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Queen, a promising scientist saving lives through research

EVERY year on 25th April is the World's Malaria Day, and this year's theme was 'Zero Malaria Starts with Me'. 

The day is a stark reminder to all of us that the burden of the disease that kills more than 400,000 people every year around the world is still huge. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics indicates that there are still about 200 million cases of the disease annually in the world.

Although a lot has been achieved at a global level in the past 10 years, the task ahead is still enormous.

Yes, zeroing on malaria starts with me and you!  However, there are those who, because of their professions, are at the forefront of fighting this disease. 

These are researchers and scientists who struggle day and night to reduce the death toll of malaria through different means, which includes searching for best medicines, insecticides, vaccines and nets to fight anopheles - a carrier and spreader of malaria.

One of these people  is Queen Saidi Naumanga, a young upcoming scientist and researcher from Tanzania.

Queen (32), is now a PhD student at Copenhagen University in Denmark assessing sub-microscopic infections and molecular makers of malaria parasite drug resistance. 

To put it simply, at a molecular level, she is looking at what causes a malaria drug called sulfadoxine pyrimethamine (SP) not to be very efficient in pregnant women, and also to ascertain a pattern that will predict if a new drug, dihydroartemisinin-piperaquine (DP), will be efficient or not once introduced.

"My study will help in predicting the pattern for resistance and also for selection of better drugs to use during pregnancy", Queen says. She says this will improve the health of the mother and child in Tanzania and Africa at large, and hopefully change in policy.

She is conducting her malaria study in three countries of Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi.

Queen works at Kilimanjaro Clinical Research Institute (KCRI), where she joined in 2012 after her degree in Biotechnology and Labaratory Sciences at Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA).  She later took a Master's degree in Molecular Biology in VUB, Brussels, Belgium.

"KCRI is one of the best places to be as a young scientist. Here I got to apply a lot of techniques that I learned, and also working in projects with other collaborators inside and outside the country," the budding scientist says.

It is at KCRI where Queen got early exposure to the outside world and started creating a network of fellow researchers around the world in countries like USA and Denmark for trainings.

At VUB in Belgium, she learned more skills to apply to some of the research projects they were doing at KCRI.

While there, she participated in a research focusing on malnutrition in children under five.  It is through this project in collaboration with Virginia University that enabled a policy change and a vaccine for Rotavirus to be added for children.  Studies have shown that a vaccine for rotavirus has been very effective in reducing diarrhoea in children under five in Tanzania and other countries in the world.

Rotavirus is a very contagious virus that causes diarrhoea in infants and children.

Studying in Europe has been an eye opener for Queen. 

"I have learned some techniques that were yet to be transferred to our laboratories and apply them," she says, adding that she also learnt the importance of time management and how to work independently and as a team.

Being at Brussels which is at the centre of Europe allowed her to travel to nearby countries, and she has been to more than 10 countries in Europe.

Queen is the first born of four children of Mr and Mrs Saidi Naumanga. Her father is a geologist while her mother is an entrepreneur. She started to like science subjects from the very beginning of her studies at Nkuhungu primary school in Dodoma, and continued doing great later during her secondary studies at Huruma Girls Secondary School and Benjamin Mkapa High School.

At primary school, she vividly remembers her English teacher, Mr Shirima, who built a strong language foundation and made her to be confident.

"He used to tell me that with hard work, I can be anything I wanted. Those words stuck with me and gave me the confidence to know I can achieve big things," she remembers.  

At one point, Queen wanted to become a journalist.  News anchors, Laura George and Suzan Mungi used to make her days.  She dreamt of becoming a news anchor like them. 

However, one day she watched a TV programme of a man who died because of lack of medical care, and she completely changed her course and wanted to become a doctor.

She wanted to save lives.  Even though she didn't become a medical doctor, she has no regrets on the choices she made instead.  She is now improving and saving lives as a researcher.

She grew up having no person in mind as her role model.  Today, she looks up to Dr Mwele Ntuli Malecela as her role model. 

Dr Mwele, as she is commonly referred to, is a senior United Nations civil servant and the current director of the Department of Control of Neglected Tropical Diseases at the WHO Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

"It is important to mentor girls from an early age so that  they can have role models.  I wish I could have had one earlier," Queen says.

She thinks that making  young girls believe that science is hard or is meant for men is a wrong approach that should be stopped.

“Nothing is easy.  The best approach is to expose women in science who are doing great as an inspiration to girls,”  she says.

She advises fellow young people to focus in whatever they do.

“Don't let anyone tell you that you cannot achieve something because of your gender, tribe, religion or anything," she says, adding that hard work open doors to a lot of opportunities. 

"Ask for a help where things don't work out," says Queen who regards time management as one of the requisites for success in life.

The young scientist who believes in the power of prayers says there is more to girls than just being good wives and mothers.

"We should strive for equity more than equality between girls and boys. I believe the future is female," says Queen who is trying her best to be the best wife, mom and a scientist.

Because of the existing gap between research findings and knowledge transfer to society and government, she calls upon fellow scientists to find ways to convey scientific findings to the society in a language that they can understand.

  • Emmanuel Rubagumya writes about science, technology and innovation

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