Gender inequity in research

TDR is working to close the gender gap in health research

TDR news item
5 February 2014

Too few women are entering the health research field, and fewer still are going on to successful careers as health scientists. TDR has worked to address this gender gap through various types of support to women scientists in countries around the globe. And judging by their achievements, that support has had an impact.

“A life-changing experience,” Ugandan immunologist Brenda Okech called her TDR Clinical R&D Fellowship at the Belgium-based GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals. “It was like getting your foot in a very big door. It opens up so many new opportunities.” In the 12 months she spent at GSK, Okech says she honed the skills she now uses at the African Malaria Network Trust (AMANET) as project manager on a multi-center phase IIb trial of the GMZ2 malaria vaccine. “The things that I learned at GSK I apply everyday at AMANET.”

“TDR transformed my life into something more than I could have imagined."

Uche Amazigo

For Dr Natavan Alikhanova, head of monitoring and evaluation at the Scientific Research Institute of Lung Disease in Azerbaijan, that TDR support came in the form of the Structured Operational Research and Training IniTiative (SORT IT). A collaboration between TDR, The Union, and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), SORT IT trains national public health workers to use their country’s own data to conduct research that can lead to local health system improvements. Burdened by her many responsibilities, Alikhova had never had time for in-depth analysis of the country’s data on tuberculosis—data that could inform important decisions about TB drug procurement and treatment protocols. Through SORT IT, she says, “I’ve learned things that I will use, that will improve my work and, I hope, our entire TB programme.”

Meanwhile in Myanmar, a TDR research training grant made it possible for a scientist named Saw Saw to follow in the footsteps of her mother, a nuclear physicist and one of the country’s first female scientists, by pursuing her PhD at the University of Melbourne. After completing her thesis at Melbourne — on strategies for public-private partnership for TB control in Myanmar — Saw Saw’s work was recognized with an award for “excellence in knowledge transfer in doctoral studies,” and she received a TDR re-entry grant to continue that work, looking at ways to engage the country’s general practitioners in TB control and demonstrating the important role of self-help groups in patient referral and diagnosis. She’ll soon begin work on a TDR impact grant that covers training in translating research into public health research and health policy analysis in low- and middle-income countries. “There are not many women scientists in our country,” says Saw Saw, “but my mum was always my role model. I’ve learned a lot by imitating her.”

Few scientists, men or women, have overcome the odds Dr Marian Warsame faced as a young girl growing up in Somalia. The eldest of ten children, Marian was determined to “improve my life.” After earning her MD at Somalia National University, one of eight women in a class of fifty, Warsame received a TDR training grant to pursue a PhD on the evolution of Somalia’s drug-resistant falciparum malaria at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. During her PhD programme, a civil war erupted in Somalia, so she remained in Sweden to complete that degree. While waiting for a return of peace in Somalia, Marian initiated a post-doctoral research project with support from the Swedish government and she had to undertake her fieldwork in Tanzania instead of Somalia. Several years later, she led as principle investigator a TDR-supported trial of rectal artesunate for community-based treatment of severe malaria in Tanzania.

"As a black, Muslim woman, I had to work ten times harder to reach my goals than any man, and I always did."

Marion Warsame

The resulting paper on the community-based trial on rectal artesunate in severe malaria was published in the Lancet, and seeing it in print, she says, was a proud moment. “I had reached that level where I could lead a team of 40 staff to conduct this study in close to 200 villages,” she says. “As a black and a woman, I had to work ten times harder to reach my goals than any man, and I always did.” She has been a member of multiple scientific committees with more than 40 peer-reviewed publications to her name. Following her 8-year stint in Tanzania, Warsame joined the WHO’s Global Malaria Program, where she remains today. Warsame works with member states’ national malaria programs, providing technical support for capacity strengthening and monitoring of antimalarial drug resistance.

One of the first ever TDR grantees was Nigerian scientist Uche Amazigo, winner of the 2012 Prince Mahidol Award given out annually for outstanding achievements in medicine and public health. Amazigo received TDR support to carry out pioneering research on the social consequences of onchocerciasis (river blindness) for adolescent girls and women in the late 1970s. She later helped found the WHO’s African Programme for Onchocerciasis Control (APOC), becoming director of the organization created to mass distribute ivermectin, the drug used to manage the disease. Working with TDR, Amazigo conducted research on improving the distribution of ivermectin, and was instrumental in scaling up that community-directed treatment approach to tens of millions of people in countries across the continent.

“TDR transformed my life into something more than I could have imagined,” she said upon receiving the Prince Mahidol award and its US $100,000 prize. Amazigo is using the money to further develop a community-directed school health and nutrition programme she founded for resource poor communities in Nigeria.

For more information, contact:

Jamie Guth
TDR Communications Manager
Telephone: +41 79 441 2289