Five Women Making the World a Healthier Place

Winners of early career award for women in science discuss challenges, rewards of career path.

Ghanya Naji Mohammed Al-Naqeb speaks at the Marvin Center, joined by (from left) Etheldreda Nakimuli-Mpungu
Ghanya Naji Mohammed Al-Naqeb speaks at the Marvin Center, joined by (from left) panelists Etheldreda Nakimuli-Mpungu, Sri Fatmawati and Magaly Blas. (Rob Stewart/GW Today)
February 16, 2016

By Ruth Steinhardt

When Sri Fatmawati was a child in Indonesia, her mother made her drink a traditional herbal medicine called jamu. If she complained about the disgusting taste or asked how jamu could possibly keep her healthy, she remembered, her mother would say, “Don’t ask why. Just drink it.”

Dr. Fatmawati now is an associate professor at the Sepuluh Nopember Institute of Technology in East Java, Indonesia, analyzing the medical potential of plant and fungi extracts traditionally used in herbal medicine. Some of her discoveries could lead to treatments for malaria, cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease.

She has three children of her own. Like her mother, she prepares jamu for them—but with a difference.

“When my daughter asks, ‘Why do I have to drink this bitter thing?’ I explain to her about the chemical compounds inside the herbs,” she told an audience at the George Washington University’s Marvin Center on Thursday afternoon. “More knowledge of science makes a better world.”

Dr. Fatmawati’s commitment to improving scientific literacy in each generation was one factor in making her one of five researchers to win the 2016 Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World. The winners—who hail from Nepal, Peru, Uganda and Yemen, besides Indonesia—received their awards in Washington, D.C., as part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

On Thursday, the Global Women’s Institute hosted all five women at GW for a panel on their experiences, moderated by Mount Vernon Campus Associate Provost for Academic Affairs Rachelle Heller.

Overcoming stigmas

Each is a trailblazer in her field. Etheldreda Nakimuli-Mpungu, a psychiatrist at the Makerere University College of Health Sciences in Kampala, Uganda, noticed when she was a postdoctoral student that an increased number of HIV-positive patients were being admitted to psychiatric hospitals. At the time, she said, many doctors were unwilling to deal with the stigma and challenge of mental illness. They could wash their hands of such patients by relegating them to psychiatric hospitals—but these institutions lacked the resources to cope with infectious disease.

This lack of multidisciplinary care, Dr. Nakimuli-Mpungu said, led to worse outcomes for patients. Symptoms of depression, for instance, could make it difficult to keep up an AIDS medication regimen. 

“So there were millions of dollars poured into HIV care in sub-Saharan Africa, but patients were not really getting better because a third of them had undiagnosed, untreated depression,” she explained.

As a result, Dr. Nakimuli-Mpungu became one of the first medical professionals in sub-Saharan Africa to incorporate depression screenings and therapy into HIV and AIDS treatment. Her patients can attend group therapy, vent their feelings and learn positive coping skills, she said.

She also has instituted programs to fight the stigma against mental illness in patients’ communities. “I don’t understand why people would disregard a disease condition that affects the brain,” she said. “So the way I fight that stigma is to excel in the work that I do.”

Biologist Sushila Maharjan is a founding member of the Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology in Kathmandu, Nepal. She researches bacterial strains from high-altitude Himalayan regions, hoping to develop new and more effective antibiotics.

“My aim is to be able to give something to my country through science,” she said.

"Society expects you to do certain things"

The award winners agreed that they dealt with both challenges and advantages specific to their gender. Ghanya Naji Mohammed Al-Naqeb, an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Sana’a University in Yemen, said she thought a focus on women’s rights helped bring attention to her work on the medicinal properties of Yemeni plants.

But, she said, it also isolated her in some ways. Male academics in Yemen, she said, may get domestic support from their wives, enabling them to focus on their work. “If you are a woman with a higher degree,” she said, “it will be very difficult to find a man—and if you get married, it will be very hard to continue your studies.”

Dr. Nakimuli-Mpungu agreed. Her own community, she said, had little sympathy for the challenges faced by women who chose to pursue higher education.

“Where I come from, it’s not only about you and your husband and your children, it’s about the whole extended family and the society in which you live,” she explained. “Society expects you to do certain things—and when you are not those things, you are not important, no matter how many degrees you have. Our primary obligation as women is to get married, look after the husband—who we usually call the big baby—have children and be seen to take care of those children. So getting on a plane and leaving your husband and children to go and study is a very bad thing. It’s a decision you make, and you live with the consequences. You really have to be a strong, strong person.”

Not all the winners faced this particular difficulty, however. Magaly Blas, an associate professor of public health at Cayetano Heredia Unversity in Lima, Peru, leads the Mamas del Rio program, training community members in isolated areas of Peru to use smartphones to collect information on pregnant women. They can then forward this information to a medical ship, helping fight the extremely high rates of maternal and infant mortality for home births in the region. Her husband, she said, is her partner in the organization and in her research, as well as a co-parent to their children.

“And when you write a paper, whose name goes first?” Dr. Heller asked.

Dr. Blas smiled.

“Mine,” she said.