Women’s Month 2021 Feature: In conversation with Dr Lauren Arendse
This National Women’s Month, we sat down with Dr Lauren Arendse, one of H3D’s female trailblazers, to “Spill the T” on what it’s like to be a female leader in science.
Science is challenging in and of itself. Add to that the prolonged effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and the other National difficulties South Africans have faced. Collectively, it has become very difficult to remain resilient in the face of all this adversity. How do you stay motivated, manage your team, and still meet your deadlines?
To be completely honest, I do struggle with anxiety, and don’t always meet my deadlines! But I’m very fortunate to have an interesting and mentally stimulating job that keeps me fully engaged. A huge source of my motivation is working with positive, dedicated, and supportive people, who are prepared to go the extra mile. Being a small part of a bigger shared vision to train scientists and build drug discovery capabilities in Africa, and seeing the progress unfolding, is extremely rewarding and gives meaning to what I do.
What do you love doing when you’re not busy playing with proteins?
I love an adventure and a physical challenge! I’ve worked hard to prioritise taking regular breaks from work to completely disconnect. Spending time in nature, running or climbing mountains helps to manage stress and maintain perspective.
Dr Lauren Arendse with team members Dr Koketso Mogwera and Dr Shama Khan (L-R) in the H3D Enzymology Lab at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM), University of Cape Town (UCT). Photo Credit: Andani Mulelu
Did you always want to be a scientist?
I dreamt of going to the Olympics when I was little. I loved sports from a young age, first gymnastics, then hockey but I never thought I’d become a scientist!
What or who inspired you to take up a career in the sciences?
My parents were my inspiration growing up and have remained my biggest supporters. They taught me the value of hard work and perseverance and gave me the confidence to believe that I could do anything I wanted – I never felt there was a limit. I knew I wanted to do something challenging and interesting, and science provided that. But I certainly did not have a clear career path in mind, or a good understanding of career options in science – that only came much later.
What is your favourite thing about working in an integrated and interdisciplinary environment such as H3D?
This is my favourite aspect of drug discovery. Being part of something bigger than my own research and seeing data from multiple disciplines coming together is what keeps things interesting. Being part of an interdisciplinary team teaches you to value others and the importance of teamwork. It reminds you of the value of your unique expertise and the importance of your contribution.
You have accomplished so much already- after completing your PhD in medical biochemistry in 2014, you joined H3D as a research officer in 2019 and was then awarded the FLAIR Fellowship the following year – what do you still hope to achieve?
I am passionate about building a world-class enzymology and structural biology team at H3D. We have an insanely driven team and I believe we can achieve this, but it will take some time (and lots of coffee). I still have a lot to learn about drug discovery and in particular, strategic decision-making. I love solving detailed and intricate problems both inside and outside the lab, but I hope to challenge myself by thinking more about the bigger picture and contributing to the long-term vision at H3D.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
The world is complicated, and things are not black and white – be quick to listen (particularly to those who see the world differently to you), and slow to judge. Live in the moment and don’t take your friends, family, or health for granted (I am still reminding myself about this every day!).
Do you ever doubt yourself and if so, how do you overcome that doubt?
Yes, often. I have yet to meet a woman in science who hasn’t experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. I certainly have, and do so at times, even now. When those feelings do surface, I have to remind myself “don’t be so hard on yourself, care less about what people think, worry less about failing and making mistakes, laugh more and don’t take yourself too seriously!”
Dr Lauren Arendse at play in the mountains at the base of Cerro Torre, Patagonia, Argentina. Photo credit: Justin Arendse
What advice do you have for other women working towards leadership roles within the sciences?
Persevere and keep working hard, consistently. Although it may not feel like it immediately, you will eventually reap the rewards. More often than not, research does not go as planned but what some might call failures, I call experience points. Those failures are valuable lessons that you will need as you grow into the leader you want to be. As women in science, we have something special and unique to add to historically patriarchal leadership that is still pervasive in the sciences today. Your differences are your strengths, own it.