The impact of youth on global issues had never been more notable than since the Covid epidemic. And rightly so, their innovative thinking and novel ways of changing the status quo is exactly what the world needs now.
Women in Science Africa has joined hands with millions of those across the continent who celebrate our youth, highlighting their work, especially within the STEM community and providing a showcase for how their particular endeavours, not only uplifting communities, but also paving the way forward for young women across Africa to follow in their footsteps.
Zimbabwean-born Hannah Simba’s academic journey, underscored by an inquisitive mind, has driven monumental advances in biomedical science, especially focussing on finding answers to African health issues, simultaneously benefitting the biomedical field across the globe.
This young female STEM scientist started her academic game plan by completing a BSc in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Kwa-Zulu in South Africa (SA), before earning a degree in chemical pathology and a Master’s in environmental health. Currently, Hanna is studying the role of genetic and environmental factors in the development of oesophageal cancer (ESCC) for her PhD at Stellenbosch University in SA.
High Incidence of ESCC in Africa
Oesophageal cancer (ESCC), one of the most aggressive cancers across the Africa, with the continent showing the highest incidence of this disease, it is still one of the least studied on the continent. It is especially prevalent in the medically known “the oesophageal cancer corridor” from Ethiopia down to Kenya, eastern Africa, down to southern Africa – Malawi, Zimbabwe and SA. Malawi has now overtaken China, the other country rife with the disease, as having the highest rate of ESCC.
What is ESCC?
Advanced oesophageal cancer means a cancer which originated in the food pipe (gullet or oesophagus) and had spread to another part of the body and is terminal. Unfortunately, just as other advanced cancers, ESCC cannot be cured. Treatment however, might control it and improve quality of life for some time.
Statistics from the National Institute of Health (NIH), National Library of Medicine and National Centre for Biomedical Information in the United States show that in Malawi, ESCC is the second most common cancer nationwide behind cervical carcinoma There were 1756 new cases and 1657 deaths in 2020, with an estimated 5-year prevalence of 2.45/100,000 population.
An Inquisitive Mind as Driving Force
Simba’s career trajectory started at an early age with an avid interest in the world around her and how it functions.
Research is basically asking a question and getting an answer – Hanna Simba
Hanna stresses that the many role models she had in her life, such as her mother, inspired her and agrees with other young girls that proper support from teachers, family and immediate community, is still severely lacking within STEM research on the African continent.
Joining the pan-African pursuit to understand this distinctive anomaly, researchers such as Simba are working towards finding the root causes of this particular cancer and how to treat and even prevent it. Theories abound that a mostly maize-based and micronutrient-deficient diet may play a role. This could explain why the staple diet of rice in China leads to the increasing risk of ESCC.
Simba underscores the scientific belief that African-specific research is needed for the continental health problem and is focussing on genetic and environmental risk factors associated with ESCC. Until recently, this research was mostly based on international populations and statistics.
“We need locally-led research and I am focussing on gene-environment interactions to see if there are environmental factors triggering a genetic risk. Finding specific risk factors will allow us to positively interact with policy-makers or other stakeholders, but we need scientific proof,” Simba says.
She acknowledges that Africa is lagging behind in scientific advancements and innovations. While there exists a vast talent pool on the continent, government support and more international funding is needed to drive scientific research.
If Hanna Simba is an example of the calibre of African female scientists with her vision and ingenuity, the continent could soon spearhead global STEM research.
Her advice to those girls who want to join this female movement? “Be brave, work hard and look to those who came before you, there are female giants in STEM.”