‘The Position of Women in Science Has Changed for the Better’, but ‘Is Still Far From Ideal’


Shilpa Iyer with her permission

As part of a two-pronged series of interviews with medical researchers based in Africa (read the first part here), Global Voices reached out to Dr. Shilpa Iyer, who is currently working in Zambia.

Iyer grew up in Pune, India, where she obtained her bachelor's and masters degrees in zoology and molecular biology, respectively. She then moved to the US and obtained her PhD in microbiology from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Yale University with a Fogarty Global health research fellowship to conduct research in Lusaka, Zambia.

As a minority woman who has research experience in India, US, and now Zambia, Shilpa brings her unique views on women in science, science and public opinions, and what science can bring to Africa.

Global Voices (GV): What drew you towards a career in science?

Shilpa Iyer (SI): I grew up in India and every year the monsoon season would be followed by an increase in the incidence of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue and chikungunya. As a child, I observed how interventions like the distribution of mosquito bed nets and the introduction of fish larvae into standing water puddles to eat mosquito larvae helped with vector control and reduced disease incidence. I was impressed with how public health interventions using existing technologies can have a massive impact on human health. After the completion of my master's degree in molecular biology, I worked on a project to identify a novel drug target for Mycobacterium tuberculosis at AstraZeneca, India. My internship at the company taught me that multidisciplinary team efforts from basic laboratory researchers to public health workers are necessary to address critical global health concerns in a sustainable manner. I had the opportunity to spend a year in Lusaka, Zambia from 2008-2009 and I noticed the direct and indirect impact of HIV/AIDS that cut across all strata of society. This galvanized me to be part of the improvement of health care in resource-limited countries by combining basic research and public health skills. While I Iived in Lusaka, I volunteered at an NGO that provided peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk to the children that visited the clinic with their parents to obtain [antiretroviral therapy]. These meals provided both nutrition and a positive experience for the children attending the clinic, helping retain them in care. This experience drove home how diverse the range of helpful interventions can be, each with their own benefit and scope. I knew then that I wanted to pursue a career in infectious diseases and its translation into global health research. Understanding and following the scientific method has provided a satisfying way of answering questions to indulge my curiosity in a way that is rigorous and well-defined.

GV: In your opinion, what can medical research bring to countries where the needs for primary healthcare are more pressing?   

SI:  Research can help build resources in less fortunate countries. This includes the introduction of technology and instrumentation, training and knowledge-building among local researchers, the generation of opportunities for employment and education (even through exchange programs). The development of research capacity can foster global partnerships and collaborations and result in the building of an organization's reputation. Outcomes with a more direct benefit include therapeutic (vaccines and drugs), public health interventions (mosquito bed nets, affordable water filters, assessment of gender-based violence) and income generating (generic drugs for instance).

GV: Until recently, scientific research has been perceived as a man's world. Do you think that this false perception has changed and do you think women scientists are now more recognized for their contribution?

SI: I think that the position of women in science has changed for the better in recent years. However, their place in a scientific society is still far from ideal. Even in developed countries, tenured women scientists are not paid salaries comparable to their male counterparts. They are more frequently overlooked for promotions and administrative positions. This situation is even worse in the developing world, where women's rights and the idea of equality are still a new/foreign concept. Women with strong, assertive and demanding personalities earn unflattering reputations, which could hurt their chances of making tenure, collaborations and attracting research students. Men with these same qualities are, however, revered and respected. Growing up in the developing world, I experienced women being required to toe their male supervisor's line (even though they were far more accomplished/brighter), discriminated against because they were female and subject to harassment from male professors/supervisors. In general, it felt like an uphill battle to be a woman scientist and these struggles had nothing to do with what should be gender neutral issues like funding and publications. In the US, I definitely felt more secure voicing my opinion, defending my research and applying for awards. This was largely due to my female mentor (and other professors) who inspired me to believe that women could occupy an equal place in the research world as their male colleagues. There is still a way to go, but women scientists are in a better place than they were 50 years ago.

GV: We now live in an era where scientific reasoning and facts seem to be questioned by dubious political motives. Do you think scientists have a role to play in combating the spread of fake news?

SI: Absolutely, as scientists, we are trained to consider all the facts before we make an opinion. We are taught to avoid prejudice, and to consider all points of view. Most importantly, we are trained to not blindly accept a hypothesis, but to do the research and if required, change our hypothesis. In this age, where people with political agendas to further seem willing to bend the facts and falsely represent data, more than ever, we owe it our training, and to the people out there, to help them understand the fallacies of ‘fake news’, to help them understand how to do their own research and the importance of a balanced and informed decision. We cannot ignore the facts we do not like, this is crucial for us to explain to the public. We cannot be experts in every topic, but the scientific method teaches us to consider every possibility, to determine the correct answer based on facts. We can apply this process to every topic though.

GV: In your opinion, what is the potential in scientific research in Africa? What should it focus on and how we can help its development?

SI: I will begin by saying I am a novice global health researcher, and my limited experience only applies to Zambia and South Africa. There is tremendous potential among local researchers to conduct and develop research studies, both basic and translational. Despite limitations in technology and funding, people are incredibly creative and innovative and work extremely hard. The involvement of the local communities and counselors (particularly in public health research) is both encouraging and critical to a project's success. Some of the areas that research should/could focus include infectious disease prevention and treatment, mental health awareness and treatment, maternal and child health and prevention of mortality, sustainable economic development and the creation of local jobs by foreign and local employers. The education and support of local mentors and scholars will help foster the development of research in Africa. Well-trained, intelligent scientists should be retained through scholarships and funding opportunities and provided opportunities to advance their training through short training courses. But they should be provided the necessary infrastructure and monetary support to conduct their research in their country, and not feel like they have to move abroad to further their careers.

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