The 2014 Royal Society Pfizer award winner
Dr Faith Osier of KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Program (KEMRI-WTRP) Kilifi was 2014 Royal Society Pfizer award winner. This award is the most prestigious African award in science. Dr Osier got a lot of media attention when the announcement was made…
Daily Nation, Aug 9, 2014, Yet another feather in researcher’s cap
The Star, Aug 11, 2014, Kenyan awarded for malaria vaccine study
All Africa, Aug 11, 2014 Kenyan Awarded for Malaria Vaccine Study
Africa Science News, Kenyan Scientist bags Top Scientific Prize
However, I was very keen to write a more personal story about her and waited patiently for the photos from the award ceremony.
So how did Faith get here?
When Dr Osier joined the KEMRI-WTRP in 1998, research was not at the fore-front of her mind. She had just completed her internship at the Coast Provincial General Hospital after her medical training at the University of Nairobi. I had arrived at the research centre a few months ahead of her and was rather excited to see a familiar face …. we shared many firsts together those days….. but I digress.
Once Faith had settled in her pediatric work at the Kilifi District Hospital, she was asked by her supervisor Prof Charles Newton to lead a small study looking at low blood sugar in children admitted to the ward. She found an enthusiastic group of researchers and started to contemplate research as a future career. Her interest in paediatrics had also begun to wane.
‘It did not take me long to come to the realisation that I did not want to spend my life at the bedside, treating the sick. I was bored of the rigid routine of the work as well as working holidays and weekends. The conditions we were treating were generally the same day after day after day. Although I knew this in my heart, I still went for training in the United Kingdom in paediatrics because I needed a strong plan B. There were no systems in place for career progression as a scientist and I worried that research would not put food on the table,’ said Dr Osier.
She started to prepare for exams to qualify as Member of the Royal Society of Pediatrics and Child health, which was then the stepping stone to a career as a pediatric consultant. She passed the theoretical exam at the second attempt and had to take the practical exam thrice – a strange position for the former Kenya High School student who was used to passing exams.
Having passed her exams and feeling secure in her plan B, she quit her job at the Alder Hay Children’s hospital in Liverpool and enrolled for a masters course in human immunity at the University of Liverpool. Dr Osier emerged as best student in the department of immunology. At the same time, an opportunity opened up for her to apply for a fellowship through the Wellcome Trust to study malaria immunity.
‘If you go to a region with a lot of malaria, you find that only the children get seriously sick and the adults are basically immune. I wanted to understand the process that makes adults immune to malaria,’ said Dr Osier.
Her PhD focused on 6 of the 5,000 proteins found on the malaria parasite that circulates in the blood of infected humans, which is called the merozoite. She compared children that had malaria to those that did not and found that those that did not have malaria had antibodies towards many of these proteins and those with malaria had antibodies to only a few or none of the antibodies. It was clear to her that there was not a single antibody that played a critical role but the combined effect of many.
After her PhD, she wanted to continue in her area of research but look at even more proteins. Although technology has advanced since her PhD, she cannot look at all 5,000 proteins at once and has chosen to look at about 70 of them. She is also keen on finding out whether what she has seen in Kilifi is typical of other African settings. She is now the lead investigator in a multi-country study that includes 6 other African countries namely: Senegal, Bukina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Uganda and Tanzania, as well as additional sites in Western Kenya.
But what about the paediatrics work?
‘I am a reluctant clinician,’ Dr Osier says laughing.
She helps with the on-call rota within the Kilifi District Hospital pediatric ward for 6 to 8 weeks every year, her mind is now totally set on research.
Although her career is a success story, she laments the dirth of women in science leadership positions but accepts that just like in every career, women are ‘knocked down by nature’.
‘As a woman who wants to have a rounded life, you will want children at some point. You have to accept that you enjoy all that comes with having children which will have a cost on how far your career can go. I had three late miscarriages and one early and that took a long while to recover from. Some women have children with serious disabilities,’ says Dr Osier.
Support on the home front is crucial to the success of women in science as it involved plenty of training and travelling time.
‘When I was training in the UK, my husband accompanied me but he did not get work which was very difficult for him. When I went for training in Australia later in my career, he remained in Kenya as his construction career was just taking off. I went to Australia on my own, with our son and that was difficult. Fortunately for me, he has supported me in everything that I have done. He takes care of the children when I travel for meetings which can be about six times in a year. Without the support of my husband, this award would not have been possible,’ Dr Osier said.
And here is my two-pence on women in science generally……
Faith is blazing the trail for the growing group of women African scientists. However, across the globe, women scientists are few. There is a book dedicated to this titled ‘Athena Unbound’ – The advancement of women in science and technology, written by Henry Etzkowitz, Carol Kemelgor and Brian Uzzi. It was published in 2000 and starts by asking – Why are there so few women in science?
The question can however be posed for almost every taxing career. Like Faith put it neatly – ‘women are knocked down by nature’. Women must enjoy that God-given gift of bringing new life and yes it comes with a price. But this should not be viewed in a negative way though – women should not feel the need to leave their newborn babies or sick children at home to chase the next fellowship and be at par with their male colleagues. Decisions that put the children at the bottom of the pile only bring regrets later in life. Being a few years behind a male colleague ought not to put women down. With a supportive home and work environment, women like Faith will continue to shine and inspire the younger generation. KEMRI-WTRP is especially supportive of women scientists and tens of Kenyan women have completed their PhD studies through this institute. With more women like Faith taking up leadership roles – it becomes easier for the younger ones to soldier on.
To be mum, wife and great scientist is possible, ask Faith.