A woman scientist’s long journey from Somalia to WHO
Few scientists, men or women, have overcome the odds Dr Marian Warsame faced as a young girl growing up in Somalia. The eldest of ten children, Marian learned from an early age that to get ahead as a girl, she would have to study hard. And that she did, always excelling in school and finishing at the top of her class.
“I was determined to improve my life,” she says. “And my parents always encouraged me. My father was a policeman, and our big family had only his salary, but he and my mother never pressured me to get married; they wanted me to stay in school.” Indeed, while most girls dropped out after the 8th grade, Warsame made her way to Somalia National University, where she studied medicine and surgery, one of just eight women in a class of fifty.
A move to Sweden and malaria studies
After earning her MD, Warsame went on to complete a Master of Medical Sciences at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and already, the young scientist was making important contributions to the literature. By 1986, she had published the first reports of chloroquine resistant plasmodium falciparum in Somalia and completed the first ever description of malaria endemicity in an area along the Shebelle River in the country’s south. And thanks to a TDR training grant and support from Swedish Agency for Research and Cooperation, Warsame was able to continue her studies at the Karolinska Institute in pursuit of a PhD.
Warsame’s PhD work focused on the evolution of Somalia’s drug-resistant falciparum malaria. Over the course of her PhD programme, civil war erupted in Somalia, forcing her to remain in Sweden to complete her degree. Later, she embarked on a post-doctoral research project with support from the Swedish government.
“She took care of a number of other foreign students, and all students were inspired by her example: that of a girl from a family that wasn’t very sure she should go to school, and who, once she got her hands on an education, never let go. I really admire Marian so much.”
Dr Hans Rosling, former Director, Global Health Division, Karolinska Institute
Warsame had planned to do her fieldwork in Somalia, but with the war still raging she couldn’t safely return. “So I went to Tanzania instead,” she recalls. “I got permission to stay on at the Karolinska Institute, which provided support for my post-graduate work, and I joined a research collaboration there to study health service delivery of malaria case management.” If the United Republic of Tanzania was an unplanned detour, it also opened the door to an unforeseen opportunity—one that would change the course of the young scientist’s career.
Community case management that helped children
Indeed, that experience made Warsame an ideal candidate for a position as principal investigator on two TDR-supported trials in the country. “When I started my PhD, I was doing laboratory work and individual-level clinical work,” she says. “As a post-doc, I expanded to malaria case management at the health facility level. And when I received the TDR research grant to be the PI on studies in Tanzania, the focus of my research shifted from health care delivery to community-based care. So that project both built on my previous work and allowed me to develop new skills.”
Warsame spent most of the next eight years in Tanzania. The first trial, which assessed the impact of early administration of rectal artesunate on childhood severe malaria in rural Tanzania, resulted in a paper published in the Lancet, and seeing it in print, says Marian, was a proud moment.
“I had reached that level where I could lead a team of 40 staff to conduct this study in close to 200 villages,” she says. “As a black person and a woman, I had to work ten times harder to reach my goals than any man.” And that work paid off; Marian has been a member of multiple scientific committees; she has more than 40 peer-reviewed publications to her name; and she’s had a meaningful impact on the field, both as a researcher and a mentor to younger colleagues.
“She has that quality that Americans call a ‘seriousness of purpose,’” says Dr Hans Rosling, former director of the global health division at the Karolinska Institute. “Marian is an amazingly determined and focused person.” While at the Karolinska Institute, he adds, “she took care of a number of other foreign students, and all students were inspired by her example: that of a girl from a family that wasn’t very sure she should go to school, and who, once she got her hands on an education, never let go. I really admire Marian so much.”
Helping develop international guidelines
Since 2007, Warsame has worked with the World Health Organization’s Global Malaria Programme, which sets evidence-based norms, technical strategies, guidelines and policies around malaria control. Working with Member States’ national malaria programmes, she provides technical support for capacity strengthening in the form of training activities and materials. She also assists countries in monitoring the efficacy of the antimalarial drugs they use, advising them on everything from the implementation of studies to data analysis, monitoring and evaluation and report writing.
Reflecting on her path from Somalia to Sweden and later the WHO, Warsame acknowledges that she has come a long way. But she remains committed, she says, to strengthening Somalia’s research capacity and helping to build up the next generation of Somalian scientists. Once she retires, says Warsame, “I’ll have time to write my story.” Until then, her amazing journey continues.
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