Jennifer Stevenson is a research associate at the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and resident entomologist at the Macha Research Trust in Zambia, where she is working on new techniques for malaria control. Stevenson studied biological sciences at the University of Oxford, and did both an MSc and PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine investigating ways to control mosquitoes. After spending 5 years working in Kenya on malaria research, she moved to Macha, Zambia in March this year. Macha is a small rural community area in the Southern Province of Zambia, which is made up mainly of traditional villagers who live in homesteads scattered over the savannah. Stevenson has spent 12 years working in public health, and has spent much of that time working in remote locations in Uganda, Venezuela, Kenya, and now Zambia. Naturejobs caught up with her in Macha to find out more about her work and career.
When did you decide that global health was what you wanted to do?
When I started research on mosquitoes I was very interested in the biology and the behaviour of mosquitoes but really with the aim of eventually doing that somewhere where it actually means something. When I started my job in Kenya I became more involved in the global health side and that really grabbed my attention. I really enjoyed the epidemiology – how to roll out surveys and plan operational research. Here in Macha, it’s going to be more on the entomological side, with some field-work. Going back further, my father was a researcher in topical medicine in Kenya so I got to tag along with him and see the work he was doing, and right from an early age I was fascinated by that.
What is it about global health that really appealed to you?
There’s a lot of challenges and I like a challenge! You also learn something new almost every day, you get to work with some fantastic people, fantastic communities, some great academics in the field. And being able to work in Africa, you really get to see what the challenges are and get a feel for what can work: it really focuses your mind on driving towards something that could really help.
There are setbacks and there are a lot of times when it can be quite difficult though. But at the end of the day when you can see a change it’s really worthwhile. In the project I was working on in Kenya, we were doing a randomised controlled trial where we were proving bed-nets, spraying houses, testing and treating people for malaria. We had a great community involvement there and we were able to help some of the families. There were some very sick children we were able to help, which was very fulfilling.
Do you ever worry that when you leave the field your efforts will be undone?
That is always a challenge because with these research projects you come in with a set amount of money over a set timeline. What we try to do is to train people up and be able to find positions for them afterwards. For instance in Kenya, it was great seeing people [we trained] who had just left school getting into the position where they were applying for permanent roles at, say, the Kenya Medical Research Institute, and really seeing them thrive. So part of this work is capacity building as well, and obviously that’s very rewarding.
How do you feel about spending such long periods away from home?
I normally try when I’m out in these places to think: home is here. I come from a family who moved around the world anyway so actually defining where home is is difficult. Although I’m british I was brought up in Kenya and we also spent some time in Indonesia. It was only when I was 16 or 17 that I moved back to the UK.
Entomology is one part of these projects. What other kinds of roles are there in global health?
There’s a great range. There are people who have done pure science – biochemistry or molecular biology – who then move into public health. A colleague of mine went down that route and is now doing a masters in public health with a view to get into policy. There are people who are mathematical modellers and get into epidemiology. So I don’t think there’s a set route, it’s a real mix.
Any advice you’d give to someone thinking of a career in global health?
I think the key thing is to get experience. I had an upbringing that gave me a lot of exposure anyway. A lot of people won’t have that chance, but getting to volunteer on projects and getting that experience is really key. Go out and work in areas that you might be interested in, like Africa. I think it’s also important to speak to people in the kinds of fields you might be interested in. In terms of leading up to my degree I think one regret I always had is not doing maths at A-Level. Whatever you get into in the science world in public health, maths is key.
Naturejobs is in Zambia with the International Reporting Project, speaking to people working in global health, in particular those studying malaria, HIV/AIDS and TB.