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Member Spotlight for Dr. Francisca Mutapi

By Sungano Mharakurwa Moderator | 29 Apr, 2015

It is a pleasure to invite Dr. Francisca Mutapi for a member spotlight in our community scheduled for next week. Dr. Mutapi has a wealth of experience from an endemic country rising star to an eminent international scientist. We will learn how in her vantage position, she harnesses north-south linkages for mutual progress, giving back to her origins and inspiring others. Dr. Mutapi‘s work focuses on global health and tropical diseases. She has been conducting field studies in Africa, together with laboratory studies in the UK, for over 20 years, working mainly on the neglected tropical diseases schistosomiasis (commonly known as bilharzia) and malaria. Her work involves using basic science to inform helminth control and intervention programmes. Recently, her work has led to paediatric helminthiasis policy revision by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and contributed to the implementation of Zimbabwe’s ongoing 5-year national schistosomiasis and soil transmitted helminth control programme.

Dr Mutapi was born and brought up in Zimbabwe. She attended the University of Zimbabwe for her first degree, a BSc Hons in Biological Sciences, winning the best BSc programs student award and the best BSc Honours student award in Biological Sciences in 1991. In 1993, she successfully competed for one of two national Beit Trust Scholarships (established in 1906) to read for a DPhil at the University of Oxford from 1993 to 1997. Following this, she undertook postdoctoral training at the Prince Leopold Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium (1997-1999), before returning to Oxford to take up a departmental lectureship post at the Department of Zoology and St Hilda’s College in 2000. This was followed by lectureship positions at Birkbeck College and the University of Glasgow’s Veterinary School, and a training fellowship at the University of Edinburgh in 2002. Following her training fellowship she was awarded a 5-year, tenure-track research fellowship from the Research Councils of the UK and established an independent research group that is highly productive, with many publications in the top journals in her field of research. Additionally, she established collaborative links with other national and international experts such that her work is multidisciplinary and combines original scientific research with significant practical impacts on child health and development in Africa. With this strong base she established an excellent record in postgraduate and postdoctoral supervision, especially in terms of final career outcomes and publication record of her students. She was elected as one of the 60 founding members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Young Academy in 2012 and is currently a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.

The spotlight will run from May 4 – 8.

Replies

 

Auxilia Prof. Chideme-Munodawafa Replied at 5:53 AM, 30 Apr 2015

Wellcome Dr Mutapi andd concgratulations for all the above mentioned achievements. Its not doubt you are an assert to all who have been priviledged to work with you and you are certainly a JEWEL to Zimbabwe.
I defenetly look forward to collerborating with you particulary in furthering research in Malaria issues.
Again congratulations and wellcome


Professor Auxilia Chideme-Munodawafa,
Associate Professor, /Assitant Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences, Africa University

Francisca Mutapi Replied at 6:15 AM, 30 Apr 2015

Dear Chideme-Munodawafa,
Thank you for your kind welcome, I very much look forward to working with you and the rest of the community.
I hope to visit Africa University later in the year.
Francisca

Sungano Mharakurwa Moderator Replied at 5:03 PM, 3 May 2015

Hi,
I would now like to take the opportunity to invite all for the spotlight session with Dr. Mutapi, as she shares her perspectives and experiences on the journey of an endemic country scientist. If I may start by asking Dr. Mutapi, What would you say spurred you into a scientist? Secondly, from the diaspora you are leveraging very well on your links at home and overseas to effect applied research opportunities for both sides. When did you start and how did you come to work at the University of Edinburgh?

Francisca Mutapi Replied at 4:20 AM, 5 May 2015

In response to the question: 'I would now like to take the opportunity to invite all for the spotlight session with Dr. Mutapi, as she shares her perspectives and experiences on the journey of an endemic country scientist. If I may start by asking Dr. Mutapi, What would you say spurred you into a scientist? '


As I was growing up, the one thing I could not stand even as a child, was ‘not knowing’. The state of ‘not knowing’ irritated me. So I asked questions all the time. I wanted to know about my surroundings- not just the environment, but things like –

How were bridges built? How come suspension bridges did not fall?
What happened to the food I ate?
Why did I take a tablet through the mouth to feel better when I had a headache?
How did chameleons change their colour?

As you can imagine, the lists were endless. I was incredibly lucky to grow up around family and teachers who were willing to answer my questions and, sometimes even give me the tools to answer them myself. I remember my first experiment- the bleaching effects of the sun on ink- I was in Grade 2 (that would make me 7 years old). I was hooked then and there………

Later on I was drawn to Biology, partly because I was very fascinated about how I came to be and how I functioned. I was (and still am) always surprised by how anyone can fail be fascinated by biology given that we carry most of the ‘equipment’ that makes up the building blocks of animal biology. I was incredibly fortunate to have a long line of Biology teachers who were inspirational- Ann Glover my ‘O’ Level Biology Teacher- an exceptional teacher who taught me biological concepts by deduction, David Stewart, my A level Biology teacher who introduced me to lateral thinking and Vic Clarke my undergraduate university lecturer who gave me my first independent research project and set me free to explore science in his laboratory. I also credit Vic with introducing me to Parasitology, gently steering me towards schistosomiasis, malaria and tick borne diseases, and encouraging me not only to ask any questions, but to direct the questions to the leading scientists in the field (most in seminars he dragged me to……). Vic’s influence in my career extended beyond my undergraduate years as he introduced me to my future PhD supervisor, Mark Woolhouse (again by dragging me to a seminar where I asked a question and the speaker would later say, that was my PhD interview and I passed …) and convinced me to apply for the Beit Scholarship to conduct my PhD in human schistosomiasis at the University of Oxford. My PhD supervisor who remains my role model, my greatest critic and a valuable collaborator laid a very solid foundation of quantitative approaches and field work experimental design in my scientific development that has allowed me to conduct cutting-edge target-species oriented research. Upon graduation, my PhD supervisor gave me the best gift you can give to a young scientist- my PhD lineage, showing how it lead to the Nobel Laureate Frederick Gowland Hopkins (1929) and including Vincent Wigglesworth the entomologist whose work I had learnt about in high school- how cool is that? Such inspiration! This spurs me on as a scientist. Since then I have given all my PhD students a copy of their lineage after they successfully defend their theses and I very much hope they pass it on to their students.

Sungano Mharakurwa Moderator Replied at 11:08 AM, 5 May 2015

Thanks Dr. Mutapi. Very interesting how it starts with those early tell-tale curiosities! Also a demonstration of how mentors can light the flame of inspiration. Looking forward to the second part too. The next question, if I may, is: What kind of opportunities exist for Malaria research in your country? Are there challenges to develop or retain the technical expertise in your country for eliminating malaria?

Francisca Mutapi Replied at 11:31 AM, 5 May 2015

In response to the question 'Secondly, from the diaspora you are leveraging very well on your links at home and overseas to effect applied research opportunities for both sides. When did you start and how did you come to work at the University of Edinburgh?'


For my PhD, I produced a thesis on the Immuno-epidemiology of human schistosomiasis. For this, I conducted fieldwork in Zimbabwe- I had a fantastic project and superb supervisors (Dr Patricia Ndhlovu for fieldwork in Zimbabwe, Prof Paul Hagan in Glasgow for immunology lab work, Prof Mark Woolhouse for the epidemiology at Oxford). The work was pioneering in many aspects, including publishing the very first human schistosome-malaria co-infection immunology study- but interestingly, I had more questions at the end my PhD. To answer some of them, I undertook a post-doctoral position at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp conducting fieldwork in Senegal. With encouragement and support from my PhD supervisors (who became mentors) I obtained funding from the World Health Organisation to conduct further studies in schistosome immuno-epidemiology. This was in 1999 and since then, I have run a continuously funded collaborative research programme on human schistosomiasis in Zimbabwe with colleagues from the University of Zimbabwe.

In 1999 I took up a departmental lectureship in my old department of Zoology at Oxford. At this time, the research questions I was beginning to ask required more molecular and immunological approaches to be fully addressed, so I decided I needed more training in these areas. I decided the best place to gain this training was in Prof Rick Maizels’s lab in Edinburgh. Rick was (and still is) a leading researcher in helminth immunology and parasite biology, and so I set about applying for a training fellowship to join his lab. As you will appreciate, life is never straight forward, so before I joined Rick’s lab on an MRC Training Fellowship I held lectureship posts at the University of London’s Birkbeck College and University of Glasgow’s Veterinary School. These 2 positions were fantastic building blocks in my career as I met new collaborators and learnt new disciplines which help in shaping my research. The time spent in Rick’s lab was even more valuable than I had anticipated, resulting in several high profile publications, significant advances in our understanding of the development of schistosome-specific protective immunity as well as identification of several novel schistosome vaccine candidates and collaborative work which still continues today. At the end of my training fellowship (2006), I obtained a tenure track 5-year research fellowship to establish my independent research group at Edinburgh at the end of which I was appointed to my current permanent post.

Francisca Mutapi Replied at 6:41 AM, 6 May 2015

● What kind of opportunities exist for Malaria research in your country? Are there challenges to develop or retain the technical expertise in your country for eliminating malaria?

Science as a career has challenges that transcend boarders- we all know of the challenges of dealing with rejections on a daily basis (e.g. grant rejection and manuscript rejection by top journals), short-term contracts during the postdoctoral years, juggling family life and fieldwork and remuneration compared to other jobs.

In developing countries challenges occur in attracting, training and then retaining researchers in all scientific disciplines, not just infectious diseases and not just malaria research. In a lot of these countries and in Zimbabwe where I have most of my working experience, there isn’t a lack of (a) bright young people and (b) research questions. If we could increase current efforts to nurture and mentor these young students and, provide them with world-class working environments (laboratories etc.) and reward their efforts both financially and through national and international recognition then we would pave the way for some remarkable scientific advancements and improvements for local and global human health.

Sungano Mharakurwa Moderator Replied at 8:22 AM, 6 May 2015

Many thanks Dr. Mutapi. I think many scientists can relate to these. Do you see a ray of hope in endemic countries eventually recognizing health research budget as an investment that can save the country huge costs and support the economy in the long run? The statement from the President of Senegal calling for African countries to commit 1% of GDP to research (See: http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20150313093139353) seems impressive!

Our next question today: What is it about Malaria that interests you the most? Did you ever have malaria? What has been your experience working in the field of Malaria so far?

Francisca Mutapi Replied at 9:09 AM, 6 May 2015

Many thanks Dr. Mutapi. I think many scientists can relate to these. Do you see a ray of hope in endemic countries eventually recognizing health research budget as an investment that can save the country huge costs and support the economy in the long run? The statement from the President of Senegal calling for African countries to commit 1% of GDP to research (See: http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20150313093139353) seems impressive!

This is a fantastic development . There are a lot of exciting developments/efforts to strengthen Africa’s research base from within. Another example of this is the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa featured recently in this nature article:
http://www.nature.com/news/african-hub-set-up-to-boost-research-autonomy-1.17272
I am excited by these developments and look forward to contributing to the scientific research.

Our next question today: What is it about Malaria that interests you the most?
Malaria parasites are fascinating biologically – from an evolutionary, immunological and pathological perspective.
- From my own research several biological features described in malaria also occur in schistosomiasis e.g. EPIDEMIOLOGY- age-infection curves, peak shifts, IMMUNOLOGY-vaccination concepts using the infection-treatment protocol, parasite immunomodulation of host immune responses, antibody vs. cellular immunity, EVOLUTION- virulence, chronobiology, CONTROL- making evolution-proof interventions
- The disease malaria is also interesting from a sociology perspective as it is very much integrated in human behaviour and in some cases significant advances have been made by taking into account the ‘human’ aspect of transmission and disease.

Did you ever have malaria?
Not that I am aware of

What has been your experience working in the field of Malaria so far?
Great community of supportive scientists.

Sungano Mharakurwa Moderator Replied at 10:18 AM, 6 May 2015

Thank you. I know we have been moving quickly but I wanted to mention to the community that members are welcome to post in any questions and engage in discussion at any time.

So, Dr. Mutapi as you grew up did you never have to swallow chloroquine or Fansidar? I know back then confirmatory diagnosis was only available in main hospitals and most of the time treatment had to be symptom-based? Lucky for the new generation, even though we still have a long way to go in terms of banishing the scourge from our people.

Francisca Mutapi Replied at 11:29 AM, 6 May 2015

I genuinely do not remember taking any antimalarials to treat malaria symptoms.
I should also say I am alpha thalassemic.
On school trips (for example to Kariba) we certainly were given prophylaxis and of course mosquito nets have featured heavily in my rural visits around Zimbabwe.

Sungano Mharakurwa Moderator Replied at 12:32 PM, 6 May 2015

Oh I see. That likely gave you extra protection. Thanks very much for sharing your experiences.

Sungano Mharakurwa Moderator Replied at 5:01 AM, 7 May 2015

Hi Dr. Mutapi. Our question today is: What do you see as the biggest barriers to malaria control and prevention?

Francisca Mutapi Replied at 9:54 AM, 7 May 2015

What do you see as the biggest barriers to malaria control and prevention?

From a research and education perspective I would say:
1. Education for caregivers in affected communities
2. Accessibility to; and responsible use and stewardship of already available tools
3. Diagnostics (improved point-of care diagnostics for multiple species parasites and drug resistant strains)
4. Sustainable evolution proof interventions (drugs less prone to drug resistance and vaccines)

Sungano Mharakurwa Moderator Replied at 12:07 PM, 7 May 2015

What do you see as the role for community health workers and nurses in malaria prevention and control work?

Lovemore Gwanzura Replied at 3:22 PM, 7 May 2015

Hi Dr Francisca Mutapi!
Welcome I hope we can open up collaborative wings and eventually get your expertise in Zimbabwe. 1993s when you left i am sure you had plans to eventually return and solve the insurmountable scientific and health problems back home. congratulations for the listed academic achievements. thanks to Sungano”s wild hunt you have been found. I informed Prof frees of your being found in the hay.

Lovemore Gwanzura Replied at 3:37 PM, 7 May 2015

noted

>

Sungano Mharakurwa Moderator Replied at 5:43 PM, 7 May 2015

Hi Dr. Mutapi. Our last question (for Friday) is: Tell us about your research interest. Where are you in your research and what are the next steps? Finally, what advice would you give to a young undergraduate contemplating a career in science?

Francisca Mutapi Replied at 4:19 AM, 8 May 2015

What do you see as the role for community health workers and nurses in malaria prevention and control work?

First of all I must say that I continue to be tremendously humbled by the dedication and commitment of the community health workers and nurses I have met throughout my 20 years of research in Zimbabwe. I have also learnt a huge amount about community medicine from the health workers I have worked with in Zimbabwe and Senegal.

In addition to primary health care provisions, the roles I have seen taken on by community health workers and nurses have included education and awareness campaigns, surveillance as well as engagement in control programmes. It would be nice to see their surveillance and data capture capabilities strengthened. This would improve the speed of detection of ‘epidemics’, new transmission foci and also detection of drug resistance/drug failures.

Francisca Mutapi Replied at 4:25 AM, 8 May 2015

Hallo Prof Gwanzura,

Thank you for your kind comments. I am fully committed to conducting research that improves the control of neglected tropical diseases, and look forward to continued collaborations with you and other colleagues working in endemic countries. In addition to our work in Zimbabwe, we have just started work in Rwanda and hope to establish stronger collaborative links within Africa.

Sungano Mharakurwa Moderator Replied at 1:41 PM, 9 May 2015

I would like to thank you, Dr. Mutapi, for taking the time to share your experiences and perspectives as a scientist rising from endemic country origins, and now applying back expertise from a leverage point, with impact within and beyond home country. You shared your perspectives and experiences with inspiring generosity and sincerity. Hoping you managed to kindle the inner lights of more in addition to the other rising stars you mentor already. And never forget home as Prof Gwanzura nudged! Thanks very much!

Francisca Mutapi Replied at 5:00 AM, 11 May 2015

Current Research Interests:

SCHISTOSOMIASIS: Currently my work is focusing on paediatric schistosomiasis trying to understand the infection process, the aetiology of pathology and the development of protective acquired immunity with the aim of harnessing this knowledge for better control strategies.

MALARIA: My work in this area is focusing on multiple Plasmodium species co-infection in human populations investigating the immuno-epidemiology of the multiple species in Zimbabwean and Sudanese populations, with the aim of understanding the role of co-infections in the development of drug resistance, pathology and the development of protective immunity against each of the different species.

ADVICE to aspiring young scientists: Prepare yourself with the very best tools (theory and lab), identify a role model and ask them to be a mentor, take chances- you have nothing to lose by making applications for travel grants, research grants, scholarships and above all else have interesting scientific questions!

Zvifadzo Matsena Replied at 9:22 AM, 11 May 2015

Thank you Dr Mutapi for the advice. This was really an interesting
discussion.

Pierre Bush, PhD Moderator Replied at 9:56 PM, 11 May 2015

Dear Mutapi,
Thank you for sharing your experience and for the good advise you gave to young researchers. As some one in the malariology field I appreciate your contribution to our field. Keep up the good work, and stay in touch with our community. Thanks to Sungano for introducing you to us.
Dr. Pierre

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