Botswana: Maseng – Womanist, Scientist


Gaborone — Out there somewhere, scientists are working with a virus called monky to see if it can be used to eradicate tuberculosis.

Monky happens to be the pet name for one Ms Monkgomotsi Maseng, a medical laboratory scientist working with the School of Allied Health Professions, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Botswana (UB).

A part-time Master of Physiology (MPhil) in Medical Sciences student with UB, Ms Maseng has the honour of having a virus named after her because she isolated the mycobactriophage while on a training course at the African Health Research Institute, formerly University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa in 2016. The virus is capable of infecting and killing the TB bacteria mycobacterium tuberculosis.

Monky the virus was isolated from a group of viruses known to exist in soil.

Although she used a soil sample from Durban, Ms Maseng says the experiment can be taken further in Botswana, which has a high TB prevalence rate.

The problem with Botswana is that despite the country having abundant human resources to do research, funding is scarce to non-existent, she says, explaining that local researchers are forced to rely on external sources.

Ms Maseng, 43, cites the approximately P40 000 (US$4 000) research funding she received early March from the Sub-Saharan African Network for TB/HIV Excellence (SANTHE) for a project entitled “Raising awareness in gender equity in science in Botswana.”

The Gender Equity Diversity and Inclusion award is for implementing two objectives that she had put forward, one of them a sister-sister mentorship programme for aspiring female scientists.

“The idea is to raise awareness about science, make it fun for girls and role modelling through telling our own stories and to form advocacy groups to continue the work in our absence.”

With the help of tertiary level female science students, secondary school girls wishing to pursue science will be mentored up to the time they apply for admission to tertiary institutions.

Communication with two local schools had started at the time of going to press while a survey is underway to determine what is on the ground and inform the way forward.

Ms Maseng says the mentorship concept was born out of the need to counter the stereotype that science and mathematics are boys’ subjects. Having grown up under that stereotype and nearly falling victim to it, she wants to show Batswana that women too can excel in such subjects.

The belief that science, maths and technology are the boy’s domain was so ingrained in her that despite being selected to do pure sciences, doing well to the extent of topping her Form Five chemistry class and the encouragement of an elder brother, she baulked at pursuing science. Having applied to both University of Botswana for accounting and Institute of Health Sciences (IHS) and being accepted by the two institutions, it was only at the last minute that she opted for the latter.

“From then on I focused on science and have never looked back. I love experimenting, finding out why things work the way they do,” she says.

The choice of IHS started her off on a journey which saw her graduating with a Diploma in Medical Laboratory Technology in 2000 and a Bachelor of Applied Science in laboratory science obtained from RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia in 2009 with majors in medical microbiology, medical genetics and diagnostics as well as clinical immunology and transplantation. “Because of my work experience, I completed it in record time. They took off two years.”

In 2017 she was awarded a SANTHE scholarship to pursue her MPhil. Her first MPhil manuscript has recently been accepted for publishing while the second was ready for submission by end of last month. She expects to submit her thesis in June.

Ms Maseng, who was among scientists involved in the optimisation and validation of COVID-19 scientific protocols when the pandemic hit the country last year, cut her working teeth in 2000 at Kanye’s Seventh Day Adventist Hospital as a medical laboratory technician where she left two years later for Diagnofirm Medical Laboratories in the same capacity.

She made another move in 2005 this time joining academia as assistant lecturer at Molepolole Institute of Health Sciences upgraded to full microbiology lecturer five years later. In 2014 she joined the University of Botswana as a laboratory scientist. Her job entails working in the lab with medical laboratory students, teaching and demonstrating lab practices in the areas of bacteriology, parasitology and molecular biology.

As a research scientist and MPhil student, her focus is on human genetics and HIV drug resistance. Her research looks at patients’ response to antiretrovirals in the hope of developing personalised medicine diagnostics to reduce side effects and have more effective treatment.

After the realisation that drugs used in HIV treatment were in some cases no longer effective, she undertook to establish the reason for drug resistance based on a person’s genetic makeup. It has been determined that genetic makeup, DNA, has a bearing on the way a person responds to drugs.

Before enrolling a patient on treatment, his/her genetic makeup should be looked into to determine whether the drug will work, the likely side effects and even dosage in order to reduce costs and promote safety. “It shouldn’t be a standard treatment,” she says.

Recommendations to that effect have been made to Ministry of Health and Wellness because in the case of HIV, drug resistance proved to be so high that in 2016 Botswana had to switch to a new and more expensive drug called Dolutegravir. However, some patients are still enrolled on the initial HIV treatment of Efavirenz and Nevirapine.

The hope is that the concept of prescribing medication according to one’s DNA will be extended to other chronic illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Part of Ms Maseng’s research funding will be used for establishing a database of all female scientists in Botswana for purposes of networking and supporting each other in the hope of finding solutions to problems plaguing local scientists.

She says the country has a lot of scientists but the impact is not felt in society and a lot of research has been done but results are gathering dust due to lack of funding.

Another problem Ms Maseng sees is the undertaking of research for one’s personal advancement instead of for society’s benefit.

“In order to progress to the next level, you are required to have published a given number of papers. That was a big mistake which we are only now trying to correct,” she says.

She points out that Botswana is endowed with natural resources that scientists should be researching on for the benefit of Batswana.

“We have some natural resources that can be developed into organic cosmetic products suitable for our skin type instead of using those made for Europeans. With funding and facilities we can do a lot. It’s high time government looked into seriously funding research. Local companies should also come on board,” says Ms Maseng, lamenting that foreigners take local raw materials and put them to good use.

She sees the need for a scientist organisation that would lobby for funding, go back to all research findings and implement.

Even though she has not experienced any gender discrimination in her current setting, Ms Maseng, who is part of the SANTHE Africa PowerPack fighting for gender equity in sciences funded by Africa Academy of Sciences, stresses that one size fits all treatment is disadvantageous to women.