Born in Zimbabwe, Hannah Simba finished her high school studies before completing a BSc in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Kwa-Zulu in South Africa. She then took a degree in chemical pathology and a Master’s in environmental health.
She is currently studying the role of genetic and environmental factors in the development of oesophageal cancer for her PhD at Stellenbosch University (South Africa). It is one of the most aggressive cancers in the world, and also one of the least studied in Africa, whose countries are among the most affected by the disease, along with China.
A passion for research
Simba’s interest in medical research was sparked from an early age by her natural inquisitiveness. She says that she was always an observant person, “interested in how things work, and how nature works, how the body functions”.
She remembers that she was encouraged to discover the world around her for herself. “Research is basically asking a question and getting an answer,” she explains. “That’s why I enjoy it so much today, because it answers a lot of the important questions that we have.”
When it comes to role models, Simba immediately cites the influence of her mother, among the many women in her life that have inspired her.
“She encouraged me to ask questions, and I think that definitely played an important role,” she says. “I think that’s also one of the issues that affect young girls, not having the support that you need, not only from your teachers, but the community around you. So I think that my mother definitely played a part in shaping my chosen field.”
That field has been to join the pan-African quest to understand what Simba describes as “a very strange and peculiar distribution worldwide” of oesophageal cancer.
Oesophageal cancer is a cancer that afflicts the digestive passage between mouth and stomach – the oesophagus is otherwise known as the ‘food pipe’ or gullet.
“In Africa, it’s more prevalent in what’s called the ‘oesophageal cancer corridor’ that runs from Ethiopia down to Kenya, on the eastern side of Africa, down to southern Africa – Malawi, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
“Right now Malawi is actually number one in the incidence rate worldwide. We have still not really figured out why it’s more prevalent in that region.”
Researchers like Simba are trying to define the root causes of this particular cancer and how it might be prevented or treated. There is speculation that a mostly maize-based and micronutrient-deficient diet may be a factor.
“We need locally led research,” Simba says, “and that is what my research is trying to focus on, to identify the risk factors. So I’m looking at any genetic and environmental risk factors that are associated with oesophageal cancer.
“And I’m also looking at gene- environment interactions to see if they there are environmental factors that trigger a genetic risk. What that will give us is some risk factors that we can pass on to policy-makers or other stakeholders to say: ‘This is the risk factor, can we do something about it to ease the burden of disease in this population?’
“I think science plays an important role in Africa, and we need government to fund scientific research. We still lag behind in terms of scientific advancements and innovations. And we have a lot of potential and a lot of talent. We still need a lot more funding in Africa to drive that.”
Looking to the future and how best to encourage more girls to go into science, she pays homage to those women that have come before and urges girls to take inspiration from them.
“A lot of women that have come before you have done amazing work. So as the cliché goes, ‘You’re literally standing on the shoulders of giants’. And you just have to be to work hard and be brave – and, don’t doubt yourself. You can do it. There’s nothing that you can’t do!”
The Covid-19 challenge
Simba’s attitude towards the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak is stark, and mirrors that of many other minority groups across the world.
“It’s evident,” she says, “that in South Africa those groups already suffering from discrimination are being increasingly exposed to the epidemic.
“As a researcher, I realise that socio-economic status really affects not just Covid-19, but a lot of other diseases. People are at risk of a lot of other diseases because they live in close proximity to each other, and have a limited access to health care.”