Aneesa Vanker works in the Division of Paediatric Pulmonology at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. Since 2011 she has held a joint appointment in the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital and the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
“My passion is working towards better lung health for children in South Africa. As with much of my academic career my progression to associate professor has been via a series of events, which have aligned to allow me to continue doing what I love,” she said.
Once Vanker completed her sub-specialist training as a paediatric pulmonologist in 2010, the only thing she knew for sure was that she wanted to remain in academic medicine working towards improving child health. “Professor Robert Gie, my wise mentor at Tygerberg Children’s Hospital, Stellenbosch University, where I trained, advised me that to remain in academic medicine one needed to develop as a clinical researcher and pursue a PhD.”
Her ‘career stars’ aligned and a post as a paediatric pulmonologist at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital became available in 2011. She concurrently received a Discovery Foundation Academic Award, which facilitated a research project and the commencement of her PhD.
“I occupied a “joint-appointment” post, which is defined as a full-time clinical post with 30% of time for UCT teaching, academic and research commitments,” she said. “Uniquely, since 2016, I also hold a job-share post; an innovative flexible working hour post. My job includes a mix of specialised clinical work as a paediatric pulmonologist, teaching both undergraduate medical students and post-graduate registrars and supervising trainees in clinical work and research.”
Vanker’s research interest is the environmental determinants of child lung diseases, which was also the subject of her PhD thesis: “Indoor air pollution and tobacco smoke exposure in a South African birth cohort”.
Her work on the environmental determinants of child health and lung disease in a low- and middle-income setting is novel and gaining recognition not only nationally, but also internationally.
“I have nine publications directly linked to this work and have received a number of competitive grants that have led to invitations to give lectures on air pollution and child lung health at international congresses,” she said.
“I am the current chairholder of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health Transformation Action Group, a member of the Faculty of Health Sciences Transformation Executive Committee, serve on the Department of Paediatrics Exco and the departmental research committee. I am also on the South African Thoracic Society Council and The Forum of International Respiratory Societies Environmental Group.”
Vanker decided to apply for an ad hominem promotion at the beginning of 2019 and in April 2019 was welcomed to the Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) family. Thanks to Robert Morell, she met with her supervisor and head of department (HOD) and only then really learnt about the ad hominem process.
“It forced me to think clearly about when I wanted to apply for promotion. Was I ready? I decided to give it a go, despite warnings about the gruelling nature of the process and the potential of disappointment.”
A time-consuming process
The process of applying was indeed time-consuming, but she benefitted from attending NGP workshops on preparing her portfolio. “The call from the Faculty of Health Sciences for the ad hom promotion applications came the day I was to go on leave to attend a conference in Japan. Our department had a two-week internal deadline for review. Needless to say, my extended CV was prepared late at night from a Turkish hotel foyer while trying to catch the best WiFi connection while my family slept!”
Vanker landed back in South Africa the day the application was due and worked through the night to get it in on time. Sadly, her mother became critically ill the day before the application was due and in a blur her husband, Yacoob Jaffar, submitted it for her.
“Following that, one hears nothing for a long time,” said Vanker. “I was pleasantly surprised when one late Friday afternoon in October my HOD called to congratulate me on my promotion to associate professor. I found the entire process very demanding. A huge thanks to Robert and the NGP for the support, the reading of the reflective summaries and the general advice.”
Vanker said the peer support from her job-share partner, Associate Professor Diane Gray (who went through the process in 2018), and Professor Liesl Zulkhe was invaluable.
“I can only hope that with this, while I continue to build my academic career, I can also provide guidance and mentorship to others on this often very muddy and difficult journey.
My mother, Fawzia Moola, died before she could savour my success. I dedicate this promotion to her.”
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