as genome sequencing. I learned to perform these activities according to the specified procedures to deliver reliable, accurate and high-quality results.”

With that experience under her belt, she felt confident to revisit her dream of pursuing a scientific career and chose to register for a BSc Honours degree – doing her mini-thesis on a project related to the IMBM Biobank.

Grateful for the opportunities she has received, Anelisiwe is not going to be giving up on her dreams. “Working at IMBM is the best thing to ever happen to me; I gained valuable experience, learned independence, and worked with helpful and thoughtful people. It’s helped prepare me for my future as a scientist.”


Chelsey Arries: Broadening Her Biotechnology Horizons

The current IMBM biobank intern, Chelsey Arries, has been focusing on expanding her skills as a scientist; something she’s pursued throughout her studies at UWC, where she received her MSc in Biotechnology in 2023.

IMBM InternChelsey Arries

IMBM intern Chelsey Arries has already conquered plant biotechnology and bioprocessing – and is now advancing her skillset in microbiology.

“Since my postgraduate studies focused on plant biotechnology and bioprocessing, I was interested in advancing my scientific skills,” she says. “With this internship, I have the opportunity to refine what I’d learned in my undergraduate microbiology modules.”

Chelsey explains that a typical work day goes as follows: Coffee and consolidation of the previous day’s lab work and creating a plan of action for the day. This usually contains one or more of the following protocols: revival of frozen cultures, Gram staining, culturing of the bacterial strains and DNA isolation. Some days are really busy, one needs to focus and pay attention to every bit detail to ensure that accuracy.

“It’s tough, but fascinating work – and well worth the effort,” she explains. “It’s really impressive what the Biobank has set out to achieve: serving as a resource for the identification of natural, high-value compounds with applications in different industries. This is particularly relevant in a world where renewable sources for biochemicals are sought after. 

“I believe that after completing this internship my goal to become a more versatile scientist would have been achieved and more career opportunities will be available to me,” she says. “I am grateful to the IMBM for the opportunity to expand my skill set under the guidance of such knowledgeable and inspiring mentors.”


Biobanking For A Brighter Future

The IMBM, and specifically the IMBM Biobank, is proud to have had a hand in the development of these young researchers. “It’s such a privilege to see how the skills and insight that they developed during their time at the IMBM Biobank, contributed to their development as young scientists,” Dr Burger says.

“As part of a higher education institution, the IMBM has a responsibility to develop the necessary capacity to transform South Africa’s economy to a knowledge-based economy,” Dr Burger notes. The training includes the development of an understanding of the country’s biodiversity potential, which in turn, will encourage researchers to consider the impact of their contributions on the South African bioeconomy goals.

IMBM Technical Officer Stephanie Lawrence and IMBM Research Manager Dr Anita Burger are proud to have had a hand in the development of young botechnologists.

IMBM Technical Officer Stephanie Lawrence and IMBM Research Manager Dr Anita Burger are proud to have had a hand in the development of young biotechnologists.

Want to know more about the Institute for Microbial Biotechnology and Metagenomics? Just watch this video, or visit the IMBM website. Or contact IMBM Research and Innovation Manager, Dr Anita Burger ( or the IMBM Biobank Technical officer, Ms Stephanie Lawrence ( with formal enquiries. And while you’re at it, why not learn more about what biobanks are (and aren’t) all about?

What are biodiversity biobanks?

Biodiversity biobanks are repositories of biologically relevant resources, including reproductive tissues such as seeds, eggs and sperm, other tissues including blood, DNA extracts, microbial cultures (active and dormant), and environmental samples containing biological communities….