Women in Research at #LINO18: Edith Phalane from South Africa

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Edith Phalane

#LINO18 young scientist Edith Phalane, 27, from South Africa, is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Physiology at the North-West University, South Africa. 

She is currently profiling the demographic factors and investigating the impact of long term HIV infection and ART use on cardio-metabolic factors, as well as liver- and renal function in HIV-infected Africans and controls over 10 years hence, evaluating the long-term cardiovascular health. Enjoy the interview with Edith and get inspired!

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

My interest in physiology was sparked when I was in secondary school, I have always been curious about how the human body functions and how certain diseases occur. Thus, I have always been excited and attentive during life science classes at secondary school.

Who are your role models?

For me a role model has always been someone who rose above their circumstances or background to achieve their dreams and goals. There are no specific people about whom I can definitely say these are my only role models; I am inspired as I see people rising above and beyond.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

My journey had both smooth and rough rides, but above all I overcame those challenges through the support of family, friends and by the grace of God. I believe hard work, dedication and perseverance were and still are key to my victories in my academic path. I remember after I passed my matric which is an entry level in to a University, I lost my mother (who was the bread winner of my family), and I was thinking to myself how am I going to go to University to study. But because my mom always motivated me that education is the key that opens doors, I told myself I will work hard in my studies to always achieve merit so that I can qualify for bursaries. Indeed, from my undergraduate until now in my PhD, I was able to get financial assistance based on my academic achievements. One of the most difficult and painful moments in my academic path was when I had to leave my MSc programme after two years without graduating as a result of lack of progress with my supervisor and scientific committees that were beyond my control. At a certain point I wanted to give up on my dream of pursuing my MSc and PhD in physiology because of this delay but through the support of family, colleagues and friends I was able to hold on and switch Universities and register the MSc with the institution where I am currently doing my PhD. And by the grace of God, I was able to complete my MSc in one year and the following year (2017) I registered for the PhD. Here I am, after two years of delay, going to attend the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting as one of the top 600 young scientists in the world.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

That would be the ESKOM EXPO for Young Scientist in South Africa. In this project, I basically mentor young scientist from primary and secondary school by assisting them with conducting and writing scientific research project for scientific competitions hosted by the ESKOM EXPO for Young Scientist as a way of motivating the learners from a younger age to remain and grow in science. It always amazes me when I see the learners solving the problems and challenges they face every day in their communities or schools by applying scientific methodology and going back to the communities to implement what they have learnt. In this process, they get to have fun and still discover many possibilities within science. Knowing that I have contributed to a young person, especially a girl child, to realise their dreams fulfils my heart, because it is not every day that you see young girls getting involved in science projects.

 

From left: Edith, a learner she mentored and another mentor. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Edith Phalane

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?

Recently, together with my colleague (Blessing Ahiante) we went to rural communities (Tzaneen, Limpopo Province, South Africa) to raise awareness and educate the people on the importance of regularly monitoring their blood pressure as part of the May Measurement Month 2018 campaign. In addition to raising awareness on blood pressure, we also included awareness on diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidaemia and body weight. Together with the local clinics, hospitals, nurses and medical doctors, we were able to measure their blood pressure, test for glucose and lipid levels, check their body mass index and advise on how to live a healthy lifestyle and all of this service was done for free. 

I felt very proud to have shared what I know and understand scientifically and explain to the people in a simple term and language they could understand and relate to. The event was done in an open field and it was cold and raining, so seeing people from all different age groups coming out in their numbers to be part of the initiative really touched me. Most of the individuals who already had one or more of the chronic illness (either hypertension or diabetes) did not even understand what this chronic illness was and how to manage it except form taking the medication, but after explaining to them the importance of living a healthy lifestyle they were ready and willing to implement those suggestions and even requested that we write it down for them so that they can remember it.

As scientists, we often only publish our work, forgetting that the people back in the rural and urban areas do not understand the bombastic terms (scientific and medical) we use in our publications and often cannot read because most of them are illiterate and do not even have access to our work. Hence, it is very important for us to go in to these communities and explain our findings as they impact their lives. If we want to reduce the burden of cardiovascular disease, I believe that awareness and education is key. I believe that, as a researcher, you have not done justice if you do not go back to the communities and share your findings or knowledge on the project that you are working on, especially if it involves the lives of people. In particular, since I am working on cardiovascular disease development in HIV infected individuals, it is of utmost importance to me to go in to these communities to raise awareness and education on how to prevent and manage cardiovascular disease and how to prevent HIV transmission.

What is a “day in the life” of Edith like?

My day starts at 9 am until midnight depending on how far I have made progress with my work. In the morning, I assist with clinical work, with collecting data on flow-media dilation for one of the studies that is currently running in our department of physiology. During the day, I usually go to the schools where I am assisting with mentoring the learners for ESKOM EXPO for young scientist or I read up their work. From afternoon until late midnight, I work on my research doing statistical analyses, writing up and reading articles.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I enjoy doing research and working with the communities by sharing skills and knowledge and also learning from them. After my PhD, I want to pursue a post-doctoral degree to focus more on the mechanism (molecular studies) of cardiovascular disease development in HIV infection to improve the understanding thereof. I want to get more involved in research projects that involve communities with intervention studies to improve the lives of our people.

 

From my right: Edith and other volunteers during the May Measurement Month campaign in Tzaneen, South Africa. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Edith Phalane

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

If I am not doing research I like spending time with my kids, family and friends. It’s also an opportunity for me to assist with the mentoring of the young scientist for the ESKOM EXPO for Young Scientist and doing community outreaches.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science?

Follow your dreams and do what you love most. The world of science is interesting, and there are many adventures to explore while having fun at it. Challenges will be there, but know that you are more than a conqueror.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?

Science is very broad and there are many scientist who work day and night to make discoveries. I believe the next breakthrough in science would be finding cure for HIV/AIDS or drugs to stop transmission of HIV. 

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

I believe women need to see examples or role model of female figures in science to show them that not only man can make it in science, that science is for all and that it does not know gender boundaries or differences. Usually, after having children and getting married women lose their ambition to achieve their dreams due to a lack of support, as they have to multitask being a mother and a wife. Women need support, to let them know that it is possible to study further even if you are a mother or wife. I believe that part-time studies would be beneficial in such cases but most women do not know about this, they think you must be in school full time.

Women are often discouraged to pursue their dreams, I usually receive comments from people (both men and women) saying “who will marry you with your high qualifications, no man wants a woman who is too educated” or “who will employ you with your many qualification, you are over-qualified for a woman”. So women need role models to look up to and seminars on advancing women in science to talk about the challenges women face and how to overcome those challenges.

Ulrike Böhm

About Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm, Ph.D. is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as a postdoctoral researcher in the United States and lives in Washington, DC. She did her PhD studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell. She loves to develop and build new physical tools to image, probe and manipulate biological structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and a huge advocate for women in science.

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