Q&A: ‘Let your work speak for itself’

Francisca Mutapi
Copyright: Francisca Mutapi

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  • Francisca Mutapi is the first Black woman professor at the University of Edinburgh
  • Her research has led to a change in WHO treatment guidelines for schistosomiasis
  • She calls on African policymakers to put structures in place to nurture and support excellence

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Francisca Mutapi, a professor at the UK-based University of Edinburgh, is at the forefront of fighting neglected tropical diseases in Sub-Saharan Africa.
She is the first Black woman professor at the University of Edinburg and one of the two deputy-directors of Tackling Infections to Benefit Africa (TIBA), an African-led global health research initiative for exploring and tackling infectious diseases.
In an exclusive interview with SciDev.Net, Mutapi describes her journey from Zimbabwe — where she comes from — to the United Kingdom and the impact of her work.

How did you develop interest in science, especially in tropical diseases?

Like most children, I was curious, trying to make sense of the world around me. I grew up in an environment where such curiosity was encouraged and rewarded. Also, I had superb teachers during the course of my education: from primary to the university levels. My teachers nurtured my interest in parasitology, particularly in human and veterinary diseases endemic in Zimbabwe.

“My collaborative work on the most important worm infection in Africa, schistosomiasis, has been translated into significant health improvements for millions of African children.”

Francisca Mutapi, University of Edinburgh

Such interests motivated me to study biology at the University of Zimbabwe for my undergraduate degree. I went on to pursue a doctorate at the UK-based University of Oxford, where I investigated how immune responses shape population patterns of schistosomiasis in endemic populations.
Schistosomiasis, also called bilharzia, is a neglected tropical disease caused by parasitic worms. The parasites that cause this disease live in some types of freshwater snails. The parasite’s infectious form enters the water from the snail, and infects people who come into contact with the water. According to the WHO, the disease affects nearly 240 million people globally.

Tell us about your research career

My work on neglected tropical diseases is interdisciplinary. It involves using basic science to inform global health policy and practice. My collaborative work on the most important worm infection in Africa, schistosomiasis, has been translated into significant health improvements for millions of African children.
Most notably, the work has led to the WHO revising the paediatric treatment guidelines for schistosomiasis. Prior to my collaborative studies, children below five years old were excluded from treatment, with the drug of choice, praziquantel.

My research group’s immunology, epidemiology and field studies challenged this health inequity, providing the drug’s safety and efficacy data, on which basis, the WHO revised the paediatric schistosomiasis treatment guidelines. Thus, about 50 million more African children are eligible for treatment.
I continue to conduct basic scientific research to inform control strategies and vaccine development for schistosomiasis. My work is now focusing on schistosomiasis control in the context of the changing disease epidemiology in Africa with increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases.

As a deputy-director of the Tackling Infections to Benefit Africa (TIBA), what exactly do you do?

Within the TIBA partnership, in addition to administrative duties, I conduct collaborative research as well as facilitate research uptake through stakeholder engagement.

My role in TIBA is to harnesses the expertise, lessons learnt and networked capabilities I have accumulated from conducting collaborative world-class research in Africa on schistosomiasis, to now tackle additional neglected diseases such as trypanosomiasis and leishmaniasis, and emerging diseases. TIBA focuses on nine African countries: Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. 

TIBA’s vision is to harness our partnership’s expertise and technical capability in biomedical and social sciences to reduce the burden and threat of infectious diseases in Africa by informing and influencing health policy and strengthening health systems.

“There are no shortcuts to hard work. Young African women’s work must speak for itself so that if necessary, it outweighs any prejudices.”

Francisca Mutapi, University of Edinburgh

In order to achieve this vision and have impact on human health, we engage effectively with various individuals and institutions, including industry and policymakers who translate our findings into policy and practise.

As a scientist, how do you deal with policy and implementation?

Our journey begins with working with researchers and practitioners on the ground in identifying the problem that requires a solution and subsequently, conducting the research to generate robust evidence critical for evidence-based policymaking.

Our task is to bring together the skills and expertise required to provide the science or innovation, and communicate that effectively with the policymakers who are already major actors.

In what other capacities are you making your expertise felt?

Apart from my scientific work, I currently sit on several international committees including the African Academy of Science and New Partnership for Africa's Development’s Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Africa, the WHO Africa Regional Director’s independent advisory group and the United Kingdom Research and Innovation Global Challenges Research Fund strategic advisory group.

What are some of the most outstanding academic challenges that you faced while climbing the academic ladder?

All academics face the specific day-to-day challenges such as publishing research, obtaining competitive funding for research and obtaining a tenure position. Others include establishing and running a research group, getting promoted and balancing teaching, research and administration responsibilities.

What lessons can young African women aspiring to be scientists learn from your walk?

There is no substitute for passion, and drive for young African women’s work and professionalism. There are no shortcuts to hard work. Young African women’s work must speak for itself so that if necessary, it outweighs any prejudices. 
 Young African women should know their weaknesses, address them and strive for excellence. Similar to any other profession, a successful career in academics requires the following: learning and moving on from failure, being resilient and politely persistent, accepting and acting on constructive criticism and the ability to troubleshoot.
It takes time and effort to develop expertise in an area, so young African women must be prepared to work — sometimes in obscurity — as they earn their stripes building their expertise.

What advice do you have for African policymakers in regard to women pursuing education and career in science?

African policymakers should put structures and strategies in place to nurture and support excellence. They should invest in ambition and then expect and accept only the very best.
Q&As are edited for length and clarity.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.