The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has exposed weaknesses of the health systems of most developing countries including African countries. They relied heavily on the generosity of the developed nations to vaccinate their citizens. It is this dependency syndrome that Ms Bathabile Ramalapa aims to address by focusing her research energies on developing drug treatments that are more affordable and customised to meet the specific needs of Africans.
Global health access
Ms Ramalapa is currently a senior researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research where she working hard to turn her lofty pan-African ideal into a concrete reality. In addition, she is also involved in programmes with the Department of Science and Innovation that foster EU-SA collaborative networks and human capital development in science and technology. “The essence of my work is using science and innovation to drive the goal of the World Health Organisation towards global health access. I believe that Africans deserve equal access to healthcare and treatments that meet their specific needs,” says Ms Ramalapa
Born in Atteridgeville, a township west of Pretoria, Ms Ramalapa grew up in a large family with her cousins and siblings cared for by her grandparents while their parents were at work. While growing up she wanted to be a medical doctor. “I didn’t know what a scientist was and that someone like me could even have the opportunity to become one,” she says, adding that “my passion for innovation is what got me attracted to a career in STEM”.
Ms Ramalapa received her undergraduate Bachelors and Masters degrees in Chemistry at the Tshwane University of Technology. During her time as a student, she lived and studied in over five countries in Africa and Europe. “I obtained a PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences from the University of Angers in France and another in Chemical Sciences from the University of Liege in Belgium. The opportunities I was exposed to as a student have been empowering and crucial to my personal and professional development and exceptional networks,” she says.
Ms Ramalapa says she was inspired to pursue her current career by the need to find simple and innovative ways to solve African problems. “I did not like the ‘one size fits all approach’ to solving our problems based on what we saw working for the rest of the world, without looking at what solutions would suit the environment we live in,” says Ms Ramalapa. In addition, she says, she is fortunate to be surrounded by a community of excellent players in science and innovation who inspire her every day to strive for the advancement of Africa through innovation.
Awards and acknowledgement
The number of awards and recognitions she received attest to her broad knowledge and contribution she made in the science community both locally and globally. Some of her career highlights include:
- Visiting Scholar Travel Grant to Nottingham University, UK – Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2010)
- Novartis Research Scientist Fellow – Novartis, Switzerland (2013)
- European Union Dual PhD Grant holder (2014 -2017)
- Member of Organising Committee, Biotechnology – Science Forum South Africa (2019)
- Nominated for 50 Inspiring Women in STEM South Africa (2020)
- Chairperson of SA Vaccine Dialogue – Human Sciences Research Council (2020)
- Member of NRF Grant Review Committee – Materials Sciences and Chemistry (2020-2022)
- Member of MRC Grant Review Committee – Life Sciences and Chemistry (2020/2021)
- Chairperson of CSIR Employment Equity and Skills Development Committee (2021-2025)
Harnessing science and technology
Ms Ramalapa believes innovation is at the core of any country’s development. “Research has proved that young people are more imaginative, that they are less constrained in their patterns of thought. For a developing country such us ours, it is crucial that we harness youth-led innovation,” she says. To leverage science and technology African countries, including South Africa need to introduce our children to science and technology as early as possible. The focus, she says, should not only be in formal education but through non-informal learning in inspiring initiatives, encouraging their experimental nature and participatory approaches as well as peer-learning.
Promoting women participation in STEMi
Reflecting on the promotion of participation of young female scientists in STEMi, Ms Ramalapa says this has been promoted in recent years. However, she says, there is more that we still need to achieve as a country and globally. “It is not enough to simply promote the participation of women; we need to establish environments that develop young women into independent thinkers and leaders in STEM(i). Female scientists need a system that creates equal opportunity for them to lead science policy and dialogues and head innovation ventures, not only play a supportive role,” she says.
Advice and tips
Her advice to future generations of women who want to get into STEMi stream is that opportunities in the science and technology field do not come easily for women. She says one of the most practical tip that has worked for her is to not simply accept whatever is given, there is always more. Says Ms Ramalapa: “Build a community of peers and role models or mentors that will support you and grant you access to networks and opportunities. Learn to pride yourself in what you do so that excellence becomes a joy rather than a responsibility. Innovation is exciting, be happy around it!”