Meet Alta Schutte, Professorial Fellow, The George Institute, Australia
Alta Schutte is the Principal Theme Lead for Cardiac, Vascular and Metabolic Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine at UNSW Sydney; Professorial Fellow at The George Institute Australia; holds a professorial appointment at North-West University, South Africa and is the President of the International Society of Hypertension.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. What were your motivations for getting into medical research and how did you start out?
I was born and raised in South Africa. I am the fourth of five children, and with three older brothers and one younger sister all who were interested in science, maths and engineering, I was bound to end up in a career in science!
From a young age I was fascinated with biology and health sciences, and originally wanted to study medicine. When funding for my studies became an issue, I decided to study a general BSc degree with Human Physiology as my major. I have never looked back and ended up working in clinical population-based studies, general epidemiology and public health with a specific focus on hypertension (high blood pressure) and cardiovascular disease. By choosing this direction of work I am not limited to helping just one patient at a time, but instead I am able to contribute towards treating entire populations at a given time.
Why did you decide to concentrate your efforts in cardiovascular research and hypertension?
When people think of Africa, they mainly focus on the significant burden of infectious diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. The health systems are often crippled by the high cost in treating these conditions. When I was busy with my PhD, which focused on population-based studies in children, I noted that children of African descent had significantly higher blood pressure than children of European descent. My interest in early vascular aging and subsequent hypertension and cardiovascular disease was triggered, and until this day, I am still intrigued, particularly as stroke is such a common occurrence in African communities.
In South Africa, the Medical Research Council released figures in 2010 which showed that although the burden of infectious diseases (especially HIV) remained the highest in the world, non-communicable diseases overtook infectious diseases as the main contributor to deaths. This data inspired me further to concentrate my efforts on understanding ethnic-specific hypertension and contribute to population-based efforts and policies to reduce high blood pressure – such as the legislation implemented in South Africa in 2016 for a mandatory reduction in the sodium content of a range of processed foods.
What were your motivations for joining The George Institute and why is being involved in research important to you?
I have been involved with the International Society of Hypertension for many years, and that is where met Professor John Chalmers who is not only a prominent past President of the Society, but also a key figure in the establishment of The George Institute. I have, therefore, always been aware of the excellent work done at The George Institute. In 2018-2019 my husband and I discussed options for international opportunities to continue my efforts in hypertension, and to broaden my work to have impact on a more global scale.
In 2019 I got in touch with The George Institute and UNSW where there were several potential opportunities. I had also previously worked with Professor Vlado Perkovic, Dean of Medicine at UNSW, when were co-authors on the Lancet Commission on Hypertension.
I regard my current appointment at The George Institute and UNSW as an excellent opportunity and hope that my appointment would result in stronger networks and collaboration in efforts to reduce death and disability from hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
What other hats do you wear?
I am also appointed as visiting Professor at the North-West University in South Africa I am an Editor of the European Journal on Preventive Cardiology and on the Editorial Board of several journals such as BMC Medicine, Hypertension and Journal of Hypertension. I am currently the President of the International Society of Hypertension, where I chair several committees and the Council.
What have been some of your career highlights?
I am the Founding Director of the Hypertension in Africa Research Team (HART) at the North-West University, which has now become globally recognised for contributing scientific reports on hypertension development in Africa. I was also the first Unit Director of the South African Medical Research Council Unit for Hypertension and Cardiovascular Disease, and the first government-funded Research Chair in the Early Detection and Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease in South Africa.
Other highlights include being awarded by the Minister of Science and Technology the Distinguished Woman in Natural Sciences and Engineering Award Category in 2017, the African Union Award in 2019 in Addis Ababa for Excellence in Research in Africa, and winner of the first ever KIFRA Prize in Science 2020 awarded by AIMS (Network of Centres of Excellence in Mathematics in Africa) and the Robert Bosch Siftung. My latest highlight is the release of the 2020 International Society of Hypertension Global Practice Guidelines with a new focus on recommending essential and optimal standards of care, in an effort to be more realistic and applicable in low resource settings and affluent settings.
What does a typical day of being a Professorial Fellow and Principal Lead look like?
As for everyone now a typical day is in lockdown and working from home. However, that does not mean one cannot engage with many researchers and networks at UNSW, The George Institute and other medical research institutes and hospitals.
I am grateful that I was able to meet several individuals face to face since my appointment in February this year, and now enjoy continuing interactions albeit through Zoom, Teams and alike.
I am looking forward to officially launch the Cardiac Vascular and Metabolic Medicine research theme in the Faculty of Medicine and contribute to establishing new networks and partnerships between researchers working across several silos in Sydney.
Why do you think it is so important to raise awareness on World Hypertension Day about this medical condition?
For many years now World Hypertension Day has been an active campaign on May 171 to raise awareness on the important need to measure blood pressure across many populations. For many years the International Society of Hypertension has supported the World Hypertension League – who started this Day. However, as most people globally with hypertension remained unaware of their condition, the International Society of Hypertension launched in 2017 as new campaign, May Measurement Month (MMM)2, also endorsed by the World Hypertension League.
Between 2017-2019 MMM has screened more than four million people across the world, and for more than 30% of those individuals it was the first time that their blood pressure was ever taken.
This statistic always reminds me that the challenging circumstances in low resource settings are often overlooked by scientists in affluent countries, and therefore I remain committed to supporting World Hypertension Day and MMM.
1. World Hypertension Day has been postponed till October 17th this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
2. MMM2020 was also postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic till next year.