Q&A: ‘I took my baby on field research trips’
- Elephantiasis causes significant swelling to parts of the body, but particularly the legs and genitals
- I didn’t have my first child until 38, and that in an African setting is very old
- Mentorship is not just a science thing. Generally, in life, you need somebody to guide you.
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Jackie Badaki is one of only a few women in Nigeria who researches the disease commonly known as elephantiasis. A condition with stigma and social taboos attached to it, elephantiasis causes significant swelling to parts of the body, but particularly the legs and genitals.
A parasitologist and a professor at Nigeria’s Federal University of Lokoja, Badaki originally wanted to study geology — until her father dissuaded her from following him into a field that he said was too difficult for women.
After switching tracks to zoology, Badaki tellsSciDev.Netshe never shied away from a challenge, and she went on to become the first in her family to have an academic career, and the first person from her community to achieve a doctorate.
You research diseases of poverty and neglected tropical diseases. What is meant by the term ‘diseases of poverty’, and why have you chosen to research them?
贫困疾病传染性diseases caused by parasites, bacteria or viruses. They’re called diseases of poverty because they are closely linked to poverty, or impoverished conditions — poor housing, nutrition and sanitation, unsafe water, or even inadequate education. And they are mainly found in developing or underdeveloped countries. I live in an area that is underdeveloped. So, these are the diseases that plague us, and that is why I focus on them. These are diseases that can be prevented, but because of the conditions where we live, they are huge problems here.
Which diseases in particular have you focused on during your career?
My focus for the past ten years has been lymphatic filariasis — maybe you’ve seen people, or pictures of people, with big legs. It’s commonly called elephantiasis. The reason I focus on lymphatic filariasis is because it’s a disease that has a lot of stigma attached to it. There’s a lot more to it [than just the physical appearance of the disease]. There are a lot of taboos, a lot of spiritual interpretations of the disease. And this is why if people have elephantiasis, the first place they go to will not be a hospital, they will seek spiritual help. And this delays them seeking appropriate treatment.
It’s a reason for high divorce rates. If a man has hydrocele — enlargement of the scrotum — the woman is expected to stay with him, take care of him. But if the woman has elephantiasis she’s divorced. He picks a new wife, because elephantiasis is seen as, you must have broken some taboo. Maybe you were unfaithful to your spouse, sometimes it’s linked to witchcraft. So, patients of elephantiasis are often isolated.
Do you think that having more women researching this field would improve outcomes for women with elephantiasis?
It will, because in very conservative societies, women will not feel comfortable to have a man examine their legs or breasts. Unfortunately, we have very few women in lymphatic filariasis. When it comes to management of swollen legs and other parts of the body, I think for now I’m about the only woman involved in this in the country. I’ve been mentoring a few females who have indicated interest [in researching elephantiasis], so they can take over from me some day.
You and some colleagues lobbied the Nigerian University Commission to endorse structured early career female scientist mentorship schemes for academic and research institutions across the country. Did the commission agree to your proposal?
At first, no. They didn’t seem to understand the importance of mentorship. But, fortunately, recently, I think they’ve come to realise why mentorship is important. The way I see mentorship, it’s not just a science thing. Generally, in life, you need somebody to guide you, somebody who has made mistakes and will not want you to make those mistakes. But the [universities] themselves have to institutionalise mentorship, this has not been done and it’s difficult. But I think we’ll get there, it requires high-level lobbying and advocacy. And for women to stay in science and research, the government should make research grants available that are focused on women.
After you had begun your doctorate studies, you became pregnant. How did you feel about beginning a family at that point in your career? Was it difficult to balance your passion for your research with your desire to have a family?
It was very difficult. I didn’t have my first child until 38, and that in an African setting is very old. Because of my career, I had to delay a lot of things. And even at that point when I decided to have a child, it was very difficult because I had to go somewhere in the south-eastern part of the country for ten days, I was monitoring a project for the World Health Organization. My boy was just six months old and I had to go to the field with him. But again, like I tell my mentees, you have to be focused and have a goal. I could have said, ‘I’m not doing this, I have a baby to nurse’. But I just told myself, ‘okay, baby and I are going to the field’.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.