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Faith and hope: leading malaria research in Africa

Faith Osier

Faith Osier (Image copyright: Duncan Willetts Photography)

It was announced yesterday that Dr Faith Osier, a Kenya-based recipient of an MRC/DFID African Research Leader award and a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Fellowship in Public Health and Tropical Medicine, has won the 2014 Royal Society Pfizer Prize. The prize recognises African scientists making an innovative contribution to biological sciences. We asked her to reflect on what this international recognition means.

Any milestone in your career ― like winning this prize, or the fellowship I received last year from the MRC and the Department for International Development ― makes you stand back and take stock.

For me it’s a cause for celebration and appreciation. It makes me appreciate the community that transformed a little girl growing up in Kenya into an international award-winning scientist. From my parents and grandparents, who had the foresight to send all their girls, as well as boys, to school; to all my teachers, educators and mentors; and the wider community that shaped me ― here’s a toast to you!

This award helps to put African science and scientists firmly on the map. We can bring positive and meaningful change to our communities through effective research, innovation and leadership. I also hope that by winning this prize, I inspire women in science all over the world, and more so in Africa. We have unique skills to bring to the scientific table: do not hold back because you are a woman.

I lead a research team that works on malaria, a disease that claims the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Africa every year. The good news is that humans can develop immunity to even the severe forms of malaria that lead to death and disability. Our research aims to understand the process of developing immunity, and contribute towards vaccines that will make malaria history.

The parasite responsible for malaria is complex, made up of many parts to which our immune systems can respond. The challenge for vaccine development is identifying which of these our bodies must recognise to fight it effectively. With the Royal Society Pfizer award, we will focus on understanding what a successful immune response against three particular parasite proteins looks like.

We know from previous research that antibodies are important in controlling malaria. We want to measure how much antibody against each of these proteins is generated in an individual that is able to control a malaria infection. We also want to test whether antibodies against these different proteins work together.

In separate work funded by the MRC/DFID African research leader award, we are pursuing a different line of investigation. Our previous studies in Kilifi, Kenya, showed that children whose immune systems respond to many parasite proteins, compared with a few, were less likely to develop malaria.

We were really excited to find that the ability to respond to a large number of proteins appeared to contribute towards immunity. This is good news for the malaria vaccine development community because previous efforts have concentrated on just a handful of proteins. Our studies aim to see whether these findings will hold true in other communities in East and West Africa.

My parents named me Faith and Hope, a long time source of amusement to my friends and colleagues. Keep the Faith ― there is real Hope that we will make malaria history in our lifetime.

Faith Hope Among’in Osier

Applications for the next round of the MRC/DFID African Research Leader scheme open on 18 September 2014. 

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