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Three FMHS researchers receive ‘Women in Science’ award
Author: Sue Segar
Published: 13/02/2020

Three FMHS researchers recently did Stellenbosch University proud when they each received a 2019 L'Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science sub-Saharan African award.

They are Carine Kunsevi-Kilola and Georgina Nyawo, who are both PhD students from the Division of Molecular Biology and Human Genetics and Mweete Nglazi, a researcher from the Centre for Evidence-Based Health Care.

The three women now join the L'Oréal-UNESCO community of Young Talents. Out of more than 400 applicants, the award was given to twenty women researchers from fifteen different countries in the sub-Saharan African region and represented health scientists, computer scientists, engineers and other scientists.

The awards ceremony took place in Dakar, Senegal in November last year.

In interviews, all three agreed the awards were a wonderful endorsement of their work, which encouraged them to work even harder towards their research goals, and a memorable networking experience.

They also agreed that the food, the beaches, the music and the general culture of Dakar were the cherry on the top of a memorable trip to Senegal to receive their awards!

Kunsevi-Kilola, who originally hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo is investigating the link that exists between tuberculosis (TB) and type 2 diabetes (T2D) to determine the underlying risk factors in T2D patients favouring their progression to active TB. She intends to do post-doctoral studies and to eventually return to the DRC “to motivate more women to get involved in careers in Science".

Kunsevi-Kilola said she was delighted to have received the award. “It made me realize that people are noticing our work – and it really motivates me to continue doing what I do," she said.

She added that, apart from meeting other African women who are working in Science and learning about their work, it was also a highlight to meet senior people involved in research.

“We met the director of UNESCO for West Africa and the one of the first ladies from the DRC, as well as a number of ministers from Senegal. It was a privilege – and so encouraging - to have so many senior people in the ceremony. They took an interest in our work. It made me feel that I am not alone on my journey and that I can always count on people to give me a hand to the next level.

“The whole experience was just so positive! I am so grateful to Stellenbosch University for giving us the opportunity to make our dream come true and I will always give back to the junior scientists all the skills I have learned on this journey," she said.

Georgina Nyawo, who is from Zimbabwe originally, is particularly interested in the microbiome (complete bacterial communities in the human body) in TB in her current research. “In a nutshell, I am looking at all the bacteria found in patients that are suspected of having TB. I am interested in finding out how the bacterial communities in the body of somebody with TB differ from somebody without TB."

Nyawo said that receiving the award was a once in a lifetime experience. “The training in leadership, negotiation skills and in public speaking and handling the media which we got there was beyond anything I could have imagined.

“The organization has really put together a programme where one comes away with so much more than just recognition and funding. The discussions we had over the week of training with other women in science went beyond science.

“Apart from getting the award, I really learnt some valuable lessons, made new friends and connections. I also loved meeting the locals in Dakar and singing, dancing and drinking the local baobab and hibiscus juice," she said.

Nyawo said she intends to carry on working in TB research and in academia.

Mweete Nglazi, a part-time researcher at the Centre for Evidence-Based Health Care and a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town, said she was “happy and excited" to be recognized in the awards for the research she is doing. She added that the experience in Dakar was “career-changing" because of the knowledge she gained in the training provided by the organization.

Another highlight, said Nglazi, who is originally from Zambia, was networking with the other young women – from at least 15 different African countries – who received awards. “There were women there from West Africa, East Africa and Central Africa – all doing very interesting research. I learnt a great deal from them. Hearing about the work they are doing opened my eyes up to a whole world of opportunities. We are still keeping in touch with each other," she said.

Nglazi's PhD project is entitled “An analysis of overweight and obesity in South Africa: the case of women of childbearing age".

Her research is aimed at understanding the trends, socioeconomic inequality and determinants of overweight and obesity in women of childbearing age between 15 and 49 years old.

“The project is important because obese women are likely to give birth and raise children who might become obese or overweight. Thus targeting overweight or obese women of childbearing age between 15 and 49 years could benefit the next generation. Overweight and obesity not only contribute to deaths and disability from non-communicable diseases globally, in sub-Saharan Africa and South Africa, but also pose a substantial economic burden and put a strain on social protection systems.  Therefore, my study is of tremendous benefit to improving the lives of women of child-bearing age in South Africa and by extension, sub-Saharan Africa. It has policy implications and will stimulate further research in the area," she explained.

Nglazi said she hopes to continue to do research that impacts on policy as well as making a different to peoples' lives. “I hope to progress in academia and to maybe one day become a professor or contribute to an international organization like the World Health Organisation or the United Nations."