Swimming against the tide of popular opinion

Janet Viljoen

“I had a raw desire to read toward a PhD and to work in the world of academia. I knew that it would not be an easy road but also knew that passion for my discipline would carry me through.”

Bursaries, scholarships, grants and prizes

Privately funded bursary for undergraduate and Honours studies

Deutsche Akademiesche Austausch Dienst (DAAD)/NRF PhD in Country Scholarship

Rhodes University Postdoctoral Fellowship

“I admire Janet for not being concerned about finding something that people don’t like,” said Prof Tim Noakes, well-known Professor of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of Cape Town and author of the controversial book The Real Meal Revolution. Prof Noakes, advocate of a high fat and low carbohydrate diet, sat on the panel reviewing for Dr Janet Viljoen’s PhD dissertation on the effect of strength training on markers of cardiovascular risk in post-menopausal women.

According to him, it is very difficult for a young scientist to go in an opposing direction to that advocated by peers as the support of colleagues and funders is needed to build a scientific career.

“She was looking into changes in blood fat levels and essentially found that exercise made no difference. This flew in the face of a whole profession, called exercise science, which is built on this belief. She was very brave to stand by her findings and not be bullied into finding something that she did not find.”

“I set out to answer the question: Can exercise improve poor cholesterol levels?” Janet, a Rhodes University Postdoctoral Research Fellow, recalled. “At the same time, Banting (adherence to a high fat, low carbohydrate diet) had come into the limelight so it became a fascinating challenge to bring together both the focus on cholesterol and the new perspective that this particular risk factor is not as pertinent as traditionally believed.”

The more she learned about the “carbohydrate-heart hypothesis”, the more fascinated I became and the more I realised that scientific ‘truth’ is transient.

The conclusion of the PhD was that cholesterol as a risk marker did not improve over the 12 weeks of the study: either the study wasn’t long enough, or it simply won’t improve without weight loss as an additional outcome: however, the other positive outcomes of the study far outweighed this.

Controversy not easy

Janet’s PhD studies made her realise that change is not readily accepted by all and that the “truth” should always be challenged.

“It is never easy to walk a controversial road, even though I love controversy,” said Janet, “but that road is almost always made easier to traverse when you have mentors you respect and work alongside.”

Praise for her thesis that she will cherish came in the form of a note received after presenting her PhD and which read:

“For Janet,

Congratulations on your exceptional PhD which also taught you some of the vagaries of science and scientists.

I wish you huge success in your academic career. Remember that insulin-resistance is the most important medical condition in the globe.

Sincerely,

Timothy Noakes”

During her undergraduate and Honours studies at Rhodes University, Janet worked as a waitress, tutor, teaching assistant and sub-warden. Later, working full time as the general manager of a gym as well as warden of a women’s residence on campus, Janet tackled her Masters, finishing the course in just 18 months, a shade under the prescribed time.

By this time, she knew that she wanted to return to academia full time, so, taking a giant leap of faith, she resigned from full-time employment to undertake her PhD full time.

“I had a raw desire to read toward a PhD and to work in the world of academia. I knew that it would not be an easy road but also knew that passion for my discipline would carry me through.”

After being awarded her PhD, Janet continued her foray into academia, taking up a postdoctoral research position funded by Rhodes University in the Human Kinetics and Ergonomics Department where she had done her Masters and PhD.

“Dr Candice Christie is my host for the postdoctoral fellowship, and it is to her guidance and careful mentoring that I owe my career,” said Janet. Her ongoing and continued support has been pivotal in Janet’s career.

“This postdoc position is a fantastic opportunity to extend and expand my academic experience,” she said, explaining that a postdoc bridges the gap between completing a PhD and becoming a fully-fledged academic because it gives time and professional support for research and the publishing of papers in academic journals.
While publishing papers is expected in academia, Janet points out that it is not as easy as it seems. Apart from the scientific work, writing
papers is an art in itself and submitting these can be an emotional journey. The peer-review system may seem quite personal at times and rejection is never easy to accept.

Nevertheless, Janet believes that the importance of producing research papers far outweighs the negatives. She is acutely aware of the fact that
researchers are accountable to funders and taxpayers and therefore have an obligation towards them.

“The public, however, are not going to read these scientific journals so I enjoy distilling the information and writing ‘easy to read’ articles that can be easily assimilated and applied in our day-to-day lives,” Janet said.