Professor Alta Schutte (South Africa)

Name: Alta (Aletta E.) Schutte

Position: South African MRC Unit Director: Hypertension and Cardiovascular Disease / South African Research Chair for the Early Detection and Prevention of Hypertension

Affiliation: North-West University / Medical Research Council, South Africa

1.     What is your role at your work?

Apart from responsibilities as MRC Unit Director, I am closely involved with several clinical and population studies on hypertension development in black populations. These include the South African leg of the global PURE study, but also other smaller and focused studies on children and school teachers.

I am also the Principal Investigator of the African Prospective study on the Early Detection and Identification of Cardiovascular disease and Hypertension (African-PREDICT), which is a longitudinal undertaking involving numerous local and international co-investigators from different disciplines. We aim to study the early phases of hypertension development in young apparently healthy black and white individuals. This is done by using novel techniques (e.g. testing retinal microvascular calibres and dilation, cardiovascular reactivity, large artery stiffness, biomarkers including the –omics) to lead to a better physiological understanding on how hypertension could be better prevented.

Within these studies I work closely with many young postgraduate students and emerging leader scientists where I spend a significant amount of time to play a mentoring role.

Opening of the Hypertension Clinic on the campus of the North-West University

 2.     How did you get interested in your career path?

I am from a family which familial hypercholesterolaemia has impacted quite significantly. When I was young this also affected my father (in the days prior to statins) and I think this has triggered me to understand how disease develops and what could be done to change this around. Due to the huge impact of hypertension in black populations, I was confronted with this reality in South Africa, and it encouraged me to work alongside many others in attempting to turn hypertension around.

3.     What are you most proud of in your career or otherwise?

Establishing, promoting and developing a research unit in South Africa that has contributed significantly over the past decade to new studies in understanding hypertension development in black populations, namely the Hypertension in Africa Research Team (HART) at the North-West University.

4.     What important career challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

Without doubt having to balance a family with my career – in fact, simply getting to the point where I realised that there is no such thing as a ‘balance’. Not feeling guilty when I am at work (for not spending time with my husband and two children) and not feeling guilty when I am at home (for not spending time writing that paper or grant application).

I was able to overcome this due to a wonderful supporting husband, and by making some personal rules on when I spend time on work and when I spend it on family (doing each 100% when it’s their turn). I understand now that it will never be easy, but it is possible.

5.     What advice would you give your younger self?

To spend more time, as part of my PhD, at different international institutions.

Also, to not be afraid of leading experts, who are usually quite understanding and easy to talk to.

6.     Highlight your most significant research contributions and publications (3-5) – if relevant to you.

There are many highlights, but perhaps these listed papers are personally most relevant. The first paper (Schutte et al 2012) was one of the first longitudinal papers tracking change in blood pressure in a large black population, and there we identified how certain behaviours are strong predictors of hypertension.

One of the strongest contributors identified was excessive alcohol use, and this was reconfirmed in two subsequent papers (one in the global PURE study, and the other in a black South African population, predicting cardiovascular mortality over five years).

The last paper listed is one of the first papers from our new project, the African-PREDICT study, indicating that 16% of young healthy black and white individuals screened to be normotensive, present with masked hypertension. Thereby highlighting that the burden of hypertension may in fact be higher than we think.

  • Schutte AE, Schutte R, Huisman HW, Van Rooyen JM, Fourie CMT, Malan NT, Malan L, Mels CMC, Smith W, Moss SJ, Towers GW, Kruger HS, Wentzel-Viljoen E, Vorster HH, Kruger A. Are behavioural risk factors to be blamed for the conversion from optimal blood pressure to hypertensive status in Black South Africans? A 5-year prospective study. Int J Epidemiol 2012; 14:1114-1123.
  • Smyth A, Teo KK, Rangarajan S, O’Donnell M, Rana P, Leong D, Dagenais G, Seron P, Rosengren A, Schutte AE, Lopez-Jaramillo P, Oguz A, Chifamba J, Diaz R, Lear S, Avezum A, Kumar R, Mohan V, Szuba A, Wei L, Yang W, Jian B, McKee M, Yusuf S on behalf of the PURE Study Investigators. Alcohol consumption and cardiovascular disease, cancer, injury, admission to hospital, and mortality: a prospective cohort study. Lancet 2015; 368: 1945-1954.
  • Zatu MC, Van Rooyen JM, Kruger A, Schutte AE. Alcohol intake, hypertension development and mortality in black South Africans. Eur J Prev Cardiol. 2016; 23:308-315.
  • Thompson JES, Smith W, Ware LJ, Mels CMC, Van Rooyen JM, Malan L, Malan NT, Lammertyn L, Schutte AE. Masked hypertension and its associated cardiovascular risk in young individuals: The African-PREDICT study. Hypertens Res 2016; 39:159-165.

7.     Have you had any significant career mentors? If yes, please provide further details.

 Yes, I had several mentors over the course of my career. When I was appointed 15 years ago it was my School Director (Prof. Nico Malan) and Research Director (Prof. Esté Vorster), and as my career developed I collaborated with several international and local experts which directed me in new and exciting directions throughout my career.

8.     How can we support the next generation of women scientists?

Most importantly I think it is necessary to make sure that women realise that it is possible to have an academic career whilst having a family. I think that academic and scientific societies should recognise the value and contributions of both men and women, who sometimes bring unique approaches to the table.

Having more balanced representation of women on different levels, such as academic councils, committees and conference chairs should help women in their development in the future.

Finally, non-traditional initiatives should be investigated, e.g. some societies also provide childcare facilities at international conferences. Women should not be hesitant to make such suggestions in order for the academic community to be more supportive of women in science.