NRF Women's Month 2022: Veena Abraham

NRF Women’s Month 2022: Veena Abraham

Women’s Month 2022 is celebrated under the theme of “Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future” and links to the achievement of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 5) of Gender Equality by 2030. The NRF is committed to supporting women to advance their careers and establish themselves as researchers and, to this end, has developed a range of funding instruments aimed at supporting emerging female researchers.

Mrs Veena Abraham is a lecturer in the School of Pharmacy at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU). She is also a PhD candidate at SMU and the University of Stirling in Scotland. Mrs Abraham is a current NRF Thuthuka* grantholder.

What impact did NRF funding have on your career?

I applied for NRF Thuthuka funding in 2020 and was successful – I received funding for my PhD project from 2021 to 2023. This has meant that I don’t have to worry about any costs for my research as they are mostly covered by Thuthuka and the institutional commitment.

I believe NRF funding is very competitive, so obtaining these funds reiterated the relevance and rigour of my PhD project which aims to develop a mental health promotion program at SMU. I am attending the European Conference on Mental Health in September this year and part of the trip will be funded through the Thuthuka grant, thus enhancing my network and exposure to current practices in the mental health field. This will allow me to become an agent of change at SMU and I am also hopeful that being a recipient of Thuthuka will lead to further opportunities for collaboration, as part of the NRF network and beyond, with plans to apply for an NRF rating when I meet the criteria. 

What has been your study/career journey: how did you end up where you are today?

My first stop after school was registering for the BPharm program at WITS. When my first year didn’t go at all as planned, I had to re-evaluate my options and switched to BSc Biological Sciences (also through WITS) and graduated in 2007. I then did BSc (Honours) in Pharmacology part-time at North-West University. During this time I started lecturing on a part-time basis in the BPharm programme at SMU (then known as the University of Limpopo Medunsa Campus). Despite my initial reservations due to my previous experiences with BPharm as a student, this job was a perfect fit for me as the BPharm program at the institution is both module- and systems-based. This means that in a clinical module one had to cover Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology – all subjects I had majored in up to that point!

I completed my Honours degree in 2009 and was permanently employed by UL in March 2010. Over the next few years, I was heavily involved in teaching in the BPharm programme and didn’t think much of furthering my studies – until 2015 when I did my MPharm (by major dissertation). My project focused on patient safety at a tertiary hospital and this project cemented my interest in organisational culture. I was privileged to be able to present my research at public health conferences which further exposed me to aspects such as social determinants of health and health promotion, eventually leading me to my PhD project on mental health promotion in the academic space.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

Despite being in academia for over 12 years, I classify myself as an early career researcher as my initial focus was on teaching undergraduate students. Since my Master’s degree, I have tried to focus my research on organisational culture and public health, specifically adolescent health, social determinants of health and mental health promotion. For example, I have looked at substance abuse and stress amongst undergraduate students, their knowledge and perceptions around cannabis use as well as their access to and utilisation of mental health services.

I am well versed in both quantitative and qualitative methods as my Master’s employed both and so will my PhD. Given my experience in teaching undergraduate pharmacy students, I am also keenly interested in health professions education and the scholarship of teaching and learning, particularly ways of making learning fun e.g. utilising game-based learning.

Why is your research important?

We have many students in our institution who are the first members of their families to enter tertiary education. Many of these students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I truly believe in the potential of these youths to develop and uplift their communities, thus part of my research that focuses on adolescent health aims to find out what issues these youths face in our setting and find ways to improve access to services for them in order to produce better outcomes, both in terms of health and academic performance. While change is sometimes slow to effect, we are raising campus awareness regarding these issues, which is a good first start.

My other research focus, mental health promotion, is a passion project. I have anxiety and have personally struggled under the weight of expectation that is placed on academics in terms of meeting academic responsibilities (teaching, research, community engagement, applying for grants etc.) all while having a young family. Thus, through my research I aim to form part of the transformation in this space where talking about mental health issues openly and seeking ways to promote mental health in this setting is not stigmatised. I hope to see tangible change in this university in terms of staff and student mental health as a result of my research.

Further to this, I aim to expand more on mental health research and promotion in communities that need it through participatory methods. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “We have to be the change we wish to see in this world”.

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

My advice to young girls interested in STEM-related careers is to firstly believe in yourself and your abilities, nobody can take that away from you. If there is something you have in mind that you want to do, then go for it. Also, do not be afraid of failing at something, your failures may lead you to something better, a path that you might not have seen before but that you will enjoy and excel in.

Try and learn more about the career path you want to follow; try to find someone in the field you can ask questions to and that can guide you; perhaps even offer you practical experience in the field. In the same vein, try to build relationships with women in the field, they may have struggled themselves to get where they are today but most are happy to share a helping hand to those rising on the ladder – the impact of a good mentor cannot be understated.

Are there things I wish I had known before embarking on my career journey? I wish I had known more about linking my teaching and research together so that one doesn’t feel torn between the two. I think the competitive nature of being an academic is tough to get used to, thus I wish I had received mentoring earlier in my career path. I am trying to make up for those mistakes by mentoring and supporting young academics so that we can all grow together.

*The NRF’s Thuthuka funding instrument, initiated in 2001, aims to develop human capital and to improve the research capacities of researchers and scholars from designated groups with the ultimate aim of redressing historical imbalances.

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