Maths and IT play an essential role in most public health campaigns, and offer the chance for mathematicians to use their skills for social good.
Crispin Sapele is Director of Systems and Operations at CHAMP, a not for profit organisation which was set up to respond to the growing need for corporate HIV/AIDS programmes within Zambia. In December 2003 CHAMP set up a dedicated HIV hotline that offers a 24/7, 365 day counseling and information service. At CHAMP, Sapele’s role has been in planning, analyzing and evaluating the impact of such programmes, using his statistical background. Naturejobs spoke to Sapele about why maths is such a vital part of global health campaigns.
How did you get into global health?
I started off studying mathematics at the University of Zambia almost 20 years ago. I actually originally wanted to do engineering but after the first year I met one of the first mathematics professors here in Zambia and got inspired by him to do maths, so I made the switch. After my degree, which lasted four years, I immediately got a job at the national statistics office (CSO). And with that I got my first taste of managing and running statistical health programmes, such as surveys and censuses.
How did you end up at CHAMP working on HIV prevention programmes?
Two years after I graduated, and whilst I was working at CSO, I got a scholarship from the UK Department for International Development and the British Council to do an MSc in the UK. So I went to Manchester and did a masters in computer science at the University of Salford. This was really useful because it meant that by the time I left my job at the statistics office after over a decade, I had both research experience and an IT background. With that view of both worlds, I don’t want to use the word perfect, but that mix of skills made me kind of right for the role I was given at CHAMP, working as a monitoring and evaluation manager also responsible for ICT.
And what are you working on now?
I am now director of systems and operations, which means I provide oversight for monitoring and evaluation, and research on the programme side. Because inevitably, with programme evaluation you get a handle on how health programmes are run, so I’ve now gravitated into the strategic information profession.
Did you have any idea when you decided to study maths instead of engineering that you would end up working in public health?
No, I had no idea. Earlier on I was very much interested in computer programming but with time I saw my strength was in the combination of IT and health strategy, so I ended up going this way. I think I’m one of the lucky ones, where you study something you end up actually doing, and it also has a direct impact on peoples’ lives.
How much of a need is there for people with mathematical skills in public health programmes?
A good number of my colleagues started off with the same backround as mine and gravitated towards health programmes, but I wish there were more!
Maths is not seen as a very sexy subject here, it’s thought of as just for your nerdy types. When you say you’ve been studying maths for four years people look at you like, “really?”
There is also a feeling that girls are not good at maths, and they are, and also that mathematics is difficult to do. But I think it’s really more of an attitude as opposed to being born bright, so it’s something we need to address.
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.