Monthly Profiles

Prof Eileen Hoal

June 2015 | Interview with Prof. Eileen Hoal

Prof Eileen HoalI am a professor in Molecular Biology and Human Genetics at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University

1) Briefly describe what your job involves.

I've been working in the field of genetic susceptibility to TB for about 20 years. This means that some people or even populations are more likely to get TB than others, and that this is caused by their genetic make-up. We are trying to find the genes involved, but as in many things in science, it is much more complex than we thought. The science part is exciting, but my job at this point is mostly supervising PhD students and postdocs, and doing the admin involved with finances, ethics etc, writing papers and grant proposals.

2) Can you describe the most exciting part of your job?

Working with the data at the end of the experiment. Finding something completely new and unexpected, and being able to explain it after we have thought about it carefully.

3) What are some of the challenges you had to face and overcome as a woman in your career?

Things are better for women now, but there is still the underlying belief that women are primarily responsible for childcare, cooking, housework, and the attitude that if they can do that plus have a career, that's OK. Men and women need to examine their prejudices. I have often been told even by women: "You don't look like a doctor/professor!" – especially when I was pregnant! That tells us a lot. I wouldn't change my decision to have children and a career, but it has meant sacrifices in both areas.

4) How did you make your career choice?

I always loved science, especially biology. I thought medicine would be too boring (visions of my GP) so after a wonderful year doing BA, I settled down to a BSc, and then followed my interest through the twists and turns of microbiology, immunology, cell biology, to host genetics of TB.

5) How is your career directly related to your formal academic training?

In biology and especially genetics the half-life of knowledge is very short as the field is changing and progressing so quickly. This makes it fascinating, but it means that one has to constantly keep learning. This also means that the specific subjects I did not study formally are irrelevant. I never tell students what I was taught in immunology way back – it's embarrassing and sounds more like alchemy!

6) What qualifications do you require to work in your field?

A BSc, then a year of Honours to develop curiosity and the love of learning. And also to learn a huge amount of practical stuff! To become an academic, you would then go on to MSc and PhD. Genetics is becoming more and more computational, so people who have qualified in Computer Science, Bioinformatics or Mathematics are keenly sought after.

7) Can you describe the most important skills you require for this work environment?

Curiosity, scepticism, willingness to learn and to ask for help, attention to detail, ability to push yourself as an individual but work in a team.

8) What does leadership mean to you?

Providing enough guidance to give the impression of a safety net, but encouraging and pushing people gently (usually!) out of their comfort zone so that they realise what they can do on their own.

9) What advice would you give

(a) girls who are considering a career in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM)

Believe in yourself and go for it! Develop a thick skin. Try to job shadow in the field you are interested in, but be aware that these "snapshots in time" don't often show you what the job is really like.

(b) postgraduate students entering the job market?

Try to do something you love. If you are not in your dream field, learn to love what you are doing – you will be happier and will achieve more. Whether you are in academia or not, think about how to add to your CV and how it will look to your next potential employer. Ask for recognition when you feel you deserve it – you are unlikely to get it otherwise.