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'No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid' – a motto UP's Professor Alisa Phulukdaree lives by

Posted on August 22, 2019

In the eighth interview of our #WomenofUP series for Women’s Month we profile Professor Alisa Phulukdaree, an Associate Professor in the Department of Physiology.

Tell us about your background and education qualifications.

As a high school learner with both parents unemployed and pensioners I was unsure if I would be able to afford a university education. But I was sure that it was essential for my family and me to escape the poverty that I grew up in. Understanding very early on that hard work was essential to compete for scholarships and support from people around me was what enabled me to obtain a university scholarship to complete my BSc Biomedical Science degree and postgraduate studies.

I obtained my PhD (April 2013) prior to which I obtained my honours degree (Cum laude) and master’s degree (Summa cum laude). I received the DAAD Doctoral Scholarship (2010-2012) from the National Research Foundation of South Africa to complete my PhD on the evaluation of genetic polymorphisms in South African males of Indian ethnicity with early-onset coronary artery disease (CAD).

What exactly do you do at UP?

I am engaged in work at the basic molecular and cellular levels which evaluates how genetic differences influence the risk of getting type 2 diabetes and heart disease between ethnic groups including people of Caucasian, African and Indian descent. These findings impact society by creating an awareness of the differences that exist. Thus by educating society, they can make informed decisions in their lifestyle choices.

My teaching responsibilities include knowledge dissemination in medical biochemistry and molecular mechanisms of disease at undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral levels. The teaching leadership roles since my appointment at UP include facilitation, guardian of the honours degree programme (2018), co-ordinating the muscle physiology lectures for the first medical block and course coordinator for basic science undergraduate modules.

I also serve on the School of Medicine Research Committee and the Future Africa Steering Committee, I am a member of the editorial board of Bentham Science journal Current Diabetes Reviews, a reviewer for ISI-rated journals and a panel member for the National Research Foundation funds.

I am an ambassador for young research leadership in the University of Pretoria:

  • as a member and mentor of the TUKS Young Research Leadership Programme, at a national level;
  • as member of the South African Young Academy of Science, and at a continental level;
  • as facilitator and mentor for the Africa Science Leadership Programme and the Next Einstein Forum; and
  • I was also nominated by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research at UP, Professor Stephanie Burton, to engage at an international level in the SA-Sweden Universities Forum Innovation week 2018 as a panellist.

All my work aligns with the priorities of the national development plan and contributes to UP’s 2025 vision to become a leading research-intensive university.

Professor Alisa Phulukdaree

Why did you choose this career path?

My experiences emerging from the public schooling system in a poor community rife with social inequalities and high incidence of type 2 diabetes mellitus and heart disease have moulded my teaching philosophy and passion for research to find out why our community is affected by these diseases. A select few students who came back to share success stories had one common factor that assisted their escape from the harsh poverty of our community, and that was obtaining an education. With this knowledge, guidance and motivation from school teachers and my postgraduate mentor, Professor Anil Chuturgoon from University of KwaZulu-Natal, despite many challenges, I was able to obtain the unthinkable for a township female: a PhD. This empowered me to believe that observing success amongst the least probable fades the traditional thoughts of children and peers who are primed psychologically to feel that they are unworthy of such achievements. The vital role of my teachers and professor in my success has remained central to my gratitude, and it is their shoes that I wish to fill as a teacher – to empower students who stem from a similar background as myself with knowledge, self-belief, self-confidence and realisation of self-worth that will enable them to improve their lives, their families’ lives and the community.

Describe a typical work day.

A typical work day involves preparing or delivering lectures, engaging with my postgraduate students to determine the progress made to date and the way forward. Engagement with my colleagues who have recently completed their doctorates and encouraging them to get involved with activities in Future Africa because it allows for transdisciplinary research. A portion of my day is focused on external work as editorial board member of the journal Current Diabetes Reviews, external examiner of dissertations and reviewing articles for journals.  

What are the challenges of your job?

One of the challenging aspects of my job is to balance teaching responsibilities with research activities.

Which aspect of your job are you most passionate about?

I am passionate about research as it allows us to identify unique differences in people from diverse backgrounds that cause them to be either more or less susceptible to diseases. I do feel, however, the most fulfilling aspect of my job is being able to provide advice to the younger generation of undergraduates and junior postgraduates and inspire them to pursue a career in biomedical research and/ or academia. The successful graduation of students who come in with low self-confidence and leave as independent and confident scientists is the most rewarding aspect of my job as it resonates with my experience as a female stemming from a poor community with aspirations to succeed. It is for this reason I have grabbed every opportunity to join the South African Young Academy of Science initiative of ‘feeding the pipeline’, the Tuks Young Research Leader Programme, and take up a role as a mentor for the NRF Mentoring Black women initiative and the Africa Science Leadership programme. These academies and programmes provide a platform to engage with the younger generation to inspire them to pursue a career in science.

Researchers play an important role in society. Their work is often not seen, but is essential to provide an understanding of how and why diseases occur. By gaining this understanding and foundational knowledge new, cheaper and more effective treatments can be developed, which ultimately benefits society.

What advice do you have for women who want to pursue a career in science?

Be aware that there is a massive shift in the traditional underestimation of women and their ability to pursue a career whilst fulfilling duties as a wife and mother. This shift in thinking is slower in the older generation and poorly educated communities, but persistence is key. Identify role models in your family, community and then in the wider national and international domain and use them as examples of inspiration to achieve your goals. 

I am inspired by a quote by the Kenyan star, Lupita Nyong’o: “To all the children of the world, no matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.” This is a statement that I include for all my students and a philosophy that is aimed to encourage an enriching experience for all students.

- Author #WomenofUP series
Published by Michael Kleynhans

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