New health sciences deputy dean talks research, community and service

07 June 2021 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Dwayne Evans. Read time 10 min.
Opportunity to effect change: Prof Liesl Zühlke, the new acting deputy dean for research in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
Opportunity to effect change: Prof Liesl Zühlke, the new acting deputy dean for research in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Taking on the role of acting deputy dean for research in the University of Cape Town’s Faculty of Health Sciences just before the predicted third COVID-19 wave was perhaps like surfacing in the brief eye of a storm. But for Professor Liesl Zühlke, the challenge of being part of a multidisciplinary deanery and serving the faculty during the pandemic couldn’t be ignored.

“I think you know me by now. I enjoy new challenges,” she quipped. Before taking the reins from Professor Ambroise Wonkam, whose three-year term ended in April, the paediatric cardiologist was usually to be found at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. In her new role, for a six-month acting period, Professor Zühlke will split her time between the deanery and her clinical and research responsibilities at the hospital. She spoke with UCT News.

Helen Swingler (HS): The faculty has an international reputation for research. What does the role of deputy dean encompass in this portfolio?

Liesl Zuhlke (LZ): First is supporting the research endeavour, processes and functionality. The faculty research office has a fantastic team, led by Dr Yolande Harley, that supports research and researchers. There are also core research facilities (the Clinical Research Centre, UCT Centre for Animal Research Excellence, Cape Universities Body Imaging Centre, Cancer Research Initiative and Confocal and Light Microscope Imaging Facility) that report into this portfolio. So it’s the engine room, supporting, guiding and operationalising the faculty’s research endeavour alongside the research institutions, centres and units and their researchers across the platform.

Second, and probably my biggest focus, is developing a new research strategy, following the one in place from 2013 to 2020. We are aligning our faculty research vision and strategy with UCT’s Vision 2030. That will occupy the next few months, working alongside all stakeholders to craft a forward-thinking research strategy and vision.

The third part is being included in the leadership within the deanery and faculty. This is a very interesting element, as it relates not only to research but to anything that affects the deanery or the faculty. For example, the faculty recently issued a collective statement supporting calls for an inquiry into the testimony of UCT alumnus [retired forensic pathologist] Dr David Fowler, who testified at Derek Chauvin’s trial that a heart condition had killed George Floyd [contrary to the testimony of other medical experts at the trial]. There was important engagement around that. Though my portfolio may be research, I will be involved in any major happenings within the faculty.


“It's an honour to be asked to accept this acting role and [to] contribute.”

HS: How will you balance your role as deputy dean with your clinical and teaching responsibilities at the hospital?

LZ: I feel I have multiple full-time jobs! But it’s an honour to be asked to accept this acting role and [to] contribute. From a researcher’s perspective, there is a great opportunity here to support the faculty’s research endeavour. The plan is that I spend three days in the faculty and two days on my clinical and research work at the hospital. I have support from both the faculty and my clinical colleagues, and an understanding of patient needs or urgent issues in the deanery. There’s no such thing as ‘after hours’ in my life! And so, yes, it means a lesser role in my immediate clinical work, but instead the chance to actively promote and realise a vision for health sciences research. I am fortunate to have wonderful colleagues (and my own research team) who can take up these spaces for now.

HS: You mentioned UCT’s Vision 2030, in which transformation is key to the pillars of sustainability and excellence. Are you involved in the transformation aspect of the research portfolio?

LZ: I will be. It is critical to me to see the entire research portfolio really taking on board UCT’s transformation vision. One important aspect is transforming the social and the health systems impact of research. We need to transform in terms of our researchers: who they are, where they come from, the type of research they do and who they do it with. The goal is capacity building and ensuring a cadre of diverse, socially engaged scholars who will lead research into the future.

We must also consider the social accountability aspects of research, and the way it impacts health systems; that’s a part that we should not forget. How does the research impact communities? What is the feedback loop? Do we ever go to the community and ask what it is that they want us to research? And once we’ve done the research, do we then disappear from the community? This is even more challenging in laboratory or integrative research. We must transform how we position research in all three spheres: the researcher, the type of research, and the communities and participants that are impacted by our research. For me, it is achieving an African research agenda, with people and values at its heart.

Prof Liesl Zühlke will split her time between the deanery and her clinical and research responsibilities at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital.

HS: It’s hard to talk about research without talking about the funding crisis, COVID-19 having moved to centre stage. How hard has health research funding been hit?

LZ: That is a major concern for many researchers globally, especially those in low- and middle-income countries. Funds have been pivoted away to COVID-19 research in some cases, and funding calls have been paused in others. Everything had to stop – accessibility to research labs, patients, etc. We’ve also had the very tragic situation of losing colleagues and support staff to COVID-19. We have all been indelibly affected. We don’t have huge support from our own government, and we have the very real problem of how inflation and foreign exchange rates affect our funding. My own funding was also under threat. Nonetheless, we are working as a faculty and [as] a university to devise a strategy with some short-term suggestions. Beyond that, we must look at medium- and long-term sustainability and [at] becoming more independent of high-income countries, in terms of funding and the research agenda.

HS: How has COVID-19 been shaping the facultys research focus? Last year we saw UCT pivot very quickly to get involved at various interfaces: epidemiology, medical devices and personal protective equipment, vaccines.

LZ: The COVID-19 challenge came with amazing learning experiences and opportunities. We had to shift rapidly to respond, which our faculty definitely did, leading many of the initiatives. But even more important is how we stepped up. The faculty’s research was responsive to the needs, and linked to dissemination and engagement. People used the daily COVID-19 Dashboard; we were involved in (or led) the Sisonke and other major vaccine trials, and [we] created and implemented clinical, basic sciences and biomedical engineering innovations to save lives. We considered emerging evidence and changed our protocols and behaviour accordingly.

And that’s what research should be. It should be up to date, linked to people, informing the public – and ‘fixing’ false information. As we initially didn’t have ring-fenced funding for COVID-19, people pooled resources. At Red Cross we had teams of researchers across disciplines (and based in different provinces, during hard lockdown!) working together on a biorepository. We were able to borrow space in fridges from [the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine] to store specimens, without cost, and work with other universities and centres to use their resources. There are many other examples across the faculty. We could do multidisciplinary, cross-cutting research with shared resources, which proved to be quite cost-effective.

On the other hand, we know that many researchers – especially women – were profoundly affected by their increased competing priorities, such as childcare or family support. The lack of home-office support also caused significant issues for people. Hopefully we can address these and consider new ways of supporting our researchers and research programmes.

HS: What would you describe as the biggest challenges that the faculty faces on the research front, given the university’s decentralised mode of working during the pandemic?

LZ: I think we’ve really adapted to different environments by seeing decentralisation in a new light. I’ve been very productive this morning, despite not being at my formal desk. We’re seeing that it is possible to work off-site: we are more productive if we don’t sit in traffic! We’re now using these lessons to improve our outputs, develop new capacities, new ways of communication, and still be connected.

However, many people find it difficult to be productive if they don't interact with one another or work in the lab. I certainly need that spark of others around me for collaboration, exchange of ideas and interaction. Many aspects of health sciences research must be in-lab or in-person. However, decentralisation can better connect us to our research. It is better to be in Khayelitsha if you’re doing Khayelitsha-based research, and only come to campus for that meeting once a week.

So our greatest challenge is how to achieve our research goals while combining the two aspects – remote, and in-person – and not become fatigued, disconnected or disengaged. We certainly have continued to work with colleagues across the globe, and remain connected and produce good work. Now that I and many of my colleagues have been vaccinated, I look forward to seeing people again and rebuilding joint activities to support, empower and conduct research.

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