Young African women in STEM: Halima Twabi – biostatistics

A PhD student in Biostatistics, Halima Twabi uses data to better understand the impact of interventions for pregnant mothers with HIV.

At first Halima wanted to be a doctor, but she couldn’t get the necessary grades to go straight into medical school. Instead she decided to study for a Bachelor of Science degree before re-applying for medical school after two years. 

But it was during her BSc studies that she discovered a passion for maths and more specifically, statistics. The rest, as they say, is history and she decided to pursue a career in mathematics.

Halima says there are two people on her journey she is particularly grateful to. One was a medical doctor, Dr Yasmin, who inspired Halima to study sciences, and the other Dr Esnart Chirwa, who made her fall in love with statistics.

When she looks back at her journey, she notes that as she progressed in her studies, she found fewer and fewer girls studying sciences. By the end of her bachelors education, there were only five girls out of a class of 40, studying mathematics.

Technology has been helpful, Halima agrees, in enhancing collaborations and networks. She is involved in the DELTAS Sub-Saharan Africa Advanced Consortium for Biostatistics (SSACAB) training programme. It is part of a collaboration between 16 Southern and four Northern research institutions, led by the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. This allows for the sharing of ideas and connections with other mathematicians.  

Her supervisors for her PhD are from the South Africa Research Council and the University of Pennsylvania. Although Covid has been disruptive, technology has allowed her to engage with her supervisors and progress with her research. She’s the second person to do a PhD in biostatistics at the University of Malawi.

Halima says that she’d like to see more networking among women mathematicians. She is the co-founder of an organisation in Malawi called Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. 

“The idea is to encourage girls to study sciences and expose girls in schools and colleges to female role models in science,” she says. In addition to school visits and talks, it’s also about making science fun, she adds, and showing them how exciting science can be as well as how practical it is in everyday life and in solving everyday problems, including health ones. 

Given that many schools cannot afford labs, the association has organised science camps exposing the girls to practical and lab-based activities.

Currently, too much emphasis in the sciences is about memorising and regurgitating, she says. “There are many ways to make it hands-on and enjoyable,” she explains, urging teachers and those setting the curriculum to be more imaginative. “You can provide them [the children] with experiments to conduct or even get them to produce mosquito repellent using bottles and a black plastic bag.”

Limited opportunities for mathematicians

Opportunities for mathematicians are still quite limited, she says. She visited the Technology Entrepreneur Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and saw how mathematics was being employed across numerous divisions within it.

“If you want to practice pure or applied maths, the outlets are limited here in Malawi. The only opportunities are in the banks, the insurance sector or in academia. That’s why you find people with PhDs in mathematics looking for opportunities abroad.”

Halima, like her peers, says that there is a big problem of research funding, which is scarce and hard to organise. Another challenge she has found is that the pool of mentors is also minimal, even at PhD level. “And that’s another factor pushing talent to conduct research elsewhere,” she adds. 

However, she is grateful that at least technology has been able to keep her close to her supervisors and also connect her with other PhD students, with whom she can share her work and discuss ideas and problems.

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