IWD2022: Women trailblazing in science

Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC)

Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC)

What you need to know:

  • Women in science face a myriad of challenges, some of which are; availability of funding for research & innovation, more opportunities for leadership development, especially for women in science, more opportunities to network and build collaborations -- Dr. Marianne Wanjiru Mureithi
  • My biggest challenges were when I started a family and juggled work in a very busy organisation while being a mum. It was difficult to keep up with everything I needed to do and give my daughter the attention she needed and so sometimes work took precedence -- Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi
  • Younger women, in their 30s and 40s, who had multiple children and had breastfed, (often perceived as protection against cancer predisposition) were increasingly getting diagnosed with breast cancer -- Dr. Miriam Mutebi


Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi, Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC)

How did you get to this position?

I have been with APHRC since 2006 when I joined as a post-doctoral researcher right after my PhD. Over time, I developed my research skills and took up progressively higher-level leadership roles within the organisation, from leading a small team, to a large unit, then the Director of Research. When the current position became vacant, I was competitively selected from hundreds of other applicants. Each leadership position exposed me to the ways in which the organisation is run and as a director of research, I was familiar with almost all aspects of the organisation, so it was easy to step into the top leadership position.

What motivates you?

I am motivated by the strong belief that what we are doing at APHRC is important and necessary. Seeing the Center grow every year, seeing the personal growth of staff, and the Center’s footprint getting bigger and stronger uplifts me – it tells me we are doing the right things and so we should keep going.

Are there any challenges you’ve faced as a woman in science? 

Everyone faces challenges in their journey. My biggest challenges were when I started a family and juggled work in a very busy organisation while being a mum. It was difficult to keep up with everything I needed to do and give my daughter the attention she needed and so sometimes work took precedence. Luckily I realised that early on and was able to self-correct and give her maximum attention the few hours I was with her and then work when she went to bed, which meant that I had to spend a few more hours working to make up for the time. It was really tough. With my second born, I was wiser.

What advice would you give a young woman eager to join your line of work?

The pipeline for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in Africa is very weak, so my first piece of advice would be: do not let society’s expectations of you, define who you are. If you are good at something, go for it, no matter what naysayers tell you. Secondly, whatever you do, do your best – whether it is studies, household chores, sports, or community work - do your best always.

Dr. Marianne Wanjiru Mureithi, chair, Department of medical microbiology & immunology and a senior research fellow/ lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Kenya.

Dr. Marianne Wanjiru Mureithi, chair, Department of medical microbiology & immunology

Dr. Marianne Wanjiru Mureithi, chair, Department of medical microbiology & immunology and a senior research fellow/ lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Kenya.

How did you get to this position?

It takes a village, as they say; my parents were an excellent source of inspiration for my work in science; they believed that nothing was impossible and gave me a good solid foundation. I am also privileged to be surrounded by good mentors and role models who are passionate about my overall success.

What motivates you?

The power and impact of science in our daily lives have always been visible and real, especially now in the age of emerging new infections and pandemics, not forgetting the ever-present threat of the effect of climate change on human health. In my current research, I am deeply driven by the hope and dream of a world without AIDS in my lifetime, with an HIV vaccine readily available and routinely administered across sub-Saharan Africa, which bears the brunt of this devastating disease. To achieve this novel life-changing goal, I have dedicated my life and research work to help find a cure. I am at the forefront of discovering novel HIV vaccines and preventative measures.

Are there any challenges you've faced as a woman in science?

Women in science face a myriad of challenges, some of which are; availability of funding for research & innovation, more opportunities for leadership development, especially for women in science, more opportunities to network and build collaborations. I am also working towards a good work-life balance because I believe as women in science, with the proper support we can have it all.

What advice would you give a young woman eager to join your line of work?

Nelson Mandela once said, "It always seems impossible until it is done, so for starters believe in yourself and your abilities, remain curious about how things work and how you can improve the outcomes of what does not work quite well... a solution-oriented person. Be passionate about what you do and identify good role models and mentors who will assist you in awakening and nurturing the science passion. Most importantly, believe in oneself, keep rooted in God, the bearer of all knowledge, and in my opinion, the most outstanding scientist of them all.

Dr. Miriam Mutebi consultant breast surgical oncologist and assistant professor in surgery at the Aga Khan University (AKU) Medical College. Also president-elect of the African Organisation for Research and Training in Cancer (AORTIC).

Miriam Mutebi consultant breast surgical oncologist and assistant professor in surgery.

Miriam Mutebi consultant breast surgical oncologist and assistant professor in surgery at the Aga Khan University (AKU) Medical College.

How did you get to this position?

My career was influenced by my experiences while in medical school. Surgery is more result-oriented compared to other areas, and therefore, more appealing. We were at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, many African patients lacked access to antiretroviral therapies (ARTs), a situation that created a sense of hopelessness. With surgery, it’s pretty direct: a patient comes in, you operate on them and they go home to recover.

I got interested in breast surgery which was part of our surgical rotation after realising younger women, in their 30s and 40s, who had multiple children and had breastfed, (often perceived as protection against cancer predisposition) were increasingly getting diagnosed with breast cancer. Many of them with late-stage disease. I wanted to make a difference and change their health outcomes.

What motivates you?

The ability to make a difference. I am in the hope business and therefore want to change the narrative that cancer is equal to a death sentence.

With breast cancer, we have been educating patients that science has seen advancement in treatment and if caught early, cancer can be treated appropriately and you will live a quality life.

I have made it my mission to empower women to take control over their bodies and health. I do so by creating a space in my clinic that not only serves to examine the women but also allows them to safely talk about any underlying issues and equip them with appropriate tools. I noticed most of the time the woman who will come to the clinic suspicious about the lump in her breast often just needs psychosocial support and not necessarily surgery.

Are there any challenges you've faced as a woman in science?

Unconscious bias especially in places where you are a pioneer. Everyone coming after you will be judged based on your character, behaviour, and achievements.

Secondly, there is a risk of being underestimated, which can work for or against you.

What advice would you give a young woman eager to join your line of work?

For you to succeed in anything you need to put in the work. There is no substitute. Choose something you are passionate about because it is the grease that keeps the wheel turning on days you feel less motivated. Even if I was not getting paid to do what I do, I would still do it. That is how much passion I have for my work.

Finally, representation matters. Unless you see someone in that position, you cannot relate to the aspirations you have. You also need to try options and see what resonates with you.

Welcome!

You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.