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.


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.


Next Generation Professoriate (NGP)

 

The Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) is a mid-career academic staff development and support programme. Funded by the vice-chancellor’s Strategic Funds, the NGP addresses demographic inequalities in the academic hierarchy. The goal is to help members become associate and full professors.

The NGP was officially launched in September 2015. By the end of 2018, four of its members had been promoted to full professor and a further 14 had reached the rank of associate professor.

The programme is led by Dr Robert Morrell, who has over 35 years of academic experience in South African universities. He has a B1-rating from the the National Research Foundation (NRF) and is an elected member of the Academy of Sciences in South Africa.

 

Newsletters


August 2019 12:31, 17 September 2019
January 2019 09:20, 21 January 2019
October 2018 09:20, 10 October 2018
August 2018 16:00, 3 August 2018
April 2018 14:15, 20 April 2018
February 2018 18:00, 10 February 2018
October 2017 12:00, 10 October 2017
May 2017 09:30, 9 May 2017
March 2017 12:00, 5 March 2017
January 2017 12:00, 30 January 2017

 
 

In the news





New commerce research unveiled, TED-style The commerce faculty’s Cape Town Alumni Chapter recently hosted the second in the UCT Talks series, a TED-styled showcase of new faculty research. 04 Oct 2018
Ed February wins Hamilton Naki Award Associate Professor Edmund February has been honoured for “achieving world-class research performance despite considerable challenges”. 29 Sep 2018
Put yourself out there, urges Mbatani With a goal of professional and self-development, senior lecturer Dr Nomonde Mbatani has joined UCT’s Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) programme. 04 Jul 2018
First fruits of Fogarty HIV-TB training programme It’s onward and upward for the Fogarty HIV-associated TB Training Program, which has provided vital training to postgraduates in its first year of operation. 12 Jun 2018
Take the gap: A professor in training A TV interview with Tim Noakes introduced Livingstone high-schooler Yumna Albertus to a career in sport and science. Now she’s training for a bigger target. 05 Jun 2018
Negotiating learning and identity The lived experiences of working-class and rural black students are the subject of a new book edited by Dr Bongi Bangeni and Associate Professor Rochelle Kapp. 19 Dec 2017
Dust storm Mars rover mission How do you drive the Mars rover? In a first-for-Africa mission, UCT student Samuel Anih piloted the rover using something slightly surprising. 15 Aug 2017
Failure to recognise religious marriages in South Africa may point to a lack of political will South Africa’s constitution allows for laws to be passed that recognise religious and traditional marriages as well as personal and family law systems. These are systems that regulate marriage, divorce, matters affecting children - including guardianship, custody, access, maintenance and inheritance. 15 May 2017
The power and politics of prefixes Using the correct prefixes when referring to local languages in English is a matter of both linguistic and political necessity, says UCT linguist Dr Mantoa Motinyane-Masoko. 13 Mar 2017
Success for Next Generation Professoriate Four candidates from the Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) have been promoted to professor or associate professor level in the most recent round of ad hominem promotions. 03 Mar 2017
Tackling diseases with numbers Dr Freedom Gumedze (UCT Department of Statistical Sciences) and Professor Jane Hutton (University of Warwick) recently hosted a workshop on multivariate longitudinal and survival data analysis in medical research. 16 Feb 2017
Back by popular demand In a meeting held in Benin last year, Dr Heather Marco, a member of UCT's Next Generation Professoriate, was elected for the third consecutive time to serve on the executive committee of AGNES (the African–German Network of Excellence in Science). 18 Jan 2017
Iconic conifers under threat A team of UCT ecologists has used repeat photography to study the decline of the critically endangered Clanwilliam cedar. Their findings, published last month, suggest that climate change and more frequent fires are threatening the survival of this iconic conifer. 21 Dec 2016
The battle to recovery It was while compiling research on sexual violence for her doctoral dissertation that Associate Professor Sinegugu Duma realised that she needed to write a book. 30 Nov 2016
Samuel Ginsberg: The power of collaboration UCT electrical engineer and senior lecturer Samuel Ginsberg has had a hand in inventing such diverse devices as a heat detector for informal settlements. 28 Oct 2016
Let researchers try new paths Dr Tolu Oni (School of Public Health and Family Medicine), together with 3 of her colleagues, has contributed to an article published in Nature journal, arguing that scientists should be allowed to shift their focus in pursuit of important research. 26 Oct 2016
Prestigious fellowship for Gumedze Dr Freedom Gumedze of the Department of Statistical Sciences has been awarded a Newton Advanced Fellowship from the Royal Society, in partnership with the Academy of Medical Sciences, for the period 2016–2019. 25 Oct 2016
Mont Fleur writing retreat From 17–19 August 2016 members of the Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) cohort gathered again at the beautiful site of Mont Fleur situated in the Blaauwklippen Valley outside Stellenbosch. 24 Aug 2016
Balancing culture and career Dr Ameeta Jaga always regarded herself as a liberated Indian woman. But once she delved into the literature of culture and the work–family interface, she became aware of the many ways in which that was less true. 18 Aug 2016
Duma is a nursing Hall-of-Famer Associate Professor Sinegugu Duma of the Division of Nursing and Midwifery at UCT, and founding director of the university's Sexual Assault Response Team, was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Research Excellence in Nursing by the Forum of University Nursing Deans in South Africa (FUNDISA) on 22 July 2016. 04 Aug 2016
Professors are made by hard work Robert Morrell, Director of the Next Generation Professoriate, writes in the Mail & Guardian that professors are made rather than born. 14 Jul 2016
Next Generation Professoriate member receives PhD Dr Lee-Ann Tong, senior lecturer in commercial law at UCT and a member of the Next Generation Professoriate, graduated with a doctoral degree in June 2016. 30 Jun 2016
Authentic leadership for changing times For members of the Next Generation Professoriate, who will be future leaders at UCT, Vanessa Lowndes recently facilitated three conversations that focused on leading teams and building organisational culture in changing times. 24 Jun 2016
Next Generation Professoriate – autumn update This update on the progress and activities of the first cohort of the Next Generation Professoriate (NGP) features two major events – Manya Mooya's book launch and the Zevenwacht writing retreat. 24 May 2016
Cheetah's tail a blueprint for manoeuvrability in robots Robotics designer Dr Amir Patel is one of six UCT scholars who received a Claude Leon Merit Award for 2016. 12 May 2016
Tolullah Oni: promoting science and research to develop Africa Tolullah (Tolu) Oni's passion for public health stem from a desire to study medicine from an early age. 11 May 2016
Margaret Orr and the Academic Game How does one get ahead in a university where the rules of the game are often not clear? Margaret Orr gave a seminar to the Next Generation Professoriate on 10 March 2016. 18 Mar 2016
Lively debate on transformation in law The legal fraternity and interested public enjoyed a lively debate about the intersections between race, law and transformation on 23 January in the Golden Arrow studio at the Baxter Theatre Centre. Near the end, a passionate exchange between a judge, his fellow panellists and members of the audience threw into sharp relief some of the issues that had been discussed up to that point. 04 Mar 2016
Building a pipeline for UCT's professors of the future The Next Generation Professoriate is a UCT programme aimed at advancing the development of black and female academics. 05 Feb 2016
The cohort at Mont Fleur For two days in early December, members of the Next Generation Professoriate were on a writing retreat at Mont Fleur, Stellenbosch. This is a glorious spot at the foot of the Helderberg mountains. 17 Dec 2015
A next generation lunch In November 2015, the Next Generation Professoriate cohort had its first lunch at the UCT Club. 17 Nov 2015
Meet the cohort members With the Next Generation Professoriate initiative UCT hopes to advance the development of black academics by furnishing cohort members with greater clarity in their career paths and providing targeted support to them. The names of the 34 cohort members were recently made known. Learn more about them through their bios. 05 Oct 2015
'Next generation' professors unveiled The Next Generation Professoriate initiative will ensure that the pipeline to transform the professoriate is expanded and accelerated. 01 Oct 2015
Next Generation Professoriate initiative at UCT UCT has launched the Next Generation Professoriate initiative as part of its efforts to address the paucity of senior black academics. 30 Sep 2015
Recruit, develop, retain An institutional culture based on trust, respect and appreciation is what DVC Professor Francis Petersen hopes will come from a new programme aimed at academic staff. 28 Sep 2015

 
TOP