According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, women account for less than 30% of the world’s researchers. Reports also identify gender discrimination as one of the leading deterrents against women entering and excelling in fields relating to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM). In honor of International Women’s Month, we wanted to hear from some of our past National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) fellows to learn their opinions on what barriers exist for women in STEM fields today, best practices to address those challenges, and how to alter the future of women in previously male-dominated fields by encouraging future generations to pursue leadership positions. Throughout the month of March, we will be highlighting these women and sharing their challenges and successes as equal contributors to the field of research.
“Mentorship is one of the biggest challenges for female scientists in low-resource regions such as Zambia. There is an urgent need to support and inspire upcoming and vigilant young scientists to develop internationally recognizable careers.” – Dr. Violet Kayamba
Dr. Violet is a gastroenterologist and lecturer at the University of Zambia Medical School. Since earning her degree in Internal Medicine in 2012, Dr. Kayamba has been actively engaged in gastrointestinal cancer research with a focus on the interaction with viral infections, including HIV. Currently the president of the Zambia Association of Gastroenterology and Nutrition, she has also conducted gastrointestinal cancer research with the Tropical Gastroenterology and Nutrition Group in Zambia. A published researcher, she has presented her work at several international conferences, including the International Symposium on HIV and Emerging Diseases, United European Gastroenterology Week, British Society of Gastroenterology Week, and the IUNS International Congress of Nutrition.
In 2015, she received the Beginning Investigator Grant for Catalytic Research (BIG CAT), through which she served as the principal investigator in her research project “Gastric Cancer in Zambia; Estimating Environmental Risks Due to Mycotoxins and Biomass Smoke Exposure.” BIG CAT is part of the African Organization for Research and Training in Cancer (AORTIC) that supports exploratory data collection by African clinicians and scientists to reduce the burden of cancer in Africa. Research areas include descriptive epidemiology, prevention, detection, diagnosis, and treatment, including supportive and palliative care and behavioral.
What advice do you have for women scientists starting out in their careers?
“I think the biggest hindrance to progress for young female scientists is the ‘imposter syndrome.’ This is the belief that one is not good enough to be in the cohort of successful scientists. Therefore, at the onset of their careers, women should be helped to eliminate this belief, which at times could be buried in their subconscious.”
What makes you most proud about being a woman in your field? What was your experience finding your first professional position?
“I am very proud of my accomplishments as a female scientist and am determined to do more. Being a mother of two young boys, a wife, and holding a full-time university faculty position has been quite demanding. I have learned that the best way to balance all these is to have self-discipline. Setting up reasonable targets, carefully selecting daily priorities, and holding on to my self-confidence. I was awarded a CRDF Global BIG CAT award in 2016, and I made sure that this project was completed successfully. Despite having been trained and now working in a low-resource environment, I have published over twenty peer reviewed articles within six years, many of which I am the lead author. I have been invited to speak at international conferences, presented several abstracts, and was recently invited to write a commentary by the Lancet Gastroenterology and Hepatology journal. Getting adequate funding for my work has been a challenge but I have not let that hinder my progress.”
How can the research community better support women scientists?
“Mentorship is one of the biggest challenges for female scientists in low-resource regions such as Zambia. There is an urgent need to support and inspire up-coming and vigilant young scientists to develop internationally recognizable careers.”
Shown above: Dr. Kayamba working on her BIG CAT research project, “Gastric Cancer in Zambia; Estimating Environmental Risks Due to Mycotoxins and Biomass Smoke Exposure.”