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„You have to struggle to achieve your goals.“

A Life for Science

Prof. Mary Justin-Temu

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Yesterday, 11th February, we celebrated ‚International Day of Women and Girls in Science‚, which draws attention to the fact that far too much research potential is still being lost worldwide because too few highly qualified women work in science. Globally, the proportion of women in research and development work is less than 30 percent.
One woman who has come a long way as a scientist in Tanzania is Professor Mary Justin-Temu. The 71-year-old researches and lectures at the School of Pharmacy at Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences in Dar es Salam.
She also leads „Tri-Sustain“ on behalf of Tanzania – a joint research project by Tanzania, Botswana and Ethiopia, in cooperation with the Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg. The aim is to find new, active substances in medicinal plants against widespread diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV or worm infections.
On the occasion of „International Day of Women and Girls in Science“, the scientist gave us an interview about her work, her academic career, her research and what is important for girls and young women in the East African country.

Professorin Mary Justin-Temu

Prof. Mary Justin-Temu

Prof. Justin-Temu, what did you dream of becoming when you were a child?

As a child, I constantly told my friends that I wanted to study medicine so that I could treat other people. Luckily, I got the opportunity. When I graduated from school, thanks to my good grades, I was selected to study pharmacy at Muhimbili Medical Training School. I was put into exactly the right profession, because I believe that my success and my good achievements in my studies are down to my deep interest in medical topics.

How did you become a scientist?

It wasn’t an easy path for me and there were always setbacks. After graduating in 1973 with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences, I worked as a pharmaceutical assistant in the Lushoto District Hospital in the Tanga region.
In 1975 I applied to do pharmacy and was fortunately selected to join the Faculty of the Medical University of Dar es Salaam. The bachelor’s degree in the field had only just been introduced by the Ministry of Health in 1974, so I was the second year to complete it. After three years, in 1978 I had my degree in my pocket and then I did a one-year compulsory internship at Muhimbili Medical Centre before I could officially work as a pharmacist.
During this time, due to my outstanding performance as a tutorial assistant, I was selected for the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Dar es Salaam. Due to personal circumstances, I was unfortunately unable to take up the post at that time and I was transferred to the regional hospital in Bombo after my internship as the pharmacist-in-charge.
After I had performed well during my studies, the external examiner for pharmacy offered me a place at his university to do my master’s in pharmaceutical sciences. But here too personal problems prevented me from accepting the offer.
In 1980 I received a second chance and received a scholarship for a two-year Master’s degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences in Belgium. This time I wanted to make it. Thanks to my achievements, I actually got the opportunity to do my doctorate in 1982 and so I did not return to my homeland until 1986 with the doctorate in my pocket.
In 1987 I took a position as a lecturer in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences of the Medical Faculty of the University of Dar es Salaam and until 2006 headed the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Microbiology. After I was lucky enough to receive a postdoctoral fellowship in Leuven, Belgium, in 2001, I was promoted to Associate Professor in 2003 and then to Professor in 2011.

An impressive career. How difficult was it for you, especially as a woman, to assert yourself in this area?

I worked hard for what I am today. That is why I would like to encourage all girls at this point: be strong, struggle and fight for what you want to be in the future. No one will come and just give it to you without your own effort.

In what areas have you undertaken research?

I was lucky enough to have had several research studies supported financially.
The U.S. nonprofit Family Health International funded a study that focused on raising awareness about sexually transmitted diseases for pharmacists.
Another project investigated the micro-bacterial contamination of herbal medicines sold by traditional healers in Dar es Salaam. On behalf of the World Health Organization, I researched the accessibility of antimalarial drugs in Tanzania and, as project manager, supervised a study that looked at the price, availability and affordability of medicines. In August 2017, I conducted research on type 2 diabetes drugs to examine prices, availability, and affordability in our eight zones in Tanzania.
From all this research I have published more than fifty manuscripts.

Tri-Sustain Project

Prof. Mary Justin-Temu (front left) with the president of Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (center) and the project leader Prof.Dr.Peter Imming from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (right). © trisustain.uni-halle.de

What is the „Tri-Sustain“ research project?

Tri-Sustain“ is a project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the German Academic Exchange Service. It brings together the research of colleagues from Germany, Ethiopia, Botswana and Tanzania.
We are looking for new active ingredients in plants used by traditional healers in Africa. In the laboratory we then try to make and analyze extracts of these substances. The aim is to examine the medicinal plants from Africa that are used for medical purposes and to establish scientifically which ingredients are responsible for the effect of the respective medicinal plants. At the same time, we want to identify possible new excipients that can increase the effectiveness of drugs.
To do this, we work with the traditional healers on site. Medical treatment is unaffordable for many Tanzanians, the way to a health center is very far, so the rural population in particular relies on the healers. At first they were a little skeptical about sharing their knowledge with us, but we now have a very good cooperation with them.
The results of our research are of interest to them as healers must register their plants and active ingredients in Tanzania before they are allowed to use them. That’s why it helps them to know what plants are suitable for the treatment of which disease and which ones they should continue to grow in the future.
This is another focus of our work – we want to preserve natural resources. More and more of the traditional medicinal plants do not grow as they did years ago. On the one hand, this is due to ever longer drought periods, on the other hand, some plants are picked too often and cannot grow back so quickly. The healers have to travel more and further away to get to their plants.

Labor der Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences

Prof. Mary Justin-Temu (wearing yellow) in a laboratory of the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences © trisustain.uni-halle.de

What has been the greatest success of this project so far?

We employ two doctoral students in the project. One of them tests the anti-HIV activity of plant extracts from selected Tanzanian medicinal plants. In doing so, we identified a plant, used by healers to treat patients with HIV, which actually prevents the virus from multiplying under laboratory conditions. And we were even able to determine which molecule is responsible for this.

And what do you do besides research?

In addition, I run a pharmacy. This allows me to come into contact with patients who are referred by doctors or those who approach me directly. I discuss the state of their health with them, treat them myself or refer them on to a hospital for comprehensive treatment. For me, this is exactly the right balance against the tensions in the job, frustration with students, the burden of administrative tasks and disappointing research results. Here at the pharmacy I can really recover.

How would you assess the educational situation in Tanzania?

Personally, I think the educational situation in Tanzania is very good. It prepares graduates well for the labor market. The curricula are regularly reviewed after a certain period of time in order to meet the current needs of the population.
As a girl in Tanzania, however, you have to work particularly hard from first grade to university. This is particularly true with regard to science. It is precisely in these areas that there are too few role models for girls and women in our country and the percentage of girls studying mathematics, medicine or chemistry is still very low.

What does science mean to you?

For me, any organized research aimed at certain and, above all, useful results is science. We scientists are curious to quench our thirst for knowledge in every study, to discover something that satisfies us, and over time you develop a real passion for the subject. A research result can be used to effect a particular policy change, for example, in the health system of a country.

Do you have a life motto?

Yes, absolutely. Because if there’s one thing my life has taught me, it’s that you have to work extremely hard and struggle to achieve what you want.
We would like to thank Professor Mary Justin-Temu for the interview and Professor Dr. Peter Imming from the Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, who supported us very much in our research.
Tanzania needs a lot more women like Mary Justin-Temu! That is why Jambo Bukoba is committed to the equality and education of girls.
If you would like to support our goals, we are happy to receive a donation with which we can further strengthen girls in Tanzania or support us on a voluntary basis with your skills!
Written By: Steffi Eisenlauer
Sources:
Interview with Prof. Mary Justin-Temu
“Die Apotheken der Dörfer”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 28.11.2019
https://trisustain.uni-halle.de/
http://www.globalcrconline.org/userfiles/Modules/Archive/Documents/Tanzania%20Batch%2011%20-%20Final%20Project%20Report.pdf
https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/egm/gst_2010/Masanja-EP.8-EGM-ST.pdf
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