01/04/2018 10:15 SAST | Updated 01/04/2018 10:23 SAST

A Celebrated Female Scientist Tells Us What Inspires Her

Professor Heather Zar has been honoured for her exceptional work in science in Africa.

Professor Heather Zar.
Professor Heather Zar.

Professor Heather Zar has has been honoured for establishing a cutting-edge research programme on pneumonia, tuberculosis and asthma, saving the lives of many children worldwide.

Zar is the chair of the department of paediatrics and child health at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital and director of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) unit at the University of Cape Town.

Last week she was among five women in science to be lauded by the L'Oréal Foundation and Unesco with the Women in Science Awards.

She credits her family for her career path and success.

"I would say my first big influence was my grandmother. She was not an educated woman – in fact she had to go to work so that her brother could be educated, but she was a very wise woman and she gave me the sense that women are able to change the world," she told HuffPost on Thursday.

Her parents, she says, taught her about the "value of an education and of social justice".


Zar recalls how her aunt an uncle would take her to laboratories when she was just a little girl. They were both chemical pathologists and exposed Zar to the interesting and exciting world of science.

"When I was in primary school they would sometimes take me to the lab, and I was fascinated with what I was seeing," she said.

Zar works in clinical science and is a doctor by profession.

"I'm a pediatrician and I specialise in lung diseases of children – but in caring for children with lung diseases, I started to ask questions like 'Can we do better?'" she said.

This led to her interest in research.

She works with a team to do tests concerning different lung diseases afflicting children, before using this knowledge in collaboration with the public sector.

"It is sort of a bridge between public health and lab science – we are able to work with the public sector to implement that and make it available to children," she said.

Being excellent in science is about working together and benefiting from the many, many areas of expertise and skills that exist.

Zar credits those close to her with helping her to build her career, particularly her husband and three children.

"In think it is very important to have fulfilling professional life and a fulfilling family life, and I think in some ways I am a better mother for having fulfilling career. My career has really benefited from having a wonderful family ... They have taught me so much about children, about science."

"I think it is essential that a woman be enabled to balance the work and family. I think what we need to build are better support structures that enable women to do that," she explained.

She says being acknowledged is affirmation of the work she has been doing with her team.

"I am very fortunate to work with extraordinary people. I look at people in my team: they are counsellors, field works, nurses, doctors lab people, data people - really, from all walks of life. It's extraordinary to see their commitment and care for children in the work that is being done," she said.

She added: "Being excellent in science is about working together and benefiting from the many, many areas of expertise and skills that exist."