TDR Global profile: Establishing a national network of women health scientists

Dr Atupele Kapito-Tembo, Malawi

As a medical student in Blantyre, Malawi, Dr Atupele Kapito-Tembo had her career mapped out. She would finish school, complete her internship year, and then train to become a pediatrician. But as it often does, her life went in a different direction.

Atupele Kapito-Tembo
Atupele Kapito-Tembo

“I said to myself, let me first work in public health within the public service,” she recalls. For a year, Kapito-Tembo served as the District Health Officer for Blantyre, where she oversaw planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of all health programs in the district.

“You have to deliver good services both in health facilities and in communities, so one thing we used to do a lot is sit down with the communities and their leaders.” While doing that, she says, “I developed a passion for public health – and, well, I never went back to pediatrics.”

Kapito-Tembo followed that passion, going on instead to become an epidemiologist and an expert in infectious diseases. But from the very start, she knew, the deck was stacked against her. “My father does not really believe that women can go forward,” she says. “He believes women are not as intelligent as men.” Sometimes, she recalls, “he would demean women and always says there is no way they can be equal to men.”

“For the interventions to work, the community has to be on board.”

Atupele Kapito-Tembo

Fortunately, Kapito-Tembo could turn to her mother for support. “She’s a strong woman and she has always encouraged us along”, as did her teachers. It was in secondary school, she says, that she realized she was especially drawn to the sciences. “I had a lot of encouragement from my teachers – they could see my potential. So, I made a decision just to work hard in school, and that’s what I did.”

A community approach

Moved by her experience confronting health challenges as district health officer for Blantyre, Kapito-Tembo got a master’s in public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the U.S., and stayed on to pursue a PhD in infectious diseases epidemiology. “It was just proper that I do that to help my people back home,” she says. “We’re still really struggling with infectious diseases, especially malaria and HIV.”

“Many women researchers here have a difficult time. They need support and solutions that address their individual challenges”.

Atupele Kapito-Tembo

Upon returning home, Kapito-Tembo used her newly acquired skillset to address gaps in malaria, HIV and maternal child health, leading causes of morbidity and mortality in Malawi. She also did work on the control of schistosomiasis, a neglected tropical disease.

Now deputy director of the Malaria Alert Centre at the University of Malawi, she’s most interested in operational research to improve health care services. “I like it because I can continue to interact with communities to identify evidence-based interventions,” she says. That’s important, she adds, because “for the interventions to work, the community has to be on board and be the focus.”

Using a TDR grant to support women scientists

As she made her way, though, Kapito-Tembo encountered a set of challenges she hadn’t anticipated. “Suddenly, I was raising a family, and with all other responsibilities, I was struggling to move forward,” she recalls. One day, at a workshop, Kapito-Tembo was introduced to personal development planning. “I knew there are so many young women who could benefit from learning how to plan their careers. And I thought to myself, Malawi and women experts in infectious diseases -- who can I point to that they are internationally recognized? I couldn’t think of anyone.”

Atupele Kapito-Tembo
Atupele Kapito-Tembo
 

Then she saw the TDR call for applications. “It was at just the right moment, so I went for it.”

With TDR support, Kapito-Tembo launched a series of workshops aimed at improving careers for women in health research in Malawi. “The first workshop focused on personal development planning and mentoring,” she says. “The second focused on leadership skills and time management.” The TDR grant also made possible the establishment of WIDREM, a national network of women health researchers. In addition to providing a forum for dialogue among peers, WIDREM advocates and lobbies for the creation of an enabling environment for women to advance in their careers and for gender equality at the institutional level.

With TDR support, Kapito-Tembo launched a series of workshops aimed at improving careers for women in health research in Malawi covering personal development planning and mentoring, leadership skills and time management, and project planning and management for health research.” The TDR grant also made possible the establishment of WIDREM, a national network of women health researchers. In addition to providing a forum for dialogue and support among peers, WIDREM advocates and lobbies for the creation of an enabling environment for women to advance in their careers and for gender equality at the institutional level.

“Some international collaborators told me that’s just a waste of my time, that it’s better to focus on building my own career,” Kapito-Tembo recalled of planning to launch WIDREM in 2016. “And that was a big motivation for me; maybe because they are international collaborators, they don’t know our situation. But I do, and many women researchers here have a difficult time. They need support and solutions that address their individual challenges. And maybe I will not be the one to benefit from it, but maybe they could be.”

Atupele Kapito-Tembo is a member of TDR Global, a platform for research networking. 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