TDR Global profile: Empowering Ugandan women to have medical and science careers

Dr Pauline Byakika, Uganda

When she became a doctor in 1999, Ugandan scientist Pauline Byakika couldn’t wait to see her first patient. Her schooling finally finished, she was eager to put her skills to work in Uganda’s public sector. With an adult HIV prevalence rate of more than 10%, and the re-emergence of other diseases as a result of the epidemic, the need for skilled care was greater than ever.

There was just one problem: the government wasn’t hiring.

Pauline Byakika
Pauline Byakika

Thinking back to medical school, Byakika remembered she had done well in her courses on research. With a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, she pursued a master’s degree in clinical epidemiology and biostatistics and worked as a trainee on a malaria drug efficacy study. And no sooner did she complete that programme than she started another – a second master’s in internal medicine. “I told myself if I want to do good clinical research I need to be a good physician. And to be a good doctor meant I needed to go back for more training.”

After earning her degree, Byakika applied again for a job as a physician. This time she got it, becoming a medical officer at Mulago National Referral and Teaching Hospital, Uganda’s largest hospital in the capital, Kampala. But Byakika wasn’t content to be a clinician. In 2006, she was selected as one of 5 Sewankambo Scholars, a prestigious scholarship programme named after one of Uganda's most distinguished researchers, Dr Nelson Sewankambo.

Byakika’s doctoral thesis investigated drug-drug interactions between antimalarial drugs and antiretroviral drugs. Studies stemming from that work resulted in 35 articles published in international peer reviewed journals which she has authored or co-authored to date.

With her PhD in hand, Byakika went to Makerere University’s Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI) on a clinical research fellowship jointly sponsored by TDR and the European Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP). Starting out as a lecturer in the school of medicine, she gradually rose through the ranks, from research associate to head of the infectious diseases unit to the position she holds today: associate professor.

Pauline Byakika
Pauline Byakika

Byakika credits her success in part to supportive mentors. “Without them, I never would have gotten to where I am today,” she says. “At every stage, I had wonderful colleagues”—among them Dr Mohammed Lamorde, head of the Prevention, Care and Treatment Programme at IDI.

“Pauline has developed a reputation as a leader in the medical school at Makerere,” says Lamorde who, after listing her many accolades noted that she is “likely best known for teaching and supporting undergraduate and postgraduate medical students.”

Grateful for the guidance she had received, Byakika wanted to pay it forward by mentoring junior scientists. “The college of health sciences already had a mentorship programme in place,” she says, “but it wasn’t very strong or well publicized.” Byakika and colleagues decided to revamp it; they held workshops for faculty members on mentoring effectively and paired them with mentees. But they soon realized women scientists needed something more. “So we had senior women scientists speak to the junior women about the obstacles unique to women,” she says. “And that’s how I came to apply for the TDR grant.”

This support allowed Byakika and colleagues to launch The Women Scientists’ Career Development Programme (WoSCaDeP), a college-wide initiative at Makerere aimed at advancing the careers of women in science and increasing the number of women researchers in leadership positions. “We noticed a lot of women were lacking the soft skills, things like management, leadership, budgeting. In addition to those things, mentors talk about the different strategies they used to advance their career.”

Reflecting on her own experience, Byakika says it was careful planning that allowed her to balance being a mother with a career in research. “My husband wanted four children,” she says, “so I knew I would have to space them out. Otherwise I would have just abandoned my career.”

Pauline Byakika is a member of TDR Global, a platform for research networking. She has offered to be a mentor, and can be reached through her profile at TDR Global.

Anyone who has worked with TDR can become a member of TDR Global. This provides further exposure of your work, and the opportunity to find research collaborations and either be a mentor or ask for a mentor. For further information, email: tdrglobal@who.int.


For more information, contact:
Jamie Guth
TDR Communications Manager
Telephone: +41 79 441 2289
E-mail: guthj@who.int