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Nabila Youssouf PhD (LSHTM) is based in Gabarone, where she is Research Program Manager – Infectious Diseases with the Botswana Harvard HIV/AIDS Partnership. She also teaches courses on LSHTM Infectious Diseases Distance Learning Programme. We met when she joined the organising group/community of practice for the 'Decolonising Development' event we held in June 2021.   We were encouraged by her time, dedication and energy and have kept in touch since. She took time out of her packed schedule to share her inspirational story with us. Meet her here:

 

What are the factors in your background that led you to embark on a career in academia?

Academia chose me! I was studying for my MSc in Genetics at Imperial College, London To fund it I took up a part-time role in the Cancer Trial Unit, and ended up staying in this field since. I enjoy the continuous learning aspects of academia, and being constantly exposed to new ideas and innovative ways to look at ongoing challenges such Tuberculosis (TB) and  HIV. I work mainly in infectious diseases research as a project manager specialising in clinical trials of investigational products such as drugs or vaccines.

After several years at Imperial, I joined the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Clinical Trials Unit in 2015. I worked on large trials recruiting participants all around the world.

This work led to me relocating to Botswana in Southern Africa, to lead the operations of the biggest clinical trial investigating treatment for cryptococcal meningitis, an opportunist infection of the spinal cord common in people living with HIV. The trial completed in 2021. I have remained in Botswana to work with the Botswana Harvard HIV/AIDS Partnership institute. I am now developing my own protocols and researching areas I have an interest in, mainly in health HIV-associated health challenges and stigma, vaccine hesitancy and the impact of COVID-19 on health systems in the region.

What considerations influenced your decision to stay in this field?

My decisions were informed by the realisation that there is still a lot to be done to tackle those challenges and inequalities. In many places (and mindsets), HIV is no longer a death sentence but rather a long-term condition if one has access to decent health services for regular check-ups and sustained access to necessary medication. In other places, access to both of those things remains very difficult and this gap has been made even wider by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with many health services disruptions and drugs being unavailable for long periods of time, in Botswana and neighbouring countries.

Being able to see the impact of our research on people’s lives brings the extraordinary satisfaction that what I do matters to the world, cliché, but true! Stigma is rife, despite many people having access to information and local information campaigns. Being able to organise workshops or similar public engagement activities where patients, scientists and activists come together to demystify certain long-held beliefs, and being able to witness the ‘Aha!’ moment where an audience reacts upon receiving scientifically proven facts, and witnessing them interacting with the very people they are ‘scared’ of, never ceases to amaze me.

What are your academic and research priorities, and why?

I continue to teach on the LSHTM Infectious Diseases Distance Learning programme, and a lot of work is ongoing to decolonise our curriculum to try to include contributions from a wealth of scientists worldwide and move on from the global North centric views and teachings. This work is very important to me as I strive for equality across academia, or at least for awareness of the deep-seated inequalities that exist in this field. This priority feeds into my research as I work with academic partners in Africa and in the United States to continue to develop truly bilateral programmes where doctors/scientists colleagues from the global North and South exchange to develop the skills required to compete for grants. The advent of technology is true to this effort as we are able to access many more networks and tools that were previously unattainable.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I hope that my work leads to more research activities and clinical trials being led from the African continent as there is a lot of capacities here. I hope that my research activities contribute to a better understanding of health systems stressors and understand how to overcome them in a meaningful manner as we navigate this ‘new normal’ of repeated pandemics.

 

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