My transformation from biologist to global citizen-scientist
Apr 20, 2015
Manishha Patel travels to Kenya with winners of a Novartis Malaria Initiative employee fundraising campaign. Photos by Nadine Schecker for Novartis AG
Patel meets with volunteer health workers in Kibera. She also meets a little boy named Abraham.
Kibera is a slum in Nairobi. It's the biggest urban slum in Africa and one of the biggest in the world.
A board outside a clinic in Kibera is used to keep track of treatments and health services.
Patel tours the histopathology lab in the health clinic of a Mumias sugar cane company.
Patel is mesmerized by Anopheles mosquitoes—vectors for malaria—feeding on heated bovine blood.
Children in a Kombewa school learn about malaria.
Patel hands out candy to children at the school in Kombewa.
A child in Kombewa walks toward the local village.
I’m a cancer biologist at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation, and I adore my work. I love trying to figure out kinks in cancer cells that we can manipulate for drug discovery. I love studying and trying to unravel molecular pathways. I love those moments, after many failed theories and inexplicable results, when you say ‘eureka!’ and all the pieces fall into place. And I especially love and feel blessed to work on projects that can have real clinical impact and help patients. Until last month, I thought I would spend my entire career working in research. But I just took a trip to Kenya that changed the way I think about everything. Let me explain.
Last year, Novartis employees were invited to participate in an internal campaign to raise money for malaria. The internal campaign complemented an external “Power of One” fundraising effort by the Novartis Malaria Initiative and the nonprofit Malaria No More. The principle was simple: $1 = 1 life-saving malaria treatment. I decided to get involved because the premise was very clear-cut, and I thought that, through my network, I should be able to generate a lot of support for a global health issue that devastates so many lives.
The response was amazing. I connected with family, friends, colleagues and their contacts through phone calls, emails, social networks and fliers, and I was able to garner over 330 supporters. As one of the winners of the internal campaign, I was invited to fly to Kenya last month to witness first-hand the physical and social devastation caused by the disease.
We visited a sugar production company in one of Kenya’s hardest hit regions, where we met with local sugar cane farmers. The region borders Lake Victoria, a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which carry the malaria parasite. The rainy season is particularly problematic. One farmer explained to us how reliant they are on sugar cane production for their livelihoods. He recounted how the rains are both a gift—because they nurture such an important crop—and a curse—because they foster the rapid growth of mosquito populations that cause malaria outbreaks.
The farmers have all endured malaria-related tragedies. Some of them have even suffered from the disease themselves. While they are ill, the farmers have no choice but to press on and work on their plantations for the sake of their families. During the course of my visit, it became apparent that these people don’t have access to education about malaria. They also lack essential mosquito nets, diagnostic tests and treatments, which could save many lives. Relatively cheap interventions are simply out of reach for so many Kenyans.
I had a similar realization when we met with medical professionals and volunteers in Kibera, a Nairobi slum that was another stop on the trip. We visited a clinic, and I was struck by the lack of equipment and resources. Take the histology lab. The histology lab processes patient samples for a plethora of diseases, including malaria. I expected the lab to be stocked with rapid diagnostic tests because the incidence of malaria is so high in Kenya. Instead, lab technicians use standard histology techniques to analyze blood samples and make a diagnosis, which takes a minimum of 2 days. The work is painstaking because technicians have to examine each sample for parasites, which are often sparse. I was impressed with the patience, dedication and community spirit of employees and volunteers. They’re making a difference in the face of tough odds.
And nowhere was the potential impact of such work more apparent to me than in western Kenya, where we had a chance to visit a school and attend malaria education programs. I had a truly heart-wrenching moment there. I was exploring the classrooms and halls, when I saw a little boy lying on the ground. A teacher and I helped him up, and I felt that his skin was on fire: most certainly a fever. He was escorted home, which was literally just a few feet away. I cannot stop wondering if this was a sign of malaria. I wish I could have done something to help him.
I no longer see myself spending my entire career exclusively in research. I’m determined to blend my love of science with advocacy and outreach to the developing world. I eventually want to be part of a team that brings research and resources where they are needed most. I believe that if we all think as global citizens, our advocacy can lead to extraordinary progress.
Manishha Patel is a postdoctoral researcher at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in La Jolla, California. She is an avid aerial yogi and paddleboarder; loves the sun, sand and salt of the ocean; and enjoys globetrotting, meeting new people and learning about different cultures.
is a postdoctoral researcher at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in La Jolla, California. She is an avid aerial yogi and paddleboarder; loves the sun, sand and salt of the ocean; and enjoys globetrotting, meeting new people and learning about different cultures.