Today marks the International Day of Women in Science. We know about the gender gap in many disciplines, such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) all over the world. Even tough, women are way more present and made tremendous progress in their participation in higher education worldwide, they are still not equally represented.
Today we want to have a closer look at one specific woman in science, who we followed and whose research we supported in the recent years: Lizl Veldsman. She is a Clinical Dietitian at the Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa, and the former president of the South African Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (SASPEN) from 2017 to 2019. Currently also enrolled and working on her doctoral degree in Nutrition Sciences at the Stellenbosch University. She participated in the Fresenius Kabi’s Clinical Nutrition JUMPstart Program in 2019 and convinced the jury with her research project on clinical nutrition and mobilization for intensive care patients. In this interview she talks about her role as a researcher in science as well as what the JUMPstart Program and research grant brought her.
Lizl, thank you for finding time to talk with us about your role and research. Since we talk in regards of the action day of Women in Science – what is your experience as a woman in research like?
I see many researchers who are passionate about their topics and eager to gain successes for their patients. For me it is important not to judge quality and success based on gender – if someone is passionate about research, gender does not matter! Go after your dreams, force them, and believe in your abilities. What matters is that your patients get well soon.
You are working in clinical nutrition since the start of your career. Why did you choose this area in research?
Research is what propels humanity and the field of medicine and clinical nutrition forward. Every successful treatment, intervention, medication, and way of care did not come overnight, but rather through years of efforts by curious researchers. By doing clinical research one can contribute to significant discoveries that in turn can improve health care, and help patients receive the best of care possible. This is the reason why I choose research, and in particular clinical nutrition research as I have always been interested in the impact nutrition has on the human body. In my early times as a clinical dietitian, I saw that optimal nutrition accompanied with mobilization reduces the risk of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) patients for developing complications, such as infections and bed sores. In turn, good nutrition may shorten their stay and help a faster recovery. I wanted a deeper insight and data collection to prove what I have seen.
This sounds like the starting point of your current research project, which you pitched during the JUMPstart 2019 program. You won the grant of 250,000€ for your research project on protein supplements and mobilization.
Exactly! The original name of my study is “The effect of combined intravenous bolus amino acid supplements and mobilization on skeletal muscle during the acute phase of critical illness: a randomized controls trial”. My research project aims to determine if providing ICU patients with additional protein supplement along with daily in-bed cycling would help preserve their muscle mass within the first week of ICU care, compared to standard of care. Ultimately, I believe this may help improve their functional recovery and quality of life, long after their hospital stay.
Why is this important?
Critically ill patients often lose a lot of muscle mass during their ICU stay which may limit their functional recovery and quality of life afterwards. I am a passionate advocate for providing optimal nutrition and mobilization to patients to help them during their recovery process. Clinical nutrition and exercise are one important momentum for recovery.
JUMPstart is meant to accelerate research in clinical nutrition. What were your expectations for this program?
The chance to dig deeper in my research and relevant topics. In 2017, I was working on a research proposal to conduct my study. A big research project like this requires a highly skilled team of dietitians, critical care doctors or intensivists, physiotherapists, and physiologists, along with the appropriate equipment and resources. I knew getting adequate funding might be difficult. Two years later I heard about Fresenius Kabi’s JUMPstart program to improve the research skills of young healthcare professionals and provide them with the opportunity to apply for grant support for their research ideas. I grabbed the opportunity, firstly, as I knew the program would provide me with the opportunity to learn research skills from a group of leading international clinical nutrition experts, and secondly, to apply for their research grant that could give me the opportunity to realize my research.
What did the program and support do for your research?
I was lucky enough to be included in the first JUMPstart group of 19 young researchers who attended two weekend-long workshops at Fresenius Kabi in Germany where we were taught by leading experts in the field of clinical nutrition research. After this we were given the opportunity to finalize and submit our revised research proposals. When I first received the news that I am the winner of the JUMPstart grant of 250,000€, I was totally blown away. Although I did put a lot of preparation into the research proposal, I was still amazed by the size of the grant and the opportunity it provided me for undertaking my proposed large-scale clinical nutrition trial on home ground.
Great to hear that you gained a lot of freedom for your research and that you can help even more patients with your findings. How important is the exchange within the scientific community for you and your research?
It is everything! I have always worked in an academic hospital where we take part in daily multidisciplinary academic ward rounds, in which we discuss and exchange ideas and aim to translate evidence-based research into clinical practice.
We started with the role of female researchers, and we want to end with advice you have for fellow researchers. What are the top three insights you want to share with fellow female researchers?
First, deal with one piece at a time. Don’t try to tackle everything at once, you will just feel overwhelmed. I have come to learn that multitasking doesn't work for me. Instead, I divide my research tasks into manageable-size chunks, focusing on one single task for a specific amount of time before switching over to the next. Second, remember that you are only as strong as your team is. Choose wisely when you put your research team together. And my third advice is about anyone’s time management, and especially to moms with a full-time job and wanting to do research: If you have a full-time job and family apart from your research project, set aside a certain amount of time daily to work on your research project. During that time focus only on your research project, and when you are done switch your focus 100% to the next thing, i.e. your job or family. Regarding gender: Don’t let anything hold you back!
Thanks a lot for your time and thoughts in regards of women in science as well as the JUMPstart program, Lizl!