In conversation with Hellen Barsosio, KEMRI clinical research scientist, and LSTM PHD student

Hellen Barsosio

My grandmother suffered eight pregnancy losses before she had my dad, and my dad had a pre-term birth. He was born very early, and they didn't think he was going to survive. They didn't name him for the first six months of life, but he was quite a fighter and he survived. My big sister was also born preterm too, so these were stories I heard from my grandmother growing up. I developed an interest in improving outcomes for mothers and babies in Africa.

For my grandmother specifically, what really struck me was that my dad was her ninth pregnancy and the first to survive. It was also the first time in her life that she had attended an antenatal clinic. It was so simple.

A small mission hospital opened not far away from her and that made all the difference. She was given all the supplements she needed to start her off. Her blood pressure was measured. Her malaria was measured. It was simple, simple interventions. A couple of weeks before she delivered, they asked if she could live closer to hospital. It was a good thing she did because my dad was born preterm.

I trained as a medical doctor in Kenya, followed by a masters at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in reproductive and sexual health research. Later, I went to University of Oxford and studied International Health and Tropical Medicine, because I wanted to work in infections in pregnancy.

I am now in my final year of a PhD in International Public Health at LSTM. My title at KEMRI (The KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme) is Clinical Research Scientist, which is a medical doctor and a research scientist. I'm working on malaria in pregnancy, focusing purely on pregnant women and understanding the things that drive poor birth outcomes.

If a pregnant woman goes through her pregnancy journey, she wants a great bouncing baby who will survive beyond the first month of life and beyond the first 1000 days of life. Babies are often born too early, too small, small for gestational age, or a low birth weight. They often don't survive.

I chose to research tropical diseases because infections are the biggest drivers to poor birth outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa and you can prevent them. I mean, think about things like syphilis, it is one of the causes of still births and you can prevent it. We can start women on treatment, early in pregnancy for malaria. We have a group streptococcus vaccine in development after work done by multiple collaborators including KEMRI, because research showed it is associated with stillbirths. In our setting pregnant women are visited monthly by Community Health Volunteers who educate women about the importance of sleeping under a bed net to prevent malaria.

I’m inspired by the midwives who care for pregnant women from the start of their pregnancies. They check up on the little things. Did you go to clinic, mum? What did they tell you? Do you have any questions? What's your birth plan? Communities are so varied; in the urban centres people have easier access to hospitals but the rural poor can struggle to access them. The first point of contact is often the Community Health Volunteer - they call them Village Doctors.

As far as role models go, it really is important you recognise yourself in the women you model yourself on. My dad pointed that out to me. He said, oh Hellen, you can be a scientist like Marie Curie, but I thought I don't think I can really relate to Marie Curie, she seemed so far off from my experiences, in every way.

That’s why I was so excited when I attended a lecture given by Professor Elizabeth Bukusi, she's an obstetrician and very well renowned. When Professor Bukusi gave a lecture or a seminar during my internship, I watched her talk and thought yep, that's that is who I'm going to be! That’s why role modelling is so important. You need to see people who look like you, talk like you, come from where you come from, for you to believe that's a path for you.

I believe strongly in mentorship, but it is a very intimate process, right? It’s not possible to carry a load of 50 or more women. So, I am always looking for external collaborators to come and work with us, for instance, those from LSTM based at overseas sites. We need them to continue taking an active mentorship role. You need to walk with that female scientist or woman in STEM, from where you found her. Whatever level that is, straight out of her degree, or mid-career.

I met one of my favourite mentors at LSTM: Professor Miriam Taegtmeyer. She's amazing and she is a great mentor because she has worked here in Kenya, for very many years. She truly understands our health system, but she also understands the challenges that girls and women in STEM face. It is a mix of cheerleading and support. It's a very practical kind of support. My LSTM mentors (PhD supervisors) have covered different parts of my progression. Miriam will focus on my holistic growth and my other PhD supervisor, Jenny Hill, thinks about how I can translate my work into policy. Feiko terKuile has been excellent too at building my research and technical leadership.

My advice to women coming up is to find your niche (what drives you) and get good mentors early. This will help shape your career. I recently won the Young Investigator Award, from the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and it felt like such a significant win for my career. The last time someone from sub-Saharan Africa won it was 2009. It’s rare, or harder, for people like me to compete in an international forum. I hoped it wasn’t a diversity award but the entire panel confirmed that each one had  voted for me, so I knew I had won on merit. I was very proud of that.

KEMRI has really promoted the win, for role modelling. They had me talk about winning in the local newspaper, on social media, and on different platforms. It is basically to show, especially for women in STEM and men as well, that’s it's possible for upcoming scientists to be able to compete internationally on a global stage. I’ll continue talking about it too, you must be able to see it to imagine being it.