Last month I took a few days of vacation and traveled to Basel, Switzerland. The sky was grey and a cold drizzle was steadily falling, melting the remaining layer of snow and ice that winter’s last storm had blasted onto the sides of trees and buildings. Many of the staff and students at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) had already begun traveling to warmer places. I had come to take part in a viva voce: the oral examination of a PhD candidate at the Institute. The candidate was M. Irene Masanja, a Tanzanian colleague with whom I had worked for some time. She presented her thesis: “Influence of health systems in malaria case management as part of malaria control in Tanzania,” to three examiners and a lecture room surprisingly packed with her fellow students and supporters (including her mother). She confidently answered all of our questions, including some from an examiner who attended by video link from the UK. Following that, the examiners met privately while Irene and the rest of the crowd waited anxiously outside the door. When they were permitted back into the room, the Department Chair asked her to swear an oath to maintain a high standard of scientific integrity in all her work, and conferred upon her the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, magna cum laude.
Seeing Irene defend her work and being part of that morning was a terrific boost to my spirits. I met her in 2002 when I was based in Tanzania and she joined our research team at the Ifakara Health Institute. A single mother, Irene had already qualified as a dentist and got a master’s degree while working on our collaborative project. She coordinated studies to evaluate health worker attitudes and practices to new malaria treatments, and later, the expansion of diagnostic testing for malaria. Somewhat tentatively at first, she began to share her findings with district health officials and the national malaria control team. Eventually she became a well-respected advisor to the Ministry of Health, helping them to improve training, supervision, and supply chains for health workers. Her PhD papers represented over a decade of careful work and experienced observation. Just a week prior to her exam, Joseph Njau, one of her colleagues from those early days also successfully defended his own work, “Economic and socio-behavioral effectiveness of large-scale malaria control programs in three sub-Saharan African countries” at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Both had pursued investigations that had concrete implications for complex health systems. Both have become the kind of scientists critically needed in many malaria-endemic countries, and will go on to make important contributions. Irene has already returned to a new project in Tanzania, and Joseph will complete a post-graduate fellowship to further hone his skills.
CDC is not a degree granting institution, so to help build capacity with our research partners, we rely on extensive partnerships with academic centers like Emory and Swiss TPH. As a result, students and fellowship trainees are involved in nearly every aspect of our work in the Malaria Branch. It’s hard to imagine how we could complete some of our projects without them. In addition, they help keep our investigators at the cutting edge of new or evolving scientific techniques and approaches. The academic partnerships also broaden the reach of our findings and recommendations. The broad range of students who work with us contribute greatly to CDC’s Congressional mandate to be a key implementer of strategic and applied science for malaria control. What better way to invest in the future while defeating malaria?