Professor Rhian Touyz

Spotlight feature contributed when based in Glasgow, UK. Now based in Montreal, Canada.

Position: Professor and Director

Affiliation: Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, University of Glasgow, UK

Past President, ISH (2014-2016)

Podcast: Listen to an ISH Podcast with Professor Rhian Touyz.

What is your role at your work?

I have 3 major roles:
1) Director of the Institute for Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, where I provide leadership and scientific guidance to 400 staff and trainees
2) Researcher, where I run a research-intensive lab of 18 members, focusing on molecular mechanisms and vascular biology of experimental and clinical hypertension and
3) Clinician, providing clinical care to patients with complex hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

How did you get interested in your career path?

As a young medical student in South Africa I was faced with a young patient in the ward who had suffered a major debilitating stroke. I was amazed to find out that the patient had malignant hypertension, the cause of which was unknown. More importantly, had the hypertension been treated, the stroke, most likely, would have been prevented. My curiosity into the mechanisms of hypertension started then and since that time my career has focused on unravelling the molecular and cellular mechanisms that underlie hypertension.

As a medical student, with an undergraduate degree in physiology, I had the wonderful opportunity to combine my clinical interests with research questions that resulted in a PhD on ‘cations, cell biology and hypertension’. Recognising my deficiencies in molecular and vascular biology, I completed a post-doctoral fellowship working with Ernesto Schiffrin at the Clinical Research Institute of Montreal, where I gained experience in fundamental cardiovascular research.

With a strong foundation in molecular, cellular and vascular biology, together with my passion for clinical work, my career was launched as a clinician-scientist and since then I climbed the academic hierarchal ladder from Assistant to Full Professor, resulting in a Canada Research Chair in Hypertension in the University of Ottawa. In Ottawa I joined the Kidney Research Centre, where I had fantastic opportunities to learn more about the kidney in hypertension.

My career path progressed to a major leadership role in 2011, when I assumed the role of Director of the Institute for Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences, University of Glasgow. Throughout my career my enthusiasm for discovery, both at the bench and the bedside, has continued to grow and I now lead a lab comprising basic science and clinical trainees and fellows. Not only have I been fortunate enough to contribute to hypertension at the discovery level, but I have been actively involved in the development of hypertension guidelines, providing clinical service and impacting hypertension globally through my leading role as President of  ISH.

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

Besides my two exceptional children, who continue to amaze and delight me with their own successes, I am most proud of the research contributions from my lab that have advanced knowledge in the field of mechanisms of hypertension. Without the fantastic trainees, post-doctoral fellows and collaborators, such work would not have been possible and so I am especially grateful and very proud of having the privilege to work with exceptionally talented and hard-working students and colleagues. Through my research collaborations, I have created a global network of the best collaborators, who I consider my international research family.

Without research funding, such activities would never have been possible and as such I am extremely proud of the fact that I have had continuous funding since 1996 from major national granting agencies. Looking forward to the next generation of hypertension researchers, I take pride in the many trainees who have passed through my lab who are now successful independent researchers in their own right. Nothing could give me happier than knowing that they will be the future leaders in the field.

As a clinician, I am very proud in that I can offer the very best, up-to-date and cutting edge knowledge to better serve patients with hypertension. I feel extremely privileged that I can use my academic knowledge to inform and treat patients, and also that I can take my research from the clinic to the lab and from the lab to the clinic. I feel truly privileged that I can practice clinical medicine at the beside and at the same time do fundamental science at the bench.

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

Having a family, doing a clinical internship, completing a PhD, a post-doctoral fellowship, and immigration were major challenges for me as I established my career as a clinician-scientist. I also had significant challenges in obtaining a clinical permit to practice medicine in Quebec, when I moved from South Africa to Canada. This took me 10 years because of the complex rules and regulations for foreign doctors in Canada.

These career challenges were overcome by having fantastic support at home, help from friends, excellent child care assistance, and strong mentoring and guidance from academic supervisors. Working in a place where there was some flexibility and living close to work helped me too. Skills that I had to learn were multitasking and extremely good time management.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t be afraid to take risks. Make informed decisions. Have confidence and do not doubt yourself. Be proud of your achievements and promote your successes. Don’t give up on things you believe in and that you enjoy, despite hurdles or obstacles.

Don’t think you are the only person who has had rejections in grants, publications and promotions – even the most successful researchers had rejections at some point in their careers.

Plan your post-doctoral experiences carefully as very often this is what guides you into your future career path. Its important to have an understanding and caring partner, who appreciates the demands and unusual stresses of research and academia.

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

  1. Touyz RM, Chen X, Tabet F, Yao G, He G, Quinn MT, Pagano PJ, Schiffrin EL. Expression of a functionally active gp91phox-containing neutrophil-type NAD(P)H oxidase in smooth muscle cells from human resistance arteries: regulation by angiotensin II. Circ Res 2002;90(11):1205-1213.
  1. He Y, Yao G, Savoia C, Touyz RM. Transient Receptor Potential Melastatin 7 Ion Channels Regulate Magnesium Homeostasis in Vascular Smooth Muscle Cells. Role of Angiotensin II. Circ Res 2005;96:207-21
  1. Tabet F, Schiffrin EL, Callera G, He Y, Yao G, Ostman A, Kappert K, Tonks NK, Touyz RM. Redox-Sensitive Signaling by Angiotensin II Involves Oxidative Inactivation and Blunted Phosphorylation of Protein Tyrosine Phosphatase SHP-2 in Vascular Smooth Muscle Cells From SHR. Circ Res. 2008;103(2):149-58.
  1. Montezano AC, Paravicini TM, Chignalia AZ, Yusuf H, Almasri M, He Y, He G, Callera   GE, Krause K-H, Lambeth D, Touyz RM. Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide Phosphate Reduced Oxidase 5 (Nox5) Regulation by Angiotensin II and Endothelin-1 is Mediated via Calcium/Calmodulin-dependent Pathways in Human Endothelial Cells. Circ Res. 2010;106:1363-73.
  1. Briones AM, Nguyen Dinh Cat A, Callera GE, Yogi A, Burger D, He Y,  Correa J, Gagnon AM, Celso E. Gomez-Sanchez CE, Gomez-Sanchez EP, Sorisky A, Ooi TC, Ruzicka M, Burns KD, Touyz RM.Adipocytes produce aldosterone through calcineurin/NFAT-dependent signaling pathway – Implications in diabetes-associated obesity. Hypertension. 2012;59:1069-1078

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

I have been fortunate to have wonderful mentors who believed in my abilities and who encouraged and supported my goals and ambitions. As role models, my mentors taught me to strive for academic, clinical and research excellence, without compromise. My mentors were truly inspirational and their enjoyment and excitement for what they were doing flamed the passion and drive that encouraged me.

In particular, I acknowledge:

Professors Harry Seftel, Joe Veraiwa and John Milne, who were outstanding clinical teachers and supervisors at Wits Medical School, Johannesburg, South Africa. Prof Ernesto Schiffrin who was my post-doctoral supervisor at the Clinical Research Institute of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, played a major role in my transition from a clinical researcher to a basic-translational scientist. He remains an important mentor, collaborator and colleague. I am especially proud of the many beautiful papers we co-authored.

How can we support the next generation of women scientists?

We need to increase awareness, support and encourage women scientists. Promoting and celebrating successes of women, and creating an ethos of equality and diversity in our community will ensure that contributions by women are better recognised.

We need to provide mentoring schemes, networking opportunities and work experience where women scientists feel comfortable, confident and assertive. More consideration for personal and domestic family challenges need to be addressed with practical solutions, such as flexible working hours, on-site child care and leisure/well-being facilities.

Women are less likely to promote themselves – for awards, academic positions, leadership roles, policy makers etc. We should be encouraging more self-promotions and support of fellow women colleagues. Such awareness at an early stage in training will certainly provide better opportunities for women scientists and academics in the future.