As the 2011 edition of the Future Awards climaxes at the end of this month, I revisit an interview I conducted across the oceans in mid-2010 with Ifeyinwa Aniebo, a hitherto not-so-popular young lady who came into limelight in Febrauary 2010 when she bagged two awards for Scientist of the Year and Young Person of the Year (the most prestigious of the awards). It was indeed remarkable that a scientist would be a major focus of discussions over the following twelve months. I am also not so surprised that the single event has paved way for more nominations in the Best Use of Science category with another young scientist making the final list for the Young Person of the Year award this year. Enjoy reading this short interview in which Ify shares a bit of her passion about malaria research.
Many Africans do not believe in the reality of malaria related statistics. Please convince them.
Malaria is one of the world’s most deadly diseases affecting approximately 5% of the world’s population. Although the disease has been eradicated in most temperate regions, it continues to be endemic throughout much of the tropics and subtropics. It causes clinical illness every year in 300 to 500 million people including pregnant women, children and the immunocompromised. Even though it is highly preventable and treatable, it causes 1.5 million to 2.7 million deaths each year. At present, Ninety percent of malaria cases and deaths occur in Africa and 85% of malaria-related deaths occur in children under 5 years of age. In Nigeria 75 million people or half of the population get attacked by malaria at least once a year while children below five years (around 24 million) get up to four bouts each year. Around 97 percent of the 150 million Nigerians are at risk of infection and 300,000 people die from the disease each year.
How do you feel about your double honour at the Future Awards 2010 held earlier on in the year? How do you hope to influence the millions of young Nigerians to strive for excellence and hard work in the coming months and beyond?
Winning the best use of science award was a very overwhelming and humbling experience. At the moment I’m still basking in all of it. I hope it inspires young people interested in a career in science. I hope it opens their minds to the unbelievable opportunities in the world of science and how much they could change the world with it. I was absolutely gobsmacked when I won the young person of the year award. I honestly didn’t expect to win. To me winning highlights the fact that Nigerians are ready to address other areas (notably science) that need attention, focus and encouragement and that alone make me delighted. All in all, I’m still overwhelmed. Hopefully my winning would inspire young people. Hard work and dedication does pay off. Although doing a full time PhD at oxford is very demanding, I do hope to inspire people in my own little way.What sparked off your interest in malaria research?
My interest was first sparked after I had suffered multiple infections from the bites of anopheles mosquito during my childhood and adolescent years. I noticed that the drugs administered both for treatment of the infection and for prophylactic use always changed. For instance, I remember quinine used to be administered then, a couple of years later, chloroquine became the chosen drug. In West Africa today, none of these drugs are used because the parasite has become resistant. The drugs popularly administered are Halfan (halofantrine hydrocholoride), Fansidar and artemisinin. I find it both disturbing and fascinating that a disease which has been around for half-a-billion years still kills millions of people each year. What’s more intriguing is that no efficacious Vaccine has been developed. Malaria was neglected by the international community in the 90’s and interest was only taken up a few years ago. There were no grants or funds to study the disease and millions were dying. Today, there are some grants available but not as much as would be expected. It is also saddening that there aren’t a lot of African scientists leading most malaria research programmes considering the fact that it’s mostly an African disease. Also, the Nigerian government is not doing their best to make sure there are funds for the study of malaria. I must add that it is sad that most of the funds donated are from foreign organisations. I want to be part of the movement to eradicate malaria and effect a change positively because, at the moment, Malaria kills more people every day than HIV/AIDS.
What notable challenges have you encountered studying in the United Kingdom?
The most challenging experience so far was getting into Oxford. It was very difficult and highly competitive. Getting a Scholarship also was extremely challenging. This is because most scholarships are open to British and EU citizens due to the fact that a lot of the funding organisations only cater to their citizens and rightfully so. The scholarships that are open to international students are so difficult to get because one would have to compete for the few available places with thousands of students from all over the world making it highly competitive.
Do you intend to relocate to Nigeria in the near future?
Yes I do. I would like to apply my expertise where it’s really needed. I do plan on moving back to help improve my country.
How do you unwind?
I mostly hang out with family and friends and I really love having a good laugh. I relax by going to the spa, indulging in Thai massages, going to the theatre, and listening to live music. I enjoy very good food. I also drink lots of tea as I find it to be the most relaxing of all.
Ify Aniebo is currently a PhD student at the University of Oxford on a fully funded scholarship from the Wellcome Trust, the Tropical Network Fund and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Professionally she has worked at TDL Genetics, Mediserve, the Cambridge Antibody Technology (Medimmune), Illumina Inc, the Sanger Institute, Cambridge and the Wellcome-Oxford-WHO unit in Thailand and has presented her research at leading malaria research conferences around the world. She has a BSc in Genetics from Queen Mary’s University, London and an MSc in Applied Bio-molecular Technology from the University of Nottingham and has enjoyed a scholarship from the Prince’s Trust. She has also carried out research at the Wellcome-Oxford-WHO unit in Thailand.
She has been nominated again for the Best Use of Science at the Future Awards 2011, and I wish her another success at clinching the award. You can check out her African Health blog here.
Photo credit: www.cp-africa.com