Q&A: Women scientists should seize chances to shine

Quarraisha Abdool Karim -DSC0638a

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  • Challenges created opportunities for focusing on HIV research
  • Leadership positions in biomedicine are likely to be male-dominated
  • Young women scientists must seize their opportunities and shine

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Quarraisha Abdool Karim is an infectious disease epidemiologist and associate scientific director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA), an organisation she co-founded with her husband in 2002.

Karim has won several top awards. In 2014, Karim was awarded the ASSAf Science-for-Society gold medal for “outstanding achievement in scientific thinking to the benefit of society’” and the South African Medical Research Council gold medal for her scientific contributions in HIV research.

SciDev.Net interviews Karim on, among others, her journey to becoming one of the top brains among African women in science, the challenges she has faced along the way and how she overcame them.

How did you develop an interest in science, especially in health?

I have always loved science and had an innate curiosity from a very early age.

My interest in health sciences emerged in high school, leading me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and biochemistry at the University of Durban-Westvillein South Africa, another bachelor’s degree in medical biochemistry at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, a master’s degree in parasitology at the US-based Columbia University and a doctoral degree in medicine at the University of Natal, South Africa.

“I think it is important to seize opportunities as they arrive and be confident about your skills.”

Quarraisha Abdool Karim, CAPRISA

My studies at Columbia University exposed me to epidemiology, a scientific discipline that combines science with social justice.

The health disparities in South Africa as a result of apartheid and the emerging HIV epidemic in 1989 created opportunities for me to apply my knowledge as an epidemiologist to address past and emerging disparities in the most disadvantaged communities.

What are the most outstanding academic challenges you faced while climbing the academic ladder as a woman?

I was fortunate in having many male and female mentors and family who have provided me with a lot of support and guidance.

However, my challenges are typical of being a scientist – dealing with failure in research, especially when you are undertaking randomised controlled trials.  Building resilience, fortitude, persistence and patience are key traits needed to continue to search for solutions.

Most importantly, one has to learn from these lessons to ensure that the next attempt is better than the last one.

I also think balancing family and a career can be immensely demanding. My husband is a scientist and we have worked together for about three decades and are able to support each other as scientists and as a family.

I now have three adult children and this was possible by both parents active in parenting and having good time management to support a good work-life balance.

What are some of the challenges faced by women scientists in Africa? 

Like most places in the world, research remains male-dominated. I think female scientists need to work harder and have longer days as it is more likely that they also carry a larger proportion of parenting and home responsibilities.

Although in the biomedical field, there are now more women scientists, leadership positions are still more likely to be male-dominated.  The workplace is not supportive of female scientists or parents for having and nurturing children.  Also, childcare facilities are not well-developed in the workplace.

There are still social and economic obstacles to women completing high school and pursuing careers in science in Africa.

Generally, I think African governments are not investing enough in science and building research infrastructure that impacts knowledge generation and progress for both male and female scientists.

Africa has some unique challenges and needs to find solutions so that the continent can realise its full potential.

Tell us about your research at CAPRISA and its impact?

We focus on two research questions: how to prevent HIV in young women and how to prevent HIV-TB co-infected patients dying.  I am part of a large team undertaking research in urban, rural and peri-urban KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.

My scientific career spans nearly four decades, three of which have been focused on HIV.  My research has focused on understanding the evolving HIV epidemic in South Africa; factors influencing the acquisition of HIV infection in adolescent girls and the development of sustainable interventions to prevent HIV infection in young women.

 I undertook the first population-based survey in rural KwaZulu-Natal in 1990 to quantify and understand the emerging HIV epidemic in South Africa. After nearly 15 years of research, in 2010, we announced the results of the landmark trial CAPRISA 004 that showed for the first time that an antiretroviral tenofovir, used as a gel, prevents both HIV and genital herpes.

The findings were a global scientific breakthrough applauded by the WHO, UNAIDS and other leading organisations. It changed the global HIV prevention landscape and provided the first evidence for what is today known as pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV prevention – showing that antiretrovirals could be used to prevent HIV.

The important finding, published in the leading scientific journal, Science, was named one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs in the fight against AIDS in 2010.

How are you contributing to decision-making regarding HIV-related scientific research?

I am a member of the UNAIDS scientific expert panel and a member of the scientific advisory board of the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  I am also the vice-chairperson of the board of the South African Medical Research Council.

As the inaugural national director of the South African National AIDS Programme   established shortly after the first democratic election in South Africa, I garnered substantial policy and programming experience.

“If you want to be the voice for the voiceless, you have to be at the table where key decisions are being made.”

Quarraisha Abdool Karim, CAPRISA

There is no substitute for strong evidence.  I am also actively involved in implementation science research as I believe that developing a new technology while important is only the first step.

The more important piece is getting that technology to those who will benefit from it. The implementation of science research that our research teams undertake enables us to transition new findings into policy and practice.

I spend quite a large amount of time mentoring and supporting young scientists and have played a pivotal role in building the science base in South Africa to respond to the HIV/TB epidemics through the Columbia University-Southern African Fogarty AIDS Training Programme.

How difficult is it for women to rise to leadership positions in Africa?

I think it is important to seize opportunities as they arrive and be confident about your skills and ability to lead and not set glass ceilings for yourself.

If you want your voice heard or if you want to be the voice for the voiceless, you have to be at the table where key decisions are being made.

What advice do you have for African women aspiring to become scientists like you?

Be passionate about what you do. It is a tough, long and slow journey and not for the faint-hearted.  It takes hard work, long hours, persistence and perseverance, and there are no quick returns.

Science is a test of your tenacity and resilience. Never give up and always believe in yourself. Identify mentors who will nurture and support you to realise your full potential. Live your dream and believe it is your time to shine.

Q&As are edited for length and clarity.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.