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#WomenofSU: Recruit and retain more women scientists
Author: Sandra Mulder
Published: 11/08/2020

​Prof Soraya Seedat from the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University (SU) proves that a clinician scientist can successfully straddle the fields of scientific research and clinical patient treatment. Wearing these two hats, she contributes to an international knowledge base on gene-brain-behaviour mechanisms, as well as provides effective treatment modalities, particularly for women. As if this is not enough, she also ensures that 80% of the researchers on her trauma research programme are women, thereby contributing to a more gender-balanced scientific community.

Prof Seedat tells us more about her work.

Tell us more about your research.

For the past 20 years, my research has straddled the cross-cutting theme of psychological trauma, especially continuous violent trauma exposure, and the interplay of risk and resilience across the human lifespan. My research programmes focus on several psychiatric disorders, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders and neuroAIDS. The types of trauma that I am most interested in are childhood maltreatment, rape, and intimate partner violence. These are ubiquitous in South Africa, as well as in many other countries of the world, and have long-lasting negative mental and physical health sequelae. 

The studies that I conduct are on the intersection of biological and environmental mechanisms of causation of the aforementioned disorders, and treatments for them. Environmental factors that are not well understood are the gender, ethnic and cultural disparities that contribute to the development of these psychiatric disorders. I host research programmes funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), more specifically the South African Research Chair in PTSD and the MRC Genomics of Brain Disorders Research Unit. I am also passionate about training early-career researchers on the African continent.​​

Why or how did you become interested in this specific area of research?

I became interested in research on anxiety disorders during my training as a registrar in Psychiatry. I moved from Durban to Cape Town to train in Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University.

SU's Department of Psychiatry has always had a very strong research culture, with outstanding, internationally acclaimed researchers and research mentors (such as Profs Robin Emsley and Dan Stein). 

My first research study, which I conducted during my training, was on hoarding behaviour in patients diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder. I developed an instrument to assess hoarding and was fascinated by the narratives of the patients I encountered – the reasons, motives and triggers that they endorsed for their hoarding behaviour, and the common phenomena of early-life trauma and recent stressors in their lives. I was also energised by the diversity of research activities, including clinical trials, that were ongoing in the Department of Psychiatry at the time. I knew that I wanted to be a clinician scientist right then and there.

Soon after completing my training, I joined the MRC Unit on Anxiety Disorders as a postdoctoral fellow, set up an adolescent trauma research clinic, which still continues today, and embarked on a series of studies on posttraumatic stress disorder in adolescents and adults. 

Why do you think this is such an important area of research for South African women?

Women and young girls in South Africa are disproportionately affected by sexual trauma and intimate partner violence. This is a scourge at the core of the intersecting epidemics of HIV, maternal and youth illnesses, and other non-communicable disease in the country. Trauma is a risk factor for a variety of psychiatric disorders among women, and women with pre-existing mental illness are more vulnerable to affliction by severe trauma. In women, sexual trauma often goes unreported because of the shame, guilt, fear and stigma. The mental and physical stigmata are often hidden, resulting in a clinical diagnosis being made and treatment being offered far too late. Early diagnosis and delivery of effective and accessible treatments are crucial in our setting. 

What would you consider the greatest impact of your research on women in the country?

On one level, my trauma research programmes have given me the platform to recruit and retain women scientists, and support them in their research careers. This has been extremely rewarding. More than 80% of researchers in my programmes are women. I have enjoyed the privilege of supporting women researchers and growing their expertise in trauma-related research in South Africa and on the African continent. On another level, because much of my research has focused on women (such as trauma and PTSD in adolescents, adults and HIV-infected populations), I have contributed internationally to the knowledge base on gene-brain-behaviour mechanisms and effective treatment modalities. 

What would your message be for the next generation of women researchers?

Now, more than ever, South Africa needs more women in science, and a more gender-balanced scientific community. For far too long, women researchers have endured structural, organisational and interpersonal challenges (such as mistreatment in the form of gender discrimination, bullying and gender derogation) that our male colleagues have not had to contend with.

As the current and next generation of researchers, we need to speak up and ensure that we have equal opportunities, a sense of belonging and inclusion, and that we are acknowledged for our contributions.

My advice to young researchers is to actively reach out to other women researchers who can help lift them up in their careers. Connecting and networking with other researchers (both women and men), on the African continent and internationally, early on in your career will give you an added advantage. Collectively as women researchers, we need to celebrate and embrace other strong, competent, successful and inspirational women.