KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme prides itself as one of the most diversified work settings in Kenya and the region. Over the years the Programme has deliberately sought to ensure equal opportunities for all people, by embracing diversity and inclusion at the workplace and adopting one of the most progressive work cultures in the region. This is seen in the composition of the organisation with over 50% of KEMRI-Wellcome’s workforce being women.
In this year’s International day of Women and Girls whose 2021 theme is Women Scientists at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19, we choose to celebrate the women in KEMRI-Wellcome.The tremendous roles and contribution they have had in the fight against COVID 19 in Kenya. This includes taking the lead in providing the 6 coastal counties with COVID 19 testing, Clinical trials, supporting the translation of research into policy, Epidemiology work, sequencing of the SARS COV 2 virus in Kenya and in providing core support to enable the research teams in various capacities in the programme.
The disruption caused by the COVID 19 pandemic has affected every aspect of today’s life. One of the areas that was redefined was the workplace, with most workplaces having to adopt various ways of remote working away from offices, labs, shops, hotels etc. Research has also not been spared from this change. The resilience shown by women through the changes is noteworthy. We asked a cross section of the colleagues in the programme to share their experiences and this were some of their sentiments.
Kui Muraya; Health Systems Researcher
The COVID-19 period has been a very reflective period for me (albeit still busy). In a sense, it’s been nice to be forced to “slow down”, pause and reflect. In terms of work, I like that it has forced me to take my self-discipline a notch higher. When you’re working from home for an extended period (close to a year now!), you do not have the structure that the office environment offers. And so, to get things done you must have the right work ethic and attitude. To me this also highlights the importance of caring about what you do. Regardless of the environment I’m working in, no one needs to tell me to deliver. I know I need to deliver because I care about the work that I do and understand the importance of it.
To the girls aspiring to have a career in research and STEM she had this to share; “Believe in yourself and your greatness!” It sounds cliché but it is what will carry you through the times of self-doubt; and importantly, help you get past the doubts about yourself that others will try to put in your mind.
Emelda Okiro; Leads the Population Health Unit
Emelda shares her experience working from home “Covid has been challenging but also has forced me to be creative in the way I work. Everything has changed and the monotony can be exhausting. Resilience is key. I have had to adapt what I am working on and the way I work to cope with the current situation”.
She encourages young women intending to join the STEM field on the power of self-belief. “Do not listen to external voices. You can do anything you put your mind to. If that happens to be STEM. Great. Just follow your passion.”
Sophie Uyoga; Epidemiologist
“Every cloud has a silver lining”. The pandemic provided an opportunity for me to contribute to the generation of key surveillance data for the Ministry of Health.
There are numerous opportunities for girls, ladies and women in STEM. The key thing is to get good training and mentorship, always go for what you want and give it your best.
Dorcas Kamuya- The Head of Health Systems and Research ethics
Dorcas dared young girls who wished to pursue careers in STEM to Dream big “Dare to dream and to dream big; don’t just dream, work towards achieving those dreams. Love what you do, because you will give it more than 100%; there is a time for everything, now is the time for you to shine, and we are cheering you on”
She also shared with us a personal story noting that It had been incredibly difficult time with some losing loved ones due to COVID19. During all this “we have had to juggle grieving, supporting our families, responding to many questions and stories in the community, and still scientific facts to address rumours. Working in a research institution that has been very supportive and understanding of these stresses, and family and friends that support us has been extremely helpful; in some ways it has helped us to juggle the many responsibilities that I have; heading a department, undertaking my own research, contributing to many committees and boards, mentoring young researchers in the department, and being a mum at home. I have learnt about resilience, and that there is so much that we can do with the right support and in the right environment, and I hope my contribution in science and through this is to provide the right ingredient for another young or older researcher, staff, person to grow to be the best they can ever be in this life.
Mary Mariga- Operations department Manager
She says “COVID 19 has and continues to disrupt the workplace environment. Women are facing numerous challenges within and out of the workplace such as loss of jobs, domestic abuse, poor access to health care, balancing work and domestic activities; among other issues. Being a woman in the front-line, supporting Medical Research, has increased my appreciation in the role of women in supporting the Pandemic. I am grateful and appreciative of all the efforts women continue to put in support of the Pandemic. Unfortunately, so much is yet to be done to eradicate the virus and I would like to challenge young women out there in schools, higher institutions of learning and in the communities to join in the fight of COVID 19.
Naomi Muinga; PhD fellow
“There’s a silver lining in every cloud. Working from home meant connecting with health workers in new ways as we support them to provide care to vulnerable newborns. It also showed me how resilient they are even in tough working conditions. They are a great inspiration to my work, if they can do it, so can I and so can YOU!”
Mercy Atieno; AResearch Assistant
“Working during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging. It is a period that has called for resilience, innovation, adaptability and a lot of “thinking outside the box!”
Atieno shared with us an inspiration to the girls who want to join STEM, encouraging hard work and discipline would propel them especially in science. “If you enjoy being the captain of your own ship, then science is for you. It not as hard as it sounds, and there’s even time left over for the beach!”
Julie Jemutai; A Health Economist
Shared that her inspiration came from a special lady in her life -her mother. Who taught her the love for mathematics? She taught her the value of self-belief.
Every working mother can relate to Julie’s experience of COVID 19; “Initially, I was confused, disorganized, disoriented and quickly learned that balancing everything is theoretical. Accepting that I am not a superhuman was the first step. I have managed to cuddle my kids more than I thought I would in a year in addition to working full-time. I am now an expert in Grade 2/3 mathematics after learning some new cool tricks of summing two-digit numbers! So, yes, despite the initial hurdle, I have decided to focus on the achievements no matter how minor they seem!
Dorothy Chepkurui; Researcher working in Mental health
“Working during the Covid-19 period has been particularly challenging for me as a woman thinking of myself as a mother, home manager and scientist. These mix of responsibilities at first during the lockdown were hard to balance, but as time went by, I adjusted to a schedule that ensured that I am at home doing my day job but at the same time handling all other household roles. On a positive note, limited fieldwork has given me opportunity to fast track papers for publication and conduct remote data collection.
She has this to say to girls interested in STEM : “This is not an impossible field to explore, if you have the passion, find the right mentors and you will make it. I have been mentored by female scientists all my career and what I have learnt is we need to hold each other’s hands in this field”
Patricia Kipkemboi; Researcher in Mental health
Patricia reflected on the effect of COVID 19 on both her personal and work life and the implications on her life; Living in these unprecedented times brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has been nerve-wracking, confusing and exhausting. We have all, in some way or another, experienced loss such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job or drastic changes to our daily routines and ways of life such as seeing our family, friends and colleagues, all of which bring us great comfort and a feeling of stability. Waking up and willing things to go back to ‘normal’ but also hoping that this upending of the world as we knew it brings some goodness and growth for the world.
I am truly grateful (and privileged) for the opportunity to work from home as I have had the opportunity to spend more time with my family, who live in a different town from where my work station is, as well as having a flexible work schedule. Working from home means slowing down and being more deliberate about the projects I’m working on, reading and learning much more than I’d have been able to. It means being more deliberate with myself, spending quiet time and getting to know myself again.
As the world slowly gets back to the new normal, it feels that the systems that have been dismantled in the world have been dismantled inside myself as well and I’m hopeful for the new beginnings, for the world, for my work, for us all.
Patricia had this to tell her fellow young women;
As a young woman interested in learning about human behaviour at a very young age, the STEM field felt out of reach growing up. Thankfully, more information on the field is now readily available online and young girls can now access stories of women who never backed down from pursuing their passion in STEM despite oppressive institutions, restrictions on higher education, gender barriers as well as race-driven division within their research fields.
Getting to know that women were involved in the invention of varied things, from wipers, diapers to stem cell isolation and space station batteries, makes us realize how much closer women have been and still are to Science. Women have been in every aspect of STEM fields since time immemorial and as a result it is inspiring to know that we can continue to make unique contributions with unwavering pride as women in STEM. I want to encourage all the girls and women keen on getting into STEM related fields, Science needs YOU! In the words of Mae Jemison – Engineer, Physician, Astronaut; “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world; it’s your life. Go on and do all you can with it and make it the life you want to live.”
Beatrice Amboko; Health Systems Researcher.
The pandemic disrupted our normal working routines at the office and halted our activities. I found it difficult adapting to working from home at the beginning of the lockdown, but I overcame the fear and anxiety and did some publications and completed my PhD. You can do science and excel in it. We need more women on the decision tables!!
The stories of this ladies leave no doubt about the important role women have and play in the fight against COVID 19.