Hanna Simba must have surprised many people when she decided to study oesophageal cancer. This is because not only is it one of the “understudied field in the African population” but also a very deadly disease. According to Simba “this means its epidemiology, as well as the genetic and environmental basis of the disease is not well understood”.
But statistics indicate that oesophageal cancer is a lethal illness and it is rated the seventh most common cause of death particularly among men. Simba is currently working on her PhD with the African Cancer Institute at Stellenbosch University to study the disease further.
And being adjudged as one of the recipients of the L’Oreal Sub-Saharan Africa Women in Science PhD Fellowship could not have come at the right time for her. Simba said she is extremely honoured and excited to receive the award adding, “It feels great to be recognised. Supporting women in science is very important,” said the Zimbabwean born scientist.
Her study titled “The role of genetic and environmental factors in the aetiology of oesophageal cancer”, was one of 11 recipients in 2020 of the Margaret McNamara Education grant valued at $7000 (about R120 000).
Simba said the money from the grant would be used to pay for her tuition, living expenses and for capacity-building workshops and courses. “I also plan to use the money to travel for conference presentations, when that becomes possible.”
She said the award will greatly assist her to study the disease in more detail as well as “shed more light on the aetiology of oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC)”. Simba added that the illness is not fully understood and that she will help to increase knowledge on the roles played by both environmental exposure and genetic factors in the development of the disease.
Simba, who has always been interested in science, said for the past nine years she has been closely involved in mentoring young school girls; tutoring as well as organising camps and workshops for them.
Simba is the Chapter Leader of Working to Advance STEM education for African Girls (WAAW). This is an organisation which works to advance education for African girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Expanding on the importance of supporting women in science, Simba said women form a significant part of the population, and need to be represented in all positions of leadership and in science.
“Science plays an important role especially in research with regards to improving health, and women must be well represented to make those decisions regarding health. At present, women form a small proportion – 31% – of researchers in sub-Saharan African, so it is very important to recognise and support women in the field of research,” said Simba.
She said she hoped that, as a result of her success, other young women would be inspired to be at the forefront of research to improve health in Africa.
For now, her mind is focused on finishing her PhD studies, saying “I have learnt a lot, and am now hoping for a good post-doctoral position. She said once she has completed her thesis she will take things easy and intends hiking up Table Mountain.