TDR Global profile: Creating new opportunities for women researchers

Rose Leke, Cameroon

Rose Leke first made her mark in the 1990s by investigating the immunology of parasitic infections, particularly malaria, and went on to become an international leader and mentor to women scientists.

Professor Rose Leke
Professor Rose Leke
Credit: Provided by R Leke

At the age of six, Rose Leke was taken to a hospital in Victoria, now Limbe, in the South West Province of her native Cameroon, with a lung abscess. She was treated and made a full recovery, but the experience stayed with her. Curious and inquisitive, Leke often dissected the memory, digging for details about how it all happened – from the moment she first felt the pain in her back to the doctor’s diagnosis to the surgery that solved the problem, saving her life and restoring her health.

From then on, Leke recalls, “I decided I would focus on the medical sciences,” and her parents supported her from the start. “At that time, girls were not going to school as such. My mother never went to school,” she says. “But they both encouraged me, my father most of all – he was a schoolteacher, so he knew the value of education. He always pushed me to work hard, to keep reaching for my goals; he would tell me, ‘You’re going to be a doctor, you’re going to be a scientist.’”

And all along, he was right.

Leke would go on to a distinguished career in medical research, first making her mark in the 1990s by investigating the immunology of parasitic infections, particularly malaria. After initially looking at immune response to malaria in the general population, Leke and her longtime collaborator, Diane Taylor at the University of Georgetown in the US (now at the University of Hawaii), narrowed their focus to pregnant women and newborns, the most vulnerable populations.

“Malaria during pregnancy poses serious health risks to both the mother and the growing fetus,” she says. “We wanted to better understand why this is, as well as how to diagnose placental malaria, and how the parasite’s presence in the placenta alters immune responses in the mother and the fetus, affecting the development of the newborn.”

“Prof Leke has been a key to my success as a researcher in Cameroon. She taught me how to navigate academia.”

Dr Sylvie Kwedi Nolna

Now an emeritus professor of immunology and parasitology at the University of Yaounde I, Leke helped answer those and many other questions on the way to becoming one of the field’s most prolific researchers. The author or co-author of more than 100 publications, Leke has served in a variety of leadership positions, including as president of the Federation of African Immunological Societies; executive director of the Cameroon Coalition Against Malaria; chair of the African Advisory Committee for Health Research; chair of the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria Secretariat; and director of the Biotechnology Center of the University of Yaounde I.

In 2002, Leke was appointed by presidential decree to chair the board of directors of Cameroon’s National Medical Research Institute, and she has served and continues to serve on numerous global policy-making bodies ̶ among them the Malaria Policy and Advisory Committee (MPAC); the African Regional Commission for the Certification of the Eradication of Poliomyelitis (ARCC); the WHO Emergency Committee for Polio eradication; the Global Forum for Health Research; Vice Chair of the Technical Evaluation Reference group (TERG) of the Global Fund to fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and the Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) for Ebola vaccine trials in Guinea.

An award begins a new focus on mentoring women scientists

In 2011, Leke was one of six women selected for the African Union Kwame Nkrumah Scientific Award for Women, and received a letter of congratulations from the President of the Republic of Cameroon and the First Lady.

Rose Leke
Rose Leke
Credit: Provided by R. Leke

In accepting the latter, which recognizes female excellence in scientific research, Leke committed herself to a new cause: “to help promote the participation of women in science in Cameroon.” She started on this with the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and with her family, giving prizes to the best female science students in the country. And just then, she says, she came across TDR’s call for letters of interest from women scientists on ideas for improving career development for women research scientists working in infectious diseases. “I applied for it immediately.”

Despite progress in recent years, scientific research in Cameroon continues to be a male-dominated arena, with few women reaching the highest rungs of the professional ladder. “A woman may get her PhD, but she rarely moves up and often stagnates at the level of senior lecturer,” says Leke. “She becomes a mother, takes on responsibilities in the home, and has little time to carry out research and publish. And, as they say, ‘If you don’t publish, you perish."

Leke and colleagues proposed using the TDR grant to establish a network ̶ the Higher Institute for Growth in Health Research for Women (HIGHER Women) ̶ that could address that gap. HIGHER would bring veteran women scientists like herself together with early-career women scientists. Upon learning that they’d received the grant, she says, “We were ecstatic. It gave us the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream.”

In HIGHER Women, Leke and colleagues established a mentor-protégé programme that partnered 17 mentors with 52 protégés from 15 research institutions and universities across Cameroon. With their extensive professional and research experience, the mentors provided the protégés with guidance tailored to their individual needs and interests.

Leke, herself a mentor to four protégés, calls it “a chance to give back ̶ to be the model that I wished I had at the beginning of my career as an academic and a researcher.” One of her colleagues, Dr Sylvie Kwedi Nolna, who helped establish HIGHER Women, attributes her own career development to Leke’s guidance. “Since I met her in 2010, Prof Leke has been a key to my success as a researcher in Cameroon,” she says. “She taught me how to navigate academia and, professionally, has never hesitated to open a door for me.”

Leke, a mother of four, says that though she rarely felt discriminated against because of her gender, family always came first, and there were times she couldn’t accomplish what she had set out to do. “So I always made sure I work twice as hard,” she says.

Rose Leke is a member of TDR Global, a platform for research networking. She has offered to be a mentor, and offers this advice: “Setbacks happen, but I find a way forward. When a door closes, a window will open, and I’ll get through it.”

Anyone who has worked with TDR can become a member of TDR Global. This provides further exposure of your work, and the opportunity to find research collaborations and either be a mentor or ask for a mentor. For further information, email: tdrglobal@who.int.


For more information, contact:
Jamie Guth
TDR Communications Manager
Telephone: +41 79 441 2289
E-mail: guthj@who.int