By Katie G. Nelson
Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, Dr. Faith Osier often dreamed of curing the world of deadly diseases like malaria, an illness spread by mosquitos that kills more than an estimated 438,000 people every year.
Several decades later, Osier, now 43, is at the forefront of the fight against malaria, spearheading the development of a vaccine that she believes could someday wipe out the disease.
The swaying palm trees and pristine beaches of Kenya’s coastal town of Kilifi is a beach-lover’s paradise. But away from the white-sand beaches and crystal clear water waits a serious and often deadly parasite—one that caused more than 10 percent of all Kilifi residents to fall ill last year.
But Osier believes that number could someday go down to zero.
Osier has worked out of Kilifi for the last 12 years, partnering with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Wellcome Trust and the Kilifi County Hospital to develop a vaccine for malaria, which is endemic in most parts of Kenya’s coast.
Osier first became intrigued by the idea of a vaccine—or more specifically, the ability to develop resistance to malaria—after working in the pediatric ward of the Kilifi County Hospital.
“Malaria is a very big problem, especially for Africa,” says Osier. “What we see in people who live in Africa is that it’s children under the age of 5 who get frequently ill—severely ill—and can die. But in the same areas, the adults seem to be resistant,” she adds. “They don’t seem to become ill or die.”
Aiming to better understand how adults acquire a resistance to malaria, Osier began studying how the body responds to the infection at different stages. Focusing on the role of antibodies— proteins created by the immune system to neutralize harmful substances, like infections—Osier dug into the complexities surrounding the ability to thwart malaria.
“We study people who are being exposed to malaria,” she says. “We look at their blood and their antibody responses and how they are responding. We know that antibodies are very important… and we believe that antibodies hold the key.”
While the molecular intricacies of proteins, antibodies and antigens might seem like the researcher’s biggest obstacle. But Osier’s role as a female researcher in a male-dominated profession often presents an equally steep challenge, she says.
Osier said there have been many points in her career when she felt inhibited simply because she was a woman.
“[As a female] you’re conditioned to believe that [hard skills] are not for you,” she says. “It takes some help to shake that off and to say ‘Look! There’s someone who can do it! If they can, then so can I.’”
“I let my work speak for me,” she says.
But while her climb toward success has provided unique challenges, Osier is quick to add that being a female scientist also has its strengths.
“I bring a lot more compassion to my management and leadership skills and believe that I bring out the best in my team members because of this; in return, they give back more than 100 percent,” she says. “That has been key to both my progress and theirs.”
But it’s not only her colleagues who recognize Osier’s work ethic and compassion-based leadership. In 2014, Osier won the Royal Society Pfizer Prize award, one of the most prestigious prizes in African science.
Calling it her “biggest achievement,” Osier says the award “gave me a real sense of satisfaction that with hard work, determination, and vision, it was possible to achieve great things.”
While hard work and dedication remain the foundation to Osier’s career, the researcher is also quick to credit the role of mentors in her success.
“Mentors are really important. You can’t dream of something you can’t see,” she said.
That’s why it’s so important to expose young girls to “hard skills” like medicine and research, she said
“It’s exposure. It’s making research more visible and specifically targeting women,” she said. “In schools, in public meetings, village meetings… just letting girls see that they can be more than what the community is telling them.”
It’s that same urge to rise above obstacles that will help Osier achieve her ultimate goal: developing a highly effective malaria vaccine that is available, free of charge, to the poorest communities in rural Africa.
“I want women in our African villages to have the opportunity to take their children for vaccination against malaria and be able to move on with malaria behind them,” she says.
But how long will the world wait for a malaria vaccine?
“I’m confident that it will happen in my lifetime,” Osier said.