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#STEMStories: Shalena, PhD Candidate, South Africa

Name: Shalena Naidoo
Role/Occupation: PhD Candidate, Stellenbosch University/HIV Paediatric Researcher
Country: South Africa

Shalena Naidoo is an HIV immunology scientist and a PhD candidate, currently in the final year of my PhD degree titled A Longitudinal Perspective on the Impact of Immune Status on the HIV-1 Latent Reservoir and Neurocognitive Outcomes in Virologically Supressed Children.

She describes the life of an experimental scientist as unpredictable, “what is unknown is seemingly more interesting than what is known for a scientist, therefore most days serve as moments of discovery… Most times, research outcomes show interesting patterns that hold so much value. We learn by connecting the dots and then translating this to what it means for the field of health science and the patient.”

Naidoo was a child with an enquiring mind and an instilled sense to understand and help others, “I always loved the scientific approach because it develops a critical mind. For me, it was obvious as early as my high school years that I was going to be a scientist,” she recalls. Naidoo went on to completed a BSc degree in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at Stellenbosch University; followed by Honours and Masters degrees in the field of immunology with the focus on HIV infection in children at the Faculty of Medicine and Heath Sciences. These postgraduate degrees primarily focused on vaccine responses in HIV exposed uninfected infants and stands out as one of the first and main studies geared towards studying the effects of in utero HIV exposure in South African children.

Naidoo feels that as a scientist one can discover and learn something new, while also generating important knowledge, “it is exciting to know that you are contributing to something that has the ability to change the world and relieve the burden of disease and save lives.”

Naidoo describes her experience as a female in STEM as both positive and negative. The positive aspect is being able to partake in a critical era of transformation where women are being recognised for their role in science and also have a platform to communicate their research. Another positive would have to be connecting and forming networks with key role players across the world with the same research aim and vision for solving global health problems, “these networks have allowed me to expand my thinking, improve networking skills and further my expertise,” she explains.

The negatives she believes are the lack of connection, guidance and mentorship from other female counterparts in STEM. Female researchers have similar experiences but they “remain isolated within [their] research groups without cross pollination of thought and support... We should learn more from each other and motivate each other to achieve the unthinkable,” she elaborates. Being a woman in STEM really excites Naidoo as she’s able to contribute “to closing the gender gaps that exists within [her] field of work and [to] bring a different perspective to the field of HIV science.” She also hopes to promote, encourage, mentor and engage inspiring young females. This drives her sense of contribution, “If every day you can feel that what you do adds something not only to your own life but to others as well then life takes on a new and deeper sense of meaning,” she elaborates.

Naidoo’s advice to young women aspiring to enter STEM is to “be clear about your vision and mission and stay connected to your purpose every single day. Write down your goals and keep looking at it… Create a fresh vision board every month.” She feels at being subjected to critique is a given considering the nature of STEM and that young women should not become disheartened or demotivated because of it, “every set-back is designed to shape you and propel you forward to greater heights… There will be days when you will feel the burnout and you will feel the need to quit, please do not. Remember that nothing worth having comes easy. Learn to rest, not to quit.”

Naidoo has a positive outlook with regards to the future of women and STEM in the continent as it sits at the crossroads of progression, “Africa boasts beauty in its potential in what it has to offer the world and in itself has a number of unique challenges largely related to health burdens.” She holds a similar of women, “I think the lens in which women view the world is quite different and in a large sense quite powerful. Our perspectives, approaches and sense of understanding and connecting is quite unique,” she elaborates. “Africa would greatly benefit from women in science who are able approach these challenges with novel advancements in scientific fields… With different ideas come better solutions and novel thinking that can interchange scientific innovation forward and benefit the whole of Africa,” Naidoo further explains.

Naidoo has had a number of key milestones in her career thus far such as being involved in an international laboratory exchange collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, USA where she learnt the technique of isolating the HIV replicating virus; attending her first international conference, the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) was held in Seattle where she received the Young Investigator’s Scholarship Award. And last year, Naidoo received two major awards for her research, the Dominque Dormont Award presented by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (Nobel Prize Winner and Discover of the HI virus) at the AIDS 2018 Conference, followed by the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science (FWIS) Sub-Saharan Regional Fellowship award.

She feels that time management is crucial to creating and maintaining a work-life balance. She also believes that eating healthy and exercising is important to create the mind-body balance and highlights the importance of mental health and the occurrence of “Imposter Syndrome” which plagues many researchers. Her advice is to “take sufficient mental breaks and create rewards as you progress through your timelines – rewarding yourself is key and serves as an added push towards achieving them!”

Read more about our Geeky Girl and scientist, Shalena Naidoo, whose experiments have won awards and hearts in an insightful interview below.

1. Describe what your work entails.

As an HIV immunology scientist, a large part of my work takes place in the laboratory. Through designing and implementing various experimental procedures or assays to study the immune system, we can gain a better understanding of the HIV disease and how it influences and affects the infected person. We are also able to study the virus itself and how it affects the immune cells of the patient. We are able to do this by collecting blood samples and using specific methods to isolate the blood components we wish to study.

Once we have generated enough laboratory data, we are then able to analyse the data by using specific computer programmes. Our findings are then compiled and drafted into scientific publications and presented at various national and international conferences.

2. Describe your STEM journey.

Science inspires curiosity and develops an attitude of deep discovery. As a child with a constantly enquiring mind and an instilled sense to understand, help and contribute to issues affecting the people around me assisted in centering my drive towards studying sciences. I always loved the scientific approach because it develops a critical mind. For me, it was obvious as early as my high school years that I was going to be a scientist.

I completed my Bachelor of Science degree in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at Stellenbosch University. I then proceeded to complete postgraduate degrees (Honours and Masters) in the field of immunology with the focus on HIV infection in children at the Faculty of Medicine and Heath Sciences. My post-graduate degrees prior to doctoral studies focused primarily on vaccine responses in HIV exposed uninfected infants and was one of the first and key studies geared towards studying the effects of in utero HIV exposure in South African children.

I am currently within my final year of my PhD degree titled A Longitudinal Perspective on the Impact of Immune Status on the HIV-1 Latent Reservoir and Neurocognitive Outcomes in Virologically Supressed Children.

3. What excites you about your job? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?

As a scientist you need to be in a constant state of learning and critical thinking. Everyday you discover and learn something new and whilst you are doing this, you are generating important knowledge that will ultimately be used to understand various diseases and help progress society and the world. It is exciting to know that you are contributing to something that has the ability to change the world and relieve the burden of disease and save lives.

It also excites me that, as a woman in science I am contributing to closing the gender gaps that exists within my field of work and bring a different perspective to the field of HIV science.

4. How would you describe your experience as a woman in the STEM space?

My experience has been both positive and negative. The positive being part of a critical transforming era where women are being recognised for their role in science and given the platform to communicate their research and its significance to propel the world. Organisations such as L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science, are providing much needed resources, leadership skills and financial support so that women can remain in science and progress their careers and fulfil more significant leadership roles.

Further positives have been the ability to connect with key role players across the world with the same research aim and vision for solving global health problems. These networks have allowed me to expand my thinking, improve networking skills and further my expertise.

The challenges that exist within the STEM space is the lack of connection, guidance and mentorship from other female counterparts. As women researchers, we all have similar experiences. But we remain isolated within our research groups without cross pollination of thought and support. We should learn more from each other and motivate each other to achieve the unthinkable.
Working within a research “silo” does not allow for filtration and expansion of knowledge or sharing of solutions to key challenges.
Although, shifts are currently in place – these serve as major barriers for women within the fields of STEM.

5. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the STEM field?

Be clear about your vision and mission and stay connected to your purpose every single day. Write down your goals and keep looking at it. Every day! When you believe that you are capable of achieving your goals, you are 90% there. Create a fresh vision board every month.

You will be subjected to critique as per the nature of the field. Do not become disheartened or demotivated. Every set-back is designed to shape you and propel you forward to greater heights. Develop a skin thick enough to withstand the harshness of everything designed to tear you down. Know that it is resilience and tenacity that are the key definers of success.

There will be days when you will feel the burnout and you will feel the need to quit, please do not. Take a step back, revise your mission, rest and get back to it.

Remember that nothing worth having comes easy. Learn to rest, not to quit.

6. As a STEM woman in Africa, how do you foresee the growth and progress of STEM on the continent? Is Africa a “land of opportunity”?

I think the lens in which women view the world is quite different and in a large sense quite powerful. Our perspectives, approaches and sense of understanding and connecting is quite unique. So there is definitely a place, a role and futuristic need for women in science in Africa and the world for that matter.

Africa boasts beauty in its potential in what it has to offer the world and in itself has a number of unique challenges largely related to health burdens. Therefore, Africa would greatly benefit from women in science who are able approach these challenges with novel advancements in scientific fields. African women in science play a critical role in the development of the continent as it sits at the crossroads of its progression. With different ideas come better solutions and novel thinking that can interchange scientific innovation forward and benefit the whole of Africa.

My role is to contribute significant and meaningful knowledge in the field of science in order to progress societies and ultimately the continent towards improved qualities of life.

According to UIS data – less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. There is undoubtedly a great gender gap within the science field. Therefore my role would be contributory towards that gap. Not only do I have the ability to contribute knowledge to HIV science, but would also like to promote, encourage, mentor and engage inspiring young females.

This drives my sense of contribution – If every day you can feel that what you do adds something not only to your own life but to others as well then life takes on a new and deeper sense of meaning.

 7. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career?

Being in experimental science each moment serves a degree of unpredictability. What is unknown is seemingly more interesting than what is known for a scientist, therefore most days serve as moments of discovery. Science is structured around a hypothesis. Sometimes we prove our initial thoughts correct and other times we prove them wrong.

As a scientists you need to stay connected to the pursuit of inquiry, constantly embracing the unknown. Most times, research outcomes show interesting patterns that hold so much value. We learn by connecting the dots and then translating this to what it means for the field of health science and the patient.

There has been a number of key milestones reached within my career. I will highlight the recent significant ones.

The first was being involved in an international exchange collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, USA. The exchange involved a five month laboratory exchange initiative where I learned the technique of isolating the HIV replicating virus and implementing it in our laboratory. This was a life journey too, in that it was the first time I lived in another country on my own. I had to become accustomed to a new way of life and culture perspective, from a professional view it allowed me the opportunity to integrate myself into a new laboratory with a different work flow, structure and thinking.

Attending my first international conference in 2017 was another key milestone. The Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) was held in Seattle, Washington State. I had also received the Young Investigator’s Scholarship Award.

During 2018 my research received two awards, the Dominque Dormont Award presented by Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (Nobel Prize Winner and Discover of the HI virus) at the AIDS 2018 Conference held in Amsterdam. The purpose of the prize is to highlight researchers who demonstrate originality, rationale, quality, and a multidisciplinary and integrative approach in the field of HIV and AIDS research.

The second award was the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science (FWIS) Sub-Saharan Regional Fellowship award which aims to improve the position of women in science through recognition of their promising research. The criteria for selection are based on evidence of productivity, innovation, scientific quality, relative impact and application of the research. The award was presented in Nairobi, Kenya in December.

In addition, the awards programme provides female scientists with skills training in leadership, public speaking, media training, personal branding, management, negotiation and partnership building. This skillset will ultimately provide the baseline tools for females to progress into leadership roles within the field and contribute towards closing the significant gender gaps that currently exist.

8. How do you maintain a work-life balance?

Time management is key to creating and maintaining a work-life balance. It is important to know which tasks in your day are the most important and tackle those first as they create momentum. It is also important to be flexible with your daily activities and leave room for unpredictable moments or circumstances.

Playing to your strengths is important in a work-life balance scenario. Dwelling on your weakness distracts you from your gifted purpose – so, let it go and focus on what you are able to do best.

Knowing your productivity patterns throughout the day is critical in determining what time of day should be used for brain work and times for doing the less brain powered tasks.

Deliberately setting time for switching off is important as it allows you to reset and recharge and it aids productivity. Make an effort to enjoy and connect with nature as it has rejuvenating powers.

Eating healthy and exercising is important to create the mind-body balance. Mental health is something that is not sufficiently stressed in our line of work. Researchers are often faced with “imposter syndrome” – it is important to acknowledge it, deal with it and understand that your best will always be good enough.

Take sufficient mental breaks and create rewards as you progress through your timelines – rewarding yourself is key and serves as an added push towards achieving them!

9. Who is your role model? Who inspires you?

I am inspired by my late mother who believed that not only is the gain of knowledge power but the application of it is critical and invaluable. My mother inspired me to keep learning from life, circumstances and limitations for all obstacles are just lessons to grow and reach further. Remaining humble during your pursuit of knowledge is key and forms the essence of life.

Pursuing studies in HIV science was inspired by a young South African AIDS activist, Nkosi Johnson, who was born with HIV and lived with the disease for 12 years. During this time, he became a powerful voice who inspired many living with the disease, shifted public perceptions and motivated those who sought to provide knowledge that would assist in relieving the burden.

Wisdoms from Nkosi from which I draw inspiration comes from his famous quote: “Do all you can with what you have in the time you have in the place you are”

10. Where can more information or insight into your work be found?

  1. https://www.linkedin.com/in/shalena-naidoo-bab38044/
  2. https://www.sun.ac.za/english/faculty/healthsciences/virology/Pages/Research0623-8404.aspx

Twitter Handle: @shalena1001

Shalena Naidoo interviewed by Dhruti Dheda

Dhruti Dheda is a Chemical Engineer with a strong interest in media and communication. She is the editor of the Engineers without Borders South Africa Newsletter and the Community Manager – South Africa and Regional Outreach for Geeky Girl Reality. If you wish to collaborate or network, contact her at dhruti@geekyreality.com or find her on twitter @dhrutidd