Tolullah Oni: promoting science and research to develop Africa

11 May 2016 | Story Chido Mbambe. Photo Michael Hammond.
Tolu Oni speaks about stereotypes around African science and how science can be used as a tool to advance African societies.
Tolu Oni speaks about stereotypes around African science and how science can be used as a tool to advance African societies.

Tolullah (Tolu) Oni's passion for public health stem from a desire to study medicine from an early age.

Nigerian by birth, Oni spent her final schooling years in the UK before training in medicine at University College London. This sparked her interest in globally significant diseases and the factors that influence health policy and outcomes. She realised that many health conditions are rooted in social determinants, which inspired her to switch from a clinical career to an academic career in public health and epidemiology. Her significant contribution to raising the profile of public health was recently recognised in a profile in the prestigious Lancet journal.

After graduating, she worked as a medical doctor in the UK and Australia, starting with HIV work in London. “I wanted to research and understand what the drivers of the disease are … and their impact on health,” explains Oni.

Oni came to UCT in 2007 where she spent seven years in a research post at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine.

“This provided me with an opportunity to study TB diagnostics and work with HIV patients,” she says. She completed her PhD in 2012 at the Imperial College London and later completed her public health medical speciality training as a fellow of the College of Public Health Medicine in 2015.

Her research explores the link between chronic infectious and chronic non-infectious diseases, and the impact of the socio-economic and physical environment on the health profile of people living in urban, often informal, settlements.

“Seeing patients come and go, I realised they're not just TB and HIV patients; they also have obesity, diabetes or hypertension issues and often we just ignored those issues and treated them for what they were there for,” says Oni. “Our health system is set up in a way that you're only allowed to have one condition.”

Her work in South Africa was the first time she got a chance to understand populations and their health, which helped her discover that other factors also influence health. This made her want to understand what these influences mean at a local, national and global level.

“I got to learn how non-health forces play a role in health,” says Oni. “What are we doing just treating people when we can actually take a step back and prevent them from getting sick?”

“I haven't chosen the easiest road, but it is a much more interesting one. If we can't embrace complexity, we can't pretend to impact at a wide enough scale.”

Oni took up her current position at the School of Public Health and Family Medicine in 2014 and is responsible for part of the medical school's undergraduate teaching curriculum. She has successfully lobbied for UCT to create its own intercalated BSc(Hons) on global public health, which will be the first of its kind on the African continent.

“Interacting with students, I've realised there's so much more I'd like to engage with them on, but we have a set curriculum and there's no time. It's [the course] for those who want a deeper understanding of public health,” says Oni.

However, Oni has faced various challenges with her interdisciplinary research. “I haven't chosen the easiest road, but it is a much more interesting one. If we can't embrace complexity, we can't pretend to impact at a wide enough scale,” she says.

Oni attributes her success to her family who have never made a career in the sciences gender specific. “I think it's important because I still meet young students who are told by teachers or parents 'Are you sure you want to do this because you might be the only girl in the classes?' ” says Oni.

She advises students to find role models in their field and to not shy away from contacting them to discuss their research. She feels academics often want to give back – some will give back freely and others may wait for someone to reach out to them. “Cold call! Don't wait to be introduced to people. The enthusiasm for what you do will open doors,” says Oni.

She connects with students by making herself accessible and by putting herself in their shoes. “I try to get across why I'm excited about what I do. I don't just teach, so I think that in itself plants seeds.” says Oni.

Next Einstein Forum

Oni, along with another fourteen of Africa's best young scientists and technologists, was recently selected for the Next Einstein Forum (NEF), which was held in Dakar, Senegal. The forum all started with Neil Turok's TED prize wish for the next Einstein to come from Africa. The initiative was launched by the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in partnership with Robert Bosch Stiftung, a prominent German philanthropic company, and Johnson & Johnson Innovation.

The NEF is investing in a pool of untapped intellectuals to showcase and increase the pipeline of scientific talent from Africa to address the development of the continent. The ultimate goal is to shut down stereotypes surrounding science capacity in Africa.

“Often, Africa is portrayed in certain stereotypical terms, and this includes how the world views African science,” says Oni.

She appreciates that the NEF uses an asset based model and focus on working on what talent already exists in Africa and showcasing that (in addition to promoting the production of the next generation of scientists).

“We are not only addressing issues on an African scientific stage, but a global scientific stage as well and showing that collectively as a continent we are dedicated to using science as a tool to advance our society,” says Oni.

NEF Fellows showcased their work in spotlight sessions to over 1 000 delegates.

South African Young Academy of Science

As co-chair and member of the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS), Oni encourages public engagement between academic, public, private and non-governmental sectors in the translation of research findings into policy and practice.

“SAYAS looks beyond the science-specific discipline and looks at representing the voices of young emerging and recently established scientists. We look at ways of pulling society into science,” says Oni.

To pull society into science, science must be representative of society. To this end, SAYAS is 52% female and this is achieved by ensuring that a wide variety of people apply. “Gender equity among applicants results in gender equity among members.”

Research Initiative for Cities Health and Equity

Oni is also working on establishing the Research Initiative for Cities Health and Equity (RICHE), an interdisciplinary research programme for urban health research in Africa. It will focus on urban health inequity to identify creative strategies to address complex population health challenges. These challenges will be approached through a partnership between academia, civil society and government.

“RICHE is a collaboration of researchers from UCT across different disciplines that speak to this idea of cities' health, urban health and equity. As a collective, we're about to publish in the Journal of Urban Health a paper on urban health research priorities in Africa,” she says.

Free time

An avid endurance mountain runner and coach, Oni spends most of her free time on the mountain.

“When you're on the mountain, you get perspective of where you are relative to the big picture, so it's meditation for me,” she says.

In the winter she spends time coaching a few members of her running club.

“Coaching has made me realise that when I'm passionate about something, I give my all. I get additional energy from convincing other people to be enthusiastic about it too; I see that with my running club. People think they're not runners and just to see how they change and get to love the mountain without me pushing them anymore, and they finally get it. It's the same with my work,” says Oni.

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