The KWTRP women in science.

Tuesday February 13, 2018

One of the greatest culture that KWTRP has intentionally cultivated over the years is one of diversity. The special mix in its cultural diversity with teams drawn from all over the world all meeting in Kilifi, Nairobi and in Mbale. The gender parity has equally made it the most unique place to work not forgetting the focus on the production of excellent research work which has over the years earned it a reputation of being one of the best research centers in the region.

in addition to the culture of diversity is one of our key pillars as a Programme of Capacity building. Deliberate investment has been made to ensure that as the research evolves and grows so do the existing leaders and mentor to grow and develop the skills for more leaders. This has over the years translated in the development of award winning women research leaders who have influenced the Programme’s research agenda.

As we celebrate the International day of the women and girls in science we take a moment to reflect how KWTRP has also tremendously benefited from the sustained and undeniable movement in Africa and the world to have more women encouraged to take up careers in science. In this blog we highlight the various voices of some of the women in KWTRP , in the various stages in their careers focusing on their personal story’s, choices and influencers throughout their research journeys: –

Imelda Okiro: – Intermediate Researcher Fellow
I wouldn’t say I actively pursued a career in science…more like I fell into research. I always liked science and I excelled at it but right out of college all I was looking for was a job and if possible, something resembling what society considered a good job. I felt I had earned it having worked extremely hard. This I would say is a definite starting point to get into research…. One must excel in their undergraduate degree. In my case as fate would have it KWTRP was looking for someone with my skill-sets and so this path begun.

I can’t stress the importance of mentorship enough. It really is and has been the difference between my success and failure… having someone (a champion) to provide guidance at critical times along this journey and to support you in building your own networks/collaborations (which can be the make or break in science) is vital and in my case, has been massively important. With respect to Impact: I think that this is naturally related to the basis of research the premise of which is doing work that is meaningful and that has the potential to change people’s lives. Combining this with being the best at what you choose to do will result in impact and generate influence. The reason I have stayed in research is that in very few fields does one have the luxury to purse work that interests them. …. Few people are able to say this about what they do. One wonders what else someone would be looking for. I personally wouldn’t trade autonomy for anything else.

Marta Maia: – Medical Entomologist
I have a Marie-Heim Voegtlin fellowship from the Swiss National Foundation of Science which supports women who because of family responsibilities might have had a slower career progression. I think this type of fellowship is a model for other funders who might want to adopt it in their portfolio.

Kui Muraya – Health systems and ethics researcher

Tells us what a career in research means to her

In a nutshell, the pursuit of knowledge and the desire for a better world! I believe learning never ends and that we should never become complacent in our learning or imagine that we have “learnt enough”. There is always more to be learnt and so gaining knowledge should be a lifelong goal. I feel being in research gives me the opportunity to constantly learn, explore and open up my mind. I also very strongly believe in the equality of all human beings regardless of social constructs such as gender, race, ethnicity and so on; and I desire to see (and live in) a world where as Martin Luther Jnr. stated “[we] judge people by the content of their character” and not by these social constructs. I feel my research work, that is largely around gender and health, as well as child health, helps me contribute towards this vision albeit in a very minimal way.

The challenges
Undertaking gender research in the Kenyan context is not easy and there is sometimes inadequate support, particularly due to the “baggage” that comes with the term “gender”. There are a lot myths and negative attitudes that surround the topic area, and all of these need to be de-constructed. Kenyan society needs to realize that gender is about both men and women and just as a chain is as strong as its weakest link, a society can only ever be as strong as its most vulnerable/under-privileged/under-served populations (not to suggest that all women necessarily fall in these categories). A gender-equitable society is a better society for us all.

On a personal note, there will also be challenges one will face as “highly educated”, confident, ambitious woman who is not afraid to speak her mind or voice her opinion. A lot will be said about you, much of it untrue. I once read a quote by Betty Kyalo (T.V. presenter) that stated, “You get the most hate when you are a woman trying to build something for yourself”. I can relate to this. My advice to other women out there, especially younger women is: “Block out the noise. Know yourself well, stick to your values and principles, work hard and let your work speak for itself; and recognize that the rest is simply passing noise that has nothing to do with your life’s journey”. Also surround yourself with people who bring forth the best in you (both at a personal and professional level). I’ve been very lucky in this regard and I’ve had a great support system both personally and professionally.
I would like to encourage many more women (and men) to consider a career specifically in the social sciences. There is sometimes a tendency in our country to consider social sciences as “second rate” or as “less prestigious”. Yet, we bring in people from other countries to undertake social science work/research due to an apparent lack of skills and expertise in Kenya. This is even though thousands of young Kenyans go into our local universities every year to undertake social science-related degrees. It leaves a lot to be desired, and we should all play our part to grow and strengthen social sciences within the Kenyan context.

Jacinta Nzinga: – Postdoctoral Researcher

Speaks about her inspiration into research, mentorship and the influence of family in her choices

Curiosity really…from early years, I was drawn into science, I think because of the wonderment of all kinds of possibilities that can emerge from science. And then just gradually being drawn in the logic behind it all, thinking more and more about what shapes that knowledge behind science. I didn’t immediately think that was research, all I knew is that it was fascinating! And exciting to wake up every day and have the opportunity to have your brain traverse all kinds of places, unrestricted, discovering something new every day, questioning its relevance to everyday life. Then best of all to be surrounded by people who share that same thinking and are passionate about bring others along in transforming livelihoods using science

And the KWTRP family has been that support system. I was never short of sound scientific advice or facilitative mentorship or an empathetic ear. Having supportive people who believe in you pushes you to do better, and to overcome anything

Then for me, the biggest influence of my choices as woman, is my family, my role as a mother and a partner. Because as long as I have these key people standing with me then my work motivation and confidence is strengthened and I know there is no limit to what I can accomplish. What I have experienced as my career progresses is how the camaraderie of other women -mothers like me, my mother, my sisters, my friends, colleagues in science drives me harder to challenge the status quo. I find it fascinating how as women we lead quietly- but powerfully, how we have the uncanny ability to empathize, to listen, to trust our instincts and the amazing resilience of working hard.

“With a lot of hard work and a good education, anything is possible-the qualifications and connections to get your foot into that door and get a seat at the table starts with education”- Michelle Obama

Faith Osier: – The current chair of Biomedical Research
Talks to us about the leadership role she plays and her inspiration

As an African scientist and mother, I dream of an Africa where children grow up healthy and strong, free from disease and with a decent chance to achieve their full potential. Malaria repeatedly robs families and communities of well-being, productivity and in some cases, of life itself! I want to contribute to making malaria history through vaccination. I am inspired by the team of African scientists that I lead, their brilliance and dedication in the face of numerous challenges. Women enrich science with unique perspectives on problems, and excellent capacity to execute. I am thrilled to be celebrating the international day of women and girls in science!

Jacquie Oliwa:
Tells us about her inspiration to research, challenges, achievements, the roles of mentorship and family

I was frustrated by our broken health system, seeing kids die daily from preventable diseases was taking its toll on me.
Research is challenging and has its fair share of ups and downs, but I would not change a thing. I enjoy what I do, and feel in my little way, I am making a difference.

I think my first publication as a first author was pretty exciting for me, and it got published in a really good journal. Winning grants is also pretty cool. But the flip side is you should get used to set backs, like your articles being rejected, and unsuccessful grant applications.

Mentorship has had a big big role. When I joined the programme, I was fairly clueless. I could not clearly explain the difference between odds and risk ratios! I used to sit quietly at journal clubs and seminars, stupefied by how smart everyone was, until my supervisor told me, “The only stupid question is one that is never asked.” He told me to be good in science you have to read a minimum of 20 journal articles a week. That’s 5 a day!
I learnt to ask why questions a lot, and to think on my feet, as we get thrown into the deep end a lot. I remember going for some ministry of health meetings, shaking, and wondering what little me would say to them. Now I can prepare to talk to the President himself if I had to ?

My family have consistently been my pillars through the years, my number one fans. My partner bought me a Wonder Woman tee-shirt that I wear with pride. They think I am awesome, even when I don’t see it myself. Their belief in me keeps me going. They pull me out of the doldrums, and daily give me reasons to smile. I am blessed to have such an amazing support system, they call themselves “Team Jay”

Comparing myself to my peers who stuck to clinical private practice or took up plum NGO jobs. financially, we are miles apart! And then there’s the challenge of work-life balance. we have to compete for funding and promotions/posts with our male colleagues, and still be good wives, and mothers, exercise to be in good shape, groom etc. I sometimes wonder, if it is greedy to want it all. And the toll it gradually takes. One needs to be very self-aware, and learn to say no a lot, and have clear boundaries/have protected time for family and other activities that are not work related.

Marianne Munene :- Research Governance Manager

I got into research to contribute to the generation of life-saving therapeutic innovations.
the experience so far: Grueling but still rewarding. As much as I hate being in the public eye, if having a blog about my job pushes young girls/women to pursue roles in research then that would be a great achievement.

Support system and Mentors: My backbone well… my friends and family and colleagues at work have encouraged me to grow and achieve more, they have helped me find my voice and create a space for myself, not that I have stopped, this is an ongoing process in the development of my career.

Challenges: Making your voice heard as a female (especially in niche roles), and gaining respect, sounds cliché but the saying- “women have to work twice as hard to get the same recognition as a man” rings true.