Kadiatou Dao: Tackling Biological Proliferation in Mali

*This blog was originally published by Maryam Zaringhalam on WISeR, The Rockefeller University’s women in science blog. It is used here with permission* 
CRDF Global Robin Copeland Memorial Fellow Kadiatou Dao shares her journey to becoming a leader in biological nonproliferation in Mali and why women are so critical to the field.
“Women are the key to peace,” Kadiatou Dao declared to an eager audience at CRDF Global headquarters in April.
Founded in 1995, CRDF Global is a nonprofit organization that promotes international scientific and technical collaboration through a number of incredible programs including the Robin Copeland Memorial Fellowship. The award recognizes a woman leader working to promote nonproliferation in emerging countries. So as the 2015 fellow, Dao is uniquely qualified to make such a bold and inspiring statement. With funding through the U.S. Department of State, she has spent the last year gaining the expertise to tackle biological nonproliferation of infectious disease in her mother country of Mali.
I had the great fortune of meeting Dao when Rockefeller University’s Science Diplomacy class visited CRDF Global. There, she shared her experiences — which include working in the bacterial meningitis diagnostics at Mali’s National Institute of Research in Public Health and studying malaria’s resistance to drugs at the University Pierre et Marie CURIE in Paris — and her insights as a woman advancing the field of nonproliferation.
Before returning to Mali to put her training to use in Biosafety and Biosecurity, Dao was kind enough to share some of those remarkable insights with our community in the interview that follows. To learn more about funding for women in nonproliferation and support their work, be sure to visit here.
When you spoke to our group, you said: “Women are the key to peace.” This statement is all the more powerful coming from a woman who is a leader in biological nonproliferation. How do you view your gender as an asset working in this field?
Nowadays women have proved their qualifications in many areas. In my field, for example they are rising scientists who are also very involved on the political stage. To talk about peace — or means to reduce nuclear threats, chemical or biological weapons — is a priority for everyone, regardless of gender. Still, studies have shown that women and children are most vulnerable to natural disasters and disease. We must make it a priority to strengthen the representation of women who are not well represented in this area. The need for close cooperation is therefore necessary. Women have a unique experience in managing epidemics and times of conflict and post-conflict. Taking advantage of these acquired experiences is essential to strengthen the culture of peace. I invite all women in science and beyond to break their silence and to become more active in the decision making process. They must understand that their involvement is more than necessary to reduce the proliferation of all kinds of threats. They are the key to peace. What area of nonproliferation are you currently working in and how did you find your way to the field?
As I’m microbiologist, my focus is on the nonproliferation of biological agents. I also serve as a Research Assistant at the National Institute of Public Health Research (INSRP) in Bamako in Mali where I have worked for the last seven years. INRSP is the reference laboratory for diagnosis and surveillance of endemic and potentially epidemic diseases in Mali. I am also the Deputy Secretary General of the Malian Association for Biosafety and Biosecurity (MABB), where I continue to dedicate most of my free time to these activities. This Association aims to reduce the biorisk in facilities where biological agents are handled, and to the surrounding community and environment, as much as possible. When I heard about the one year CRDF-RCMF program to empower women to take part in the Biosecurity and Nonproliferation field, I jumped at the opportunity. The decision was easy. The expertise that I’m developing in this program will serve my daily work at the INRSP to strengthen Mali’s laboratories network, and is another way to support my activities at the MABB. What are the current challenges facing Mali and how do you hope to work to solve them with the training and support you’ve received?
Mali is faced with the constant threat of disease outbreaks. In addition, Mali is challenged with the burdensome control of deaths from treatable diseases, such as tuberculosis, malaria, HIV, and the expansion of antibiotic resistance. The recent Ebola outbreak revealed weaknesses in the management of our health system. We urgently need to build our public heath capacity to improve the efficiency of outbreak response and biorisk management. Biorisk is an issue everywhere, both in facilities where pathogens are handled and in the environment. Effective border control is another priority. My contribution to nonproliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) will start with the implementation of my capstone project from my fellowship program on Biosafety and Biosecurity promotion in relevant institutions in Mali.
At the Center of Nonproliferation Studies at Monterey in California, I improved my knowledge on the political and technical aspect of implementing Nonproliferation throughout the entire world. Mali, as one of many developing countries, is under the burden of treaties, regulations and conventions implementation. Most of the time, the difficulty with implementation is the lack of resources and the wait time for external help from developed countries. Biological international regulation requires all participating countries’ involvement. From my point of view, to appropriately meet this challenge, the connection between scientists and diplomats — known as “science diplomacy” — must be introduced to addressing this real need. This strategy would be most beneficial for Mali’s effective involvement in the implementation process of international obligations in the biological field.
The Public Health Preparedness and Response Program at the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) is the best place that I could have found to learn about biosafety standards and practices in the US public health system. There I expanded my knowledge of US laboratory systems, public policy and biosecurity policies. The team assisted me in developing technical expertise in biosafety and biosecurity to strengthen Mali’s laboratories network. I further developed my capstone project to: (1) better inform workers at the facilities where biological agents are handled; (2) communicate to policymakers the need to improve biorisk management and collaboration at every level in Mali; (3) design a training program by taking into account gaps identified from baseline risk assessment.
And now, given all your experiences working in Mali, Algeria, Paris, and now the US, what is the best advice that you now have to give to women in science working their way up?
I really believe that culture could affect differently the process of women empowerment. Science has a powerful ability to build bridges between genders and also communities to solve challenges that certainly affect us all equally. There are not many women in science in developing countries, not only because of their gender, but also due to the socio-economic conditions. So, I whole-heartedly encourage those rare ones who find their way to keep going and be an example for others who find the path daunting. From my experience, there is no way of knowing if a path will be closed to you because of your gender unless you try. So, women should arm themselves with courage and deep commitment to be competitive at all levels.