Mosquito hunter: if you're interested in what you're doing, then go for it

Professor Maureen Coetzee
Director, Wits Research Institute for Malaria, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

3 November 2017

Professor Maureen Coetzee, Wits Research Institute for Malaria, South Africa, and member of the WHO Malaria Policy Advisory Committee (MPAC)
M. Henley/ WHO

You’ve worked in entomology for more than 40 years and recently had a mosquito subgenus named after you. How did you first get involved in the field?

Quite by accident. My father had moved to a town in northern South Africa in the early 1970s where they had a malaria institute. While I was visiting, he suggested that I apply for a job there. I thought to myself, I can identify malaria parasites – why not? I applied to the parasitology unit and got a position as a medical technologist, but then was switched to the entomology unit.

When I started out in entomology, I didn’t even know that insects had 6 legs (laughs). I ended up working there for 7 years, and had the most amazing mentor, Dr Botha de Meillon. He was in his 80s at the time, and was one of the first people to demonstrate that using insecticides inside people’s homes was an effective way to interrupt malaria transmission. His enthusiasm was infectious, and he really ignited in me an interest in mosquitoes.

What was it like working as female scientist at that time?

Females were not allowed to go into the field to do fieldwork. There was a sense that fieldwork was just something girls didn’t do. I was one of the first women to be permitted to work in the field at that institute. The first time I went, I was sent to a little town on the border with Mozambique, south of the Kruger National Park. The sum total of my fieldwork was sitting in an abandoned railway station office waiting for the men actually doing the fieldwork to bring me mosquitoes to dissect.

But it was actually a big breakthrough for us women. By the time I left to become a full-time student, they had changed their whole attitude and women were allowed to do the same work as the men.

That was in the 1970s, and then in 2011 you won a prestigious award for women scientists.

Yes, I was one of 6 women who received the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Scientific Award for Women, which recognizes female excellence in scientific research. Rose Leke (another former member of the WHO Malaria Policy and Advisory Committee) and I were both recipients of the senior awards for lifetime achievements, while there were other young women who won awards for promising up-and-coming scientists.

Do you have any advice for young women who are encountering obstacles as they try to begin careers in science?

The advice I would give is don’t be dissuaded by negativity. If you’re interested in what you’re doing, if you’re really passionate about it, then go for it – you will succeed.

Can you talk about what impact some of your research has had?

In the 1990s, we established facilities in our lab to do molecular investigations of mosquito species that had not been studied at this level before. In addition, we wanted to improve our ability to test mosquitoes to see if they were developing resistance to the insecticides we were using to control them. And we were curious to understand the underlying causes of resistance, if found.

If you’re interested in what you’re doing, if you’re really passionate about it, then go for it – you will succeed.

Professor Maureen Coetzee

In 1999, South Africa had a huge malaria epidemic. Thanks to the research we had been doing, we realized that Anopheles funestus mosquitoes had developed resistance to the pyrethroids we were spraying inside homes, causing a massive increase in the number of malaria cases. We were able to recommend a switch back to using dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), and the South African malaria control programme set up a mosaic scheme to manage the resistance – meaning that some houses were sprayed with DDT, while others were sprayed with pyrethroids. This approach helped to end the outbreak, and South Africa has not had a major epidemic since.

In your opinion, what is an area where more research is needed?

I recently co-authored an article showing that one of our outdoor-biting mosquitoes is now a vector of malaria. Previously, it had been understood that mosquitoes that transmit malaria generally bite people when they are indoors at night, but a group of our students found malaria parasites in mosquitoes that bite people outdoors.

This is a major concern and has been documented by other researchers in Africa as well. Most of the interventions we have don’t target mosquitoes that bite outside, yet many people sit outside in the evenings to socialize and cook – putting themselves at risk of contracting the disease. More research in this area will be needed to reach the ultimate goal of malaria eradication.