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International Women’s Day: Insights from three scientists

By our journalist-in-residence Chibuike Alagboso
When you look around, there’s science behind everything we see. While some are subtle and not very visible, others are right in our faces. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the integral role of science in advancing life to the fore. From efforts to find better, faster and non-invasive diagnostics, to looking for treatment protocols that are safe and effective. In addition, scientific knowledge developed over decades of making vaccines made it possible to have the COVID-19 vaccine in a very short time. Making it the fastest vaccine to ever be developed.

But oftentimes, the human faces behind these brilliant scientific breakthroughs are not seen. International Women’s Day, similarly to the Day of Women and Girls in Science, provides a unique opportunity to humanise science by showing the people behind all the work being done. The Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp, Belgium is at the forefront of important scientific research especially around Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTD) which receive less attention and funding unlike communicable diseases.

At different stages in their career journeys, these three female scientists have contributed to important work that have impacted public health outcomes across Europe, Asia & Africa while supporting the training of the next generation of scientists.

Learning about the world and impacting the next generation

Professor Ruth Müller works to better understand the relationships between biodiversity, climate change and human health and to use this knowledge to protect environmental and human health. She works as a biologist and Professor of Entomology at ITM and also coordinates ITM’s new insectarium, built in 2020.

The end-goal of science is to contribute to better outcomes and this gives Müller great fulfillment when her work informs new policies, which has happened in her home country Germany or shared with the larger academic and scientific community like the annual ITM Colloquium supported by different partners. In 2021, the Colloquium happened virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Müller notes that networking is critical to ensuring scientific research translates to better and evidence-based policies. “It will become easier to sustain these networks as participation in scientific conferences can be both, online or face-to-face,” Müller said, adding that symposia and panels where policymakers meet with scientists are essential to contribute to evidence-based policies. This makes it easier to advocate to them to use scientific evidence while making policies that impact public health.

Müller alluded to the importance of inclusion in science through a balanced representation of both men and women as this helps foster insights and opinions from both sides of the spectrum. Beyond leading research efforts, she teaches and mentors younger scientists and her proudest career moments are when these younger colleagues grow and go on to lead projects and initiatives. To sustain their career growth trajectory, Müller said younger scientists must learn some soft skills, including communicating their work clearly. “It’s of course also important to publish scientific results,” she adds.

Transitioning into sciences as a clinician

Dr Isabel Brosius’ venture into sciences started about three years ago when she began working at ITM. Prior to that, she had a long career as a clinician. Her curious mind even as a teenager, a quest for answers to unanswered questions, informed her decision to go into scientific research. Even though she considers herself fresh in the space, she has supported Ebola outbreak research in 2019, supported clinical trials for alternative medications for the parasitic disease schistosomiasis, and made presentations at major scientific congresses including the 2021 ITM Colloquium.

The key objective of every scientific effort is to contribute to improved human living conditions but these are not automatic. While Brosius is happy with these opportunities for collaboration, she admits that the road to impacting public health outcomes through scientific research is long and not always immediate. For her, it begins with trying to find answers to simple questions and the findings sometimes end up informing public health policies.

Essentially, “when you build together with others, you generate a body of evidence that is large enough to inform policies and guidelines. Scientist may set out to work hoping to immediately impact on public health but they soon learn the ropes and understand that it’s not always straight forward. A lot of times, the impact is indirect,” Brosius said. It’s all about providing essential elements and pieces of the big puzzle that in the end, contribute to better public health outcomes.

With clinical trials, Brosius said while your findings can show that a particular treatment regimen is better, a lot of stages still have to be followed including peer review by independent experts from other countries before the results can be translated into policy and the medication can be used in national programmes. Governments globally continue to amplify the message that complex processes need to be completed before a vaccine is deemed fit for use. It’s important for the public to understand this in order to reduce vaccine hesitancy, especially around COVID-19.

Despite this, Brosius says it’s important to continue the work around NTDs and is happy that ITM and similar institutions undertake research in these areas which are seen as less financially attractive by profit-oriented research organisations and pharmaceutical industries.

While having an inquisitive mind is necessary, it's important to “do it for yourself and not for anybody else. You have to believe deep down that you have the mind and appetite for science,” Brosius tells young women and girls who wish to get into science.

Adapt, then impact

When her plans to study medicine didn’t go as planned, Raquel Inocêncio da Luz, a post-doc researcher at ITM decided to get into biomedical sciences. Years down this career trajectory, she has no regrets as she has contributed to and led important work around implementation of Quality Assurance systems for the diagnosis of human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), popularly called sleeping sickness. She is also working to achieve the ambitious goal of interrupting the transmission of HAT in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

While she didn’t start out as a clinician, da Luz has always been curious about the human body as a child and had all the 50 collections of the children’s illustrated book - Zo werkt het lichaam, which translates to “how the human body works”.

On using evidence to solve real world problems, da Luz agrees it is important to communicate knowledge beyond the research community because that’s the first step in converting them to policy documents and guidelines. But this always doesn't come easy as it requires the ability to clearly communicate. “It also requires bravery to put yourself out there but with time, it becomes easier. It requires the ability to adapt communication to the audience and keep it simple”, she added.

Da Luz alluded to the challenge of funding for NTDs because they affect the poor and most vulnerable, making it unattractive for the pharmaceutical industry to invest in. However, consistent communication is helping to raise awareness around the need to invest in NTDs especially with interventions like Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative are being birthed.

While celebrating these scientists and their contribution to human development, it’s important to note that other areas of endeavor are equally important especially as there are various determinants of health outcomes. Multidisciplinary collaborations and partnerships will remain the best way to address almost all human problems.

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