Esther Eyram is the daughter of missionaries. Apart from a short stint in The Gambia, she did most of her schooling in Ghana, following her parents across the country. It was her father, she says, who encouraged her to pursue sciences and today she is a pharmacy lecturer at Central University, while doing her PhD research at the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa.
The current pandemic has heightened the need for a better understanding of viruses and bacteria. “There is insufficient data from developing countries and limited research, and antimicrobial resistance is one of the greatest threats to global health. My current research is on trying to find out if patients are carriers of multi-drug resistant gram-negative pathogens and how they can spread these resistant bacteria from other patients, to staff and to the hospital environment and vice versa.”
Esther says that she was drawn to the sciences from a young age and fascinated by people in white lab coats because, as she puts it, she thought they saved people’s lives. It was only when she watched a documentary on the manufacturing of medicines that she discovered the healthcare sector was much broader than just nurses and doctors, and that’s what piqued her interest into the research of medicines. She decided to read pharmacy at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science of Technology.
Her family environment, she recalls, was always supportive of studies, be it for her or her three siblings. While girls are often encouraged to study subjects other than science, she wasn’t pressured in any way. The main reason for this lack of interest in science, she feels, is that scientists don’t have that many outlets.
“The opportunities are more limited than in developed countries,” she says. “If you want to remain in Africa, you think of lecturing or working in a university or being a research scientist at other institutions. But even then, the research institutions are limited.”
She thinks that the Covid-19 crisis will, if anything, put health at the top of government agendas and that will direct resources towards the health and pharmaceutical sectors.
Need for a bigger pharmaceutical industry
While there are some pharmaceutical companies such as Phyto-Riker in Ghana, she argues, governments have seen at first-hand the importance of having a functioning healthcare and pharmaceutical industry. This development will be great for scientists such as herself looking to work and contribute on the continent.
She says that funding has been the biggest challenge – not just in her personal case, but the funding available to universities, labs and research centres.
“There are many capable scientists on the continent, and it’s important to support them as their research brings to light unique problems, and it also encourages and challenges other scientists to persevere with their work,” she argues.
Esther herself received a scholarship in 2014 to study for her Masters at the University of Kwazulu Natal and she attributes her success – being able to manage research and raising a family – to having good mentors and supervisors, as well as family support.
“Science is very time-consuming and women tend to fall off their career path because they need to find time for their families. We need to support them, and in some way reduce their burden, so that they have the confidence to pursue a science career.”
Esther is based in Ghana because she strongly believes that we are uniquely placed as Africans to solve our own problems and focus research on African issues.
“At the end of the day, we are the best people to solve our own problems.”