Raising the Voice of Science in Africa
In an interview, Miriam Were -- chair of Kenya's National AIDS Control Council and of its African Medical and Research Foundation -- discussed this week's meeting in Nairobi. Below are excerpts from that conversation.
A medical doctor by training, Were also holds a doctorate in public health from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She has long been an advocate for patient- and community-centered approaches to addressing public health issues.
What attracted you to this conference?
To get the top scientists on this continent to address [Africa's acute health problems and needs] in collaboration with top American scientists? Well, I was very excited! American scientists have helped to get their country to the moon, and [they're] winning a lot of prizes everywhere. That potential being reflected in Africa is great.
At the very least, what should the African Science Academy Development Initiative (ASADI) accomplish in the participating countries?
My first aspiration is that it will help establish a more positive relationship between researchers and policy-makers. …And even more critical to me, I hope [ASADI] will bring attention to implementing research. You see, in the research community, people think that discovering new ideas is the cutting edge. But if you have all of these shelves of new ideas that have not been implemented, it doesn't do anyone any good. I'm hoping that [ASADI] will place emphasis on the implementation of research, so that we can transform the lives of the people.
…My doctoral thesis at Johns Hopkins was on people's participation in their own health care. And [some of the reaction] was like: "Is that scientific?" Not only at Hopkins, but even here in Kenya, people were saying: "Is that scientific? You are too passionate about people." And I say to them: But [Marie] Curie, wasn't she passionate about radium? Why is it that you can be passionate about bacteria, like [Louis] Pasteur, and that's OK, but if you are passionate about people it's not OK? It's suspect.
Tell me about some of your experiences as a woman of science in Africa.
In my particular case, it was groundbreaking most of the time. It was, "the first woman here" and "the first woman there..." But now it is changing. There are more of us, and I think the environment is a lot more positive than in the ‘70s, when I was first starting. That is partly because there are many women who have shown that they can make it. …But it still shocks me that there are not that many women in senior positions in medicine and engineering. We don't have 50-50 yet. We don't even have a third. So that still shocks me. But I think that we have moved a long way and we are catching up.
-- Interview conducted by Vaneé Vines, senior media relations officer, U.S. National Academies