For the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we wanted to interview two young scientists, Eunice Zola and Myriam Luzala. They are 22 and 24 years old and are respectively in 5th and 6th year of pharmaceutical sciences. They have just been selected in the framework of the call for projects launched by the Centre for Research and Technological Innovation in Environment and Health Sciences (CRITESS) of the University of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. CRITESS is implementing one of six granteed third-party projects of the ‘Projet de Déploiement des Technologies et Innovations Environnementales pour le développement durable et la réduction de la pauvreté (PDTIE) financed under the ACP Innovation Fund.
What were your feelings when you learned that your innovation project had been selected?
Myriam: It was a joy for me and for my team. Innovation is not always easy. We thought it was just an adventure in itself, exposing our project, but finally, we realised that CRITESS was interested and it was really a joy.
Eunice: At first, like Myriam said, it was like a game. We thought, let us just go for it and see how it goes. Now we have been selected by CRITESS and we are happily moving forward together.
Malaria still kills about 400,000 people every year in the world and you propose an alternative to chemical insecticides? Could you tell us about your project in a few words?
Myriam: Malaria is caused by parasites of the genus Plasmodium, of different species (falciparum, malariae, etc.). In addition, all these parasites are transmitted to humans by mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles. To fight against these malaria vectors, the WHO has recommended two alternatives. Indoor spraying with insecticides and the use of impregnated mosquito nets. But indoor spraying because it requires the deployment of agents in the city, and in a developing country like ours, the Democratic Republic of Congo, this is a problem. Indeed, they need protective equipment. On top of that, the chemicals used are toxic to human health and to the environment. With the arrival of impregnated mosquito nets, we felt a little relieved. But unfortunately, there is another problem. Mosquitoes have developed resistance. We then looked at our flora. We have plants everywhere in Kinshasa. Why not use them as a means of bio-ecological control? This is why we started studying plants and especially nanotechnology. Indeed, there are already metallic nanoparticles that are reported in the literature as having larvicidal properties to kill these vectors. Our project is therefore to biosynthesize metallic plants-based nanoparticles from our environment and to develop a pharmaceutical formulation.
How did you end up working together on this project?
Myriam: Eunice and I belong to the same “Work for Excellence” study group that brings together students from different classes of the faculty. In this group, we know each other very well. I know her abilities. She likes galenics, the science that deals with the formulation of drugs. So do I, and so, as a result, this interaction has allowed us to form a great team together.
What inspired you to work in the pharmaceutical sciences and in this very specific field of environmental health sciences?
Myriam: My motivation for the pharmaceutical sciences started a long time ago. As a child, I was afraid of drugs and of men and women in white uniforms. At that time, I was very sick and I had to go to the hospital every time. I thought, “When I grow up, will I make medicine to hurt all these people?”, when in fact they only wanted to help me. That is how I grew up. I read the instructions for my medications. I knew the medicine by memory, how it smelled, how it tasted… I wanted to be a doctor because in my mind, it was the doctor who made the medicine, who did everything in the hospital. When I got to high school, my career counselor told me, “You want to be a doctor who makes medicine, but there’s no such person. You want to be a pharmacist. You have to go for it!” And so, that’s when I got really motivated for pharmaceutical sciences.
Eunice: My dream of becoming a health care worker dates back a long time too. My dad is a doctor and my mom is a nurse. I loved the way we were taken care of, and my first dream was to be a doctor. Then I discovered pharmaceutical sciences, I did not know what that would mean. I thought of the drugs first. I did not know that there were other domains like galenics, microbiology, and having taken training and courses, I understood that there were several interesting areas and I focused on galenics. I had even formulated an ointment based on vegetable oils with anti-dandruff and anti-hair loss activity. Then I discovered plants with other therapeutic properties. There are many plants in our country, but their properties are not all known. We cannot always use modern medicine. We cannot always rely on drugs that pollute nature. We must value what is in our country. It is important.
What do you think are the main obstacles to overcoming in order to pave your way in the sciences?
Eunice: First, it is the self-fear, because you think:”We are in an environment where there are a lot of men. There are many experts, men of science. And we, women, what will be our place in this environment?” First, remove this feeling of fear, take courage, move forward. There are many other obstacles such as our African culture. There are parents who say that a woman’s place is in the family, in the house. It’s marriage, not school. And why study so hard to be a teacher? In fact, they fear our way of being, our way of behaving in the family, they say that we must keep our traditional customs.
Myriam: The difficulty is to evolve in a world where men dominate and where you are observed: “how can this woman go into science? She will be complicated to live with. She will start to dominate men! In fact, it’s a gendered socialisation, where woman must stay at home, she must stay in the kitchen. It’s complicated for us, but we still have the courage. We tell ourselves that we must go forward because science needs us. So, despite this fear, despite this gendered socialisation, we want to stay in science. We want to be scientist.
What support have you been able to rely on to move forward?
Myriam: My main support is to see exemplary women in the sciences. At the faculty, we have a vice-dean in charge of teaching and a faculty secretary. They are two women who encourage me a lot. I also see my mom who is a woman in science. All these examples motivate me. I also see the old experiments carried out by women, like that of Mrs. Tu Youyou, the Chinese woman who gave us artemisinin. Today, it is used as a very effective antimalarial. My grandmother, who is 86 years old, can tell you that on this soil, there will be a seed. Imagine if she was an agronomist! We see women able to say, even if the sky is cloudy, that it will not rain today. This means that there is something innate in women. So we have to motivate women. Especially us, because tomorrow we will give birth to our daughters. And our daughters, seeing us as examples, they will also engage in science.
Eunice: I was first motivated by my godmother, a history professor and general secretary of a university in my country. She told me not to give up, not to minimize myself, to believe in my skills, in my intelligence, to do better. Then there is my mother. When I see her working hard, enjoying her salary, she is very happy and I see that she had previously sacrificed herself to have all this, to be an autonomous person. There are also the women in the faculty, Myriam talked about, and other professors who are women. I say to myself why not be like them? We just have to believe in our potential and express it.
We are on the eve of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. What would you like to say to other young girls to encourage them to pursue science studies and careers?
Eunice: What I would say to women and other girls in science is to take courage, not to stop at the different obstacles that come up in life, to move forward without fear and above all to have this passion to do things well, to make good use of their capabilities and to always be perseverant, and to always tell themselves that they are capable of great things.
Myriam: I would say to the girls that you should not start from the principle that you are not interested, that you will not understand anything, that it will not work. We all have inherent potential. I would also like to encourage parents to play their role from an early age. It is this gendered socialisation that has demotivated many girls… And we, the girls, must go for it because tomorrow we will have girls. We have to serve as models so that they can be integrated. Sometimes we look at where we are going. If we see that there are a lot of men, we may think that we will be left out. We might have doubts about being considered. But if we notice a lot of women in front of us, we will say that there are good examples. We have to go for it, we have to move forward.