I am Elian Carsenat, CEO of NamSor, and I met Yvonne in Paris on 2nd December 2016 during an event organized by the Kenya France Business Club and the Black Fahrenheit agency. I had just had a chat with a prominent Kenyan businessman about the power of Diasporas, then he introduced me to a young lady: “you two should talk”, he said.
We talked. That was day zero of Med In Africa. And this is how I got to know Yvonne Mburu.
Yvonne Mburu at InnovEcon
The next day, I read the following portrait of Yvonne in Ayoka Paris blog:
(This edited interview is translated and reproduced with permission from Ayoka Paris)
AYOKA: Yvonne, please tell us about yourself?
YVONNE: You know, I don’t know where to start – in general, I don’t like to speak about myself – but I will try. I’m Yvonne, I’m 34 and originally from Nairobi, Kenya. I come from a family of four kids: I have two sisters and a brother.
AYOKA: Tell us about your childhood.
YVONNE: As a kid, I was intellectually precocious. I had a baby-sitter who taught me to read and count when I was around three-years old. My parents were always supportive of my studies. They hoped I would study abroad. They didn’t have this opportunity for themselves, although that didn’t prevent them from achieving their goals in life.
AYOKA: How did you manage your ambitions (and your parent’s ambitions for you), in a society where it may have seemed a bit unusual?
YVONNE: You know, in primary school, I was very much at ease with math and science. It was considered out of place for a girl to perform better than boys in these subjects. I was often told by some teachers, that I could be bright but not too much – as this was not very proper. I mostly ignored such remarks and went about my business. Afterwards, I got into one of the best girls high schools in the country, where this was no longer an issue because I was among girls. After completing high school, I moved to Toronto, Canada.
AYOKA: It was a whole new experience, I imagine?
YVONNE: Yes! It is funny, it was the first time I really realized I was black. Not so much because of the Canadians attitude towards me, as they were very welcoming, but because it was the first time that being black became a significant part of my identity. Up until then, I had lived among people who looked like me. Arriving in Canada highlighted the differences.
AYOKA: What did you study in university?
YVONNE: I did a double major in Chemistry and Biology. Initially, I was planning to study Medicine after my Bachelor’s degree. However, during my third year I did a summer program in a laboratory with an inspiring mentor – who introduced me to immunology with so much passion that I became totally hooked into this field of research.
During that summer program, I studied a specific type of leukaemia (blood cancer), trying to understand how DNA damage can cause cancer. I knew from that moment on that I wanted to spend my days understanding the immune system and its breakdown in cancer. So I went on to do a PhD in the United States during which I studied the metastasis of head and neck cancers.
After defending my PhD thesis, I won a fellowship grant from the Cancer Research Institute to continue my post-doctoral research at the Curie Institute in Paris. Two months after I moved to France, my family learned that my aunt was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Throughout her illness, I felt completely powerless. There was an irony to it all: I am Kenyan. I was spending days, weeks, months, years studying cancer, but what were the chances that my research was going to help anyone in Kenya anytime soon? My family often asked: “Yvonne, you are a cancer researcher. Don’t you have a solution to propose?” I didn’t. My aunt passed away a few months later. This event was very traumatic. I questioned some of my career choices. I know that academic research is vital to making progress in medicine, but I was frustrated that whatever benefits my research might bring would help Kenyans (and Africans) last.
AYOKA: What was the topic of your research in France?
YVONNE: I work in the field of Cancer Immunology. To describe briefly, the immune system works much like a defence system: When an organism (such as a virus) penetrates your body, it is immediately recognized by your immune system as a foreign intruder that should be eliminated. For the most part the immune system is very good at its job, which is why we stay healthy. However, for cancer, the immune system is unable to detect it as abnormal and so does not destroy it. In fact, we have found that cancer cells disguise themselves so as not to be recognized by the immune system as a foreign (overgrown) mass of cells. Cancer Immunology is centred on how we can make the immune system better at recognizing cancer as an intruder and eliminate it.
AYOKA: In France, it is rare to see a woman, a black woman, in this field. Was it a challenge to establish your credibility?
YVONNE: Not really. I also wouldn’t concede much room to anyone who dares to challenge my credibility based on my gender or skin colour. In general, I am an extrovert and enthusiastic. I try not to think too much about what people think of me. If anything, the main challenge for me was the language barrier. When I arrived in Paris, I spoke no French at all – and I even considered going back to the US. If someone had told me that four years later, I would still be in Paris doing this interview in French, I wouldn’t have believed it [laughter]. With time, I made progress in French.
AYOKA: After 4 years in Research, what are your projects now?
YVONNE: I have so many! I know that I want to continue my professional career in immunotherapy and oncology. The lessons we are learning about the immune system and cancer are resulting in new treatments and renewing hope in this battle. A cure within our lifetimes is within reach I hope!
Also, I would like to go back to Africa and bring back my expertise. There is a real problem of “brain-drain”. It’s hard for African countries to make progress in science and health when too many bright young people are still leaving every year to study abroad and, often, stay there indefinitely.
I also care a lot about education. I would like to be involved in finding solutions to our education system, and to help inspire young people to go far in their studies, whatever their goal.
On healthcare, I would eventually like to work on clinical research on African populations. Cancer may not yet be Africa’s main health challenge today, but the data show a worrying trend upwards, meaning it will become a major public health issue in the next 10-20 years; one that will need to be addressed with a visionary plan.
On this issue I actually have much admiration for Rwanda, where preventative public health measures are being implemented on a national scale. For example, Rwanda has over 90% vaccination rate against HPV – the virus that causes cervical cancer. With cancer, as in life, visionary planning is essential.
AYOKA: You are not afraid that the combat will be a long one?
YVONNE: Yes, the first challenge is to convince politicians that it matters. I would like to make higher education and research funding one of Africa’s top priorities.
Also, I would like to unite African doctors, scientists and all health professionals into some sort of organization or network, so we can share our knowledge and better adopt medical technologies. It will probably be hard, but I feel this is something I need to do. Something we need to do.