#WomenofSU: COVID-19 and its impact on women

Hannah Simba, a PhD candidate in Public Health at Stellenbosch University (SU).

For Hannah Simba, a PhD candidate in Public Health at Stellenbosch University (SU), the promotion and inclusion of women scientists is critical in cultivating overall scientific excellence.

This recipient of the L'Oreal Sub-Saharan Africa Women in Science PhD fellowship is based in SU's African Cancer Institute and has spent the past decade playing a key role in supporting and mentoring girls and young women in science.

As part of commemorating South Africa's Women's Month, she tells us more about her research and the various initiatives she has driven and supports.

You recently completed research on COVID-19 and its impact on women. Tell us more about this work?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I embarked on a project to investigate the impact of COVID-19 on women's health, and to identify public health responses and strategies needed to make women less vulnerable. I published this work together with my friend and colleague Silindile Ngcobo. In the manuscript, which was published by Frontiers, we explored the gendered nature of pandemics and concluded that women and women's perspectives are critical in making decisions about pandemic responses. Additionally, we proposed that gender-informed responses and strategies to address the persistent gender inequalities during outbreaks must be the norm. However, this requires women to be part of the conversation and, in my opinion, highlights one of the many reasons we need more women in science.

You received the L'Oreal Sub-Saharan Africa Women in Science PhD fellowship. Tell us more about your doctoral research, and how you became interested in your study topic?

My study is on the genetic and environmental factors associated with oesophageal cancer in the South African population. It is the sixth most common cause of cancer mortality and the seventh most common cancer worldwide. Oesophageal cancer is one of the most aggressive cancers in the world, with high mortality rates, particularly in developing countries. Prevalence in sub-Saharan Africa is particularly high, and its aetiology is not yet fully understood. In South Africa, it is especially prevalent in the Eastern Cape.

My study aims to assess and characterise the role of genetic and environmental factors associated with the development of oesophageal cancer, and to investigate the underlying molecular pathobiology using gene expression analysis.

I became interested in this topic because of the lack of studies on oesophageal cancer in Africa, despite it constituting a major health burden in hotspot areas. The knowledge generated from my study will help us understand the genetic and environmental basis of oesophageal cancer in Africa, and will ultimately play a role in our efforts to modulate the risk of, and susceptibility to, its development and progression, not only in South Africa, but across the continent.

You are involved in various initiatives to support women in science. Tell us more about these initiatives, and why it is so important to encourage young girls and women to become scientists?

I have organised community activities to educate young girls with regard to reproductive health, among other health issues, and to provide them with sanitary pads. I was a chapter leader for the Working to Advance African Women (WAAW) Foundation, and currently serve as their ambassador in South Africa. WAAW offers outreach and mentoring programmes for high-school girls in science, as well as coding bootcamps for young women, and I have led and been involved in these.

I am also a volunteer for the Pan-African Organisation for Health Education and Research (POHER), which mentors medical students and raises health awareness in African communities. And I am taking part in an ongoing project to explore the role of mentorship in supporting and retaining women in academia. An abstract of this work was presented at the Women Leaders in Global Health conference in Rwanda in 2019.

It is very important to support young girls and women to become scientists. Their promotion and inclusion is critical in cultivating overall scientific excellence. The fact that African women continue to be underrepresented in research is a disservice not only to the scientific community, but to humanity as a whole.

The pandemic has changed the way we work and live. What keeps you motivated during these times?

I stay motivated by planning and being realistic about the daily, weekly and monthly goals that I can achieve. Importantly, I also set aside time for self-care, and I prioritise my mental health. This is a difficult time to be productive, but it does help to set realistic goals and take time to look after yourself and do the things you love. Overall, knowing that the work I do serves a bigger purpose keeps me going.

What would your message be for the next generation of women researchers?

Don't underestimate yourself, aim high, work hard and be brave.

Corporate Communication and Marketing Division