Rosalia Joseph: Meet Namibia’s First Female Medical Entomologist
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Profiles - October 16, 2023

Rosalia Joseph: Meet Namibia’s First Female Medical Entomologist Who is Waging War Against Mosquitoes in Sub-Saharan Africa

Rosalia Joseph is a Medical Entomologist from Namibia, an experienced Public Health Researcher, and a strong advocate for malaria prevention. She is currently the Women in Vector Control Regional Coordinator for Central and Southern Africa at the Pan-African Mosquito Control Association (PAMCA).

During her undergraduate studies in environmental biology, Rosalia became deeply intrigued by the complex connections between weather, environmental conditions, and disease-carrying insects, particularly mosquitoes and their role in spreading diseases like malaria. 

This curiosity was ignited further by Dr. Seth Eiseb, a passionate entomology lecturer, who introduced her to the world of insects that transmit diseases. This sparked an unyielding interest within her. “I was fascinated by the concept that something so tiny could have such a significant impact on human health,” she explains. Today, her remarkable efforts have earned her numerous accolades, including a spot in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for 2023.

Enjoy Business Elites Africa’s enlightening conversation with Rosalia Joseph!

Could you share a bit about your personal journey and the experiences that led you to the Medical Entomology career path?

For my undergraduate studies, I did environmental biology studies, where I learned how the weather and environmental conditions affect the spread of diseases like malaria because disease vectors flourish during rainy seasons. In my final year of the course, an entomology-passionate lecturer, Dr. Seth Eiseb, introduced us to the world of insects’ role in transiting diseases and the various infectious diseases transmitted by these insects, especially mosquitoes. I was captivated by the idea that something so small could have such a profound impact on human health. 

As I delved deeper into my studies, I became increasingly aware of the importance of addressing vector-borne (insect-transmitted) diseases in a country like Namibia, which has nine malaria-endemic regions. Henceforth, I developed a great interest in how these diseases affect human beings and how to prevent their transmission. 

My journey into the field of medical entomology truly began in 2018 when I received the Entomological Fellowship from the University of Namibia (UNAM) in partnership with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Malaria Elimination Initiative and the Ministry of Health and Social Services (MoHSS) of Namibia. With this newfound passion, I pursued a master’s degree in medical entomology at UNAM under the supervision of Prof. Davis Mumbengegwi and Dr. Eiseb. 

This was a very exciting journey, as I was placed at the headquarters of the National Vector-borne Disease Control Programme (NVDCP) in Oshakati and helped set up the country’s two malaria insectaries in a span of two years. During my studies, I had the opportunity to participate in fieldwork across the nine different regions of the country, engage in extensive lab work, and, more importantly, contribute to capacity building. 

After defending my master’s research on insecticide resistance and residual efficacy of insecticides, I was honoured to be recognised as the first female medical entomologist in Namibia. This achievement was the culmination of years of dedication, passion, and a commitment to overcoming challenges. In my role embedded with the NVDCP through UNAM, I continued to conduct research, collaborate with international experts from the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI) and Notre Dame University, and work closely with regional health practitioners and local communities to implement effective vector control strategies. Becoming the first female medical entomologist in Namibia was not just a personal achievement; it was a testament to the power of perseverance and the impact of scientific exploration on society. Hopefully, my journey has paved the way for future generations of aspiring scientists, regardless of gender, to pursue their dreams and contribute to the well-being of their communities.

Who were your role models or sources of inspiration as you pursued a career that was not traditionally associated with women?

Throughout my journey, I drew inspiration from various sources that defied traditional norms and paved the way for women in unconventional fields. Women who had made their mark in science, particularly in entomology and medical research, became my role models. 

One of my earliest inspirations was Prof. Hilary Ranson, whose groundbreaking work with mosquitoes and insecticide resistance showcased the potential of female scientists to make significant contributions to the field of vector control. Additionally, I admired the tenacity of Dr. Sheila Ogoma, then a technical advisor for the Clinton Health Access Initiative, who has helped mentor and guide me throughout my studies, both academically and personally. Dr. Sheila demonstrated that women can lead and drive change in global health initiatives, given how eloquent and experienced she is. 

Closer to home, I found inspiration in Prof. Lizette Koekemoer, a South African entomologist and researcher known for her work on malaria. She was the first expert to offer me insectary training, and I could always rely on her and her team at the University of Witwatersrand for guidance. Her dedication to improving healthcare in Africa and her ability to bridge scientific research with practical implementation showcased the impact women can have on health-related issues.

I also found support in Prof. Neil Lobo from Notre Dame University, who offered me the same support as Dr. Sheila. He was one of the few “big people” I could email or text at midnight, and he was happily ready to offer any assistance. He embodies a true mentor. My supervisor, Professor Mumbengegwi, offered excellent guidance and helped me navigate all the challenges. Like a true mentor and academic parent, he held my hand throughout the journey, although he still gave me room to work independently and learn. With that, I relied on the work of Professor Charles Wondji and Dr. Fredros Okumu. Through their publications and that of Prof. Ranson, I am reminded of the importance of collecting good data and publishing it to leave a reference for upcoming researchers like me.

My family also played a vital role in shaping my aspirations. My mother and aunts, despite the challenges posed by societal expectations, encouraged me to pursue my passion relentlessly. Ultimately, it was the countless women scientists who came before me and broke barriers that truly motivated me to persevere in a field not traditionally associated with women. Like my current manager, Dr. Damaris Matoke-Muhia, who is a hardcore champion of inclusivity in this field, her determination to challenge stereotypes resonated deeply with me. Then we have Dr. Emma Orefuwa, co-founder of the Pan-African Mosquito Control Association (PAMCA), who passionately supports Africans in acting as agents of change. Their stories served as a beacon of hope and a testament to the progress that could be achieved through determination and resilience.

Can you share an example of a community interaction that left a lasting impact on both you and the community members?

Community engagement is a vital aspect of my work, and a particular interaction stands out for its profound impact on both the community and me. During routine fieldwork in remote villages affected by malaria, I had the privilege of raising awareness about mosquitoes, the importance of surveillance, and how to use intervention tools such as nets appropriately. This is to ease and facilitate the community’s willingness to allow us to collect mosquitoes on their homesteads. The select villages are grappling with malaria, making education and empowerment crucial. What left an indelible impact was the level of engagement and enthusiasm from some community members. They asked insightful questions, shared their own observations, and exhibited a sincere commitment to applying the newfound knowledge. Engaging the community reinforced the significance of culturally sensitive education in driving behavioral change. More importantly, it underscored the transformative potential of empowering individuals with knowledge; people are more open to taking up interventions when they are aware of the “why”.

Looking back at your career, what achievements or milestones are you most proud of, and how have they shaped your outlook on your profession?

I find immense pride in several achievements and milestones that have shaped my professional outlook and sense of purpose. Building capacity for entomological surveillance in malaria-affected regions across my country has been deeply gratifying. The highlight of my early career was conducting the first countrywide study that assessed the insecticide susceptibility status of malaria vectors. This breakthrough not only contributed to scientific understanding but also had a tangible impact on the health of Namibia’s malaria-affected population. Contributing to policy reform in vector control through various mosquito studies underscored the real-world implications of my work. It taught me that as a scientist, my role extends beyond the laboratory – it encompasses advocacy, collaboration, and influencing decisions that shape public health policies. Being part of various mosquito studies that influenced policy reforms in vector control further solidified my belief in the power of research to drive positive change. 

As a University of Namibia researcher, I also collaborated with the Namibian Air Force and the Ministry of Agriculture, Water, and Land Reform on the locust emergency management team to play a role in controlling the invasive migratory locusts, showcasing the relevance of entomological expertise beyond disease vectors. The experience underscored the broader societal impact entomologists can have in addressing ecological challenges. 

Last September, I was part of the team at PAMCA that co-organised a training on effective communication and leadership for women in vector control across Africa, highlighting the significance of mentorship and fostering a supportive network. These milestones have shaped my professional outlook to be one of purpose, collaboration, and a relentless pursuit of positive impact. Being recognised with the PAMCA WiVC Excellence Award and being listed in the Forbes Africa 30 Under 30 solidified the idea that hard work and dedication can lead to both personal growth and impactful contributions.

Every journey comes with its challenges. Could you share a particularly challenging moment in your career and how you managed to overcome it?

One particularly daunting experience occurred during a critical project I was working on, focused on assessing the residual efficacy of insecticides used for indoor residual spraying (IRS). The project aimed to understand the longevity of the insecticides’ effectiveness in controlling disease vectors. As I delved into the project, I encountered a significant hurdle: the mosquito population I was studying exhibited unexpected variability in susceptibility to insecticides. The susceptible mosquitoes were dying intermittently, which created a challenge in obtaining a consistent sample for testing over time. Additionally, due to constraints, I didn’t have a large enough sample size to conduct temporal assays that would have provided a comprehensive picture of the insecticides’ performance over an extended period. 

To overcome this challenge, I employed a combination of strategic thinking and adaptability. First, I reassessed my approach and decided to focus on the data I had collected during the specific period when susceptible mosquitoes were dying. While it wasn’t the extensive temporal data I had initially hoped for, this subset of data still provided valuable insights into the insecticides’ effectiveness during that critical period. I also collaborated closely with colleagues and mentors, seeking their input and expertise. Their fresh perspectives helped me see the situation from different angles, and their support encouraged me to continue finding solutions. Furthermore, I treated the challenge as an opportunity to refine my research methods. I explored ways to optimize my sampling techniques and improve data collection accuracy, which would be beneficial for future projects as well.

As a trailblazer, you have the opportunity to inspire the next generation. Have you taken on a mentoring role, and what advice do you offer to young individuals aspiring to pursue careers in science and entomology?

Absolutely. I have wholeheartedly embraced the role of mentorship to empower and guide the next generation of scientists, particularly in the fields of science and public health. I find that both structured and unstructured mentoring play crucial roles in fostering growth and inspiration. I am a product of unstructured mentorship from various brilliant minds. Unstructured mentoring, particularly through peer-to-peer interactions, holds a special place in my approach. I engage in open dialogue with aspiring young individuals, sharing my journey, insights, and challenges. These conversations create an informal space for questions, discussions, and a genuine exchange of experiences.

Furthermore, I’ve had the privilege of overseeing the effective operation of our LiftHer2 mentorship program. Through this initiative, I connect with mentees from various countries in southern, central, and northern Africa through monthly check-in calls. These calls provide an opportunity to offer personalised advice, address concerns, and provide guidance based on their individual paths and aspirations. The advice I offer to young individuals aspiring to pursue careers in science and public health is rooted in the belief that passion, resilience, and collaboration are paramount. I emphasise the importance of nurturing their curiosity, embracing failures as stepping-stones to success, and seeking out opportunities for growth. I encourage them to build networks, reach out to established professionals, and actively participate in mentorship programs like LiftHer2. Such platforms provide access to guidance, knowledge, and diverse perspectives that can shape their journeys.

How do you prioritise self-care and maintain a positive mindset, especially during challenging times?

I understand this challenge firsthand, having lost touch with my social self in the past. However, I am actively working to strike a healthier balance, by prioritising self-care. I’ve embraced a multifaceted approach. Exercise, regular breaks, and mindfulness practices are integral components of my routine. These activities not only promote physical well-being but also help me stay mentally resilient. Reconnecting with friends and loved ones revitalises my social self and provides emotional support during challenging times. In the context of my demanding career, being part of organisations like PAMCA has been transformative. PAMCA’s commitment to staff well-being and support, particularly for women, is commendable. Their emphasis on work-life balance aligns with my values and reinforces the significance of self-care. Additionally, adopting a growth mindset has proven invaluable. Viewing challenges as opportunities for learning and personal development helps me stay resilient and positive, even when faced with adversity.

Among the myriad of insects you encounter, do you have one that particularly fascinates you? 

I have always been fascinated by the Anopheles mosquito. This mosquito species is a vector for malaria, a disease that has significant implications for global health and kills over 400,000 people annually, over 90% of whom are in sub-Saharan Africa. What draws me to the Anopheles mosquito is its dual role: it’s a seemingly ordinary insect, yet it carries a profound impact on human health. By studying the Anopheles mosquito, we can gain insights into how diseases are transmitted and how to develop strategies to mitigate their spread. This insect serves as a pivotal focus in my research, as unraveling its biology and habits contributes to the broader goal of combating malaria and improving public health. Ultimately, my fascination with the Anopheles mosquito stems from its significance as both a research subject and a key player in the battle against a disease that has a direct impact on the well-being of communities in Namibia and beyond.

Are there any books, articles, or quotes that have inspired you on your journey and continue to motivate you today?

I always reference back to the late Chadwick Boseman’s (MHSRIP) speech at Howard University in 2018 which has since left an indelible mark on my journey and continues to be a wellspring of inspiration. He emphasised the significance of purpose and the responsibility we carry as pioneers. His words, “When God has something for you, it doesn’t matter who stands against it,” reminds me that my chosen path in medical entomology is unique and purposeful, regardless of societal norms or gender expectations. Boseman’s call to action, “You would rather find purpose than a job,” speaks to the heart of my commitment to tackling vector-borne diseases through entomology. This journey is about finding a purpose that transcends the ordinary, and his words encourage me to strive for excellence in my chosen field.

The sentiment of “The struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose” resonates deeply with the challenges I’ve encountered. As a female medical entomologist in a traditionally male-dominated field, I’ve faced obstacles that tested my resolve. Boseman’s words remind me that each hurdle contributes to my growth and strengthens my purpose.

Furthermore, his reflection on the significance of representation – “Many of you will leave Howard and enter systems and institutions that have a history of discrimination and marginalisation” – inspires me to be a catalyst for change. Just as he urged graduates to break barriers, I am motivated to pave the way for future generations of women in science, making a lasting impact on my community. Chadwick Boseman’s speech echoes in my journey every day, driving me to pursue my passion relentlessly, defy limitations, and contribute meaningfully to the world of medical entomology.

When you think about legacy, what message or impact do you hope to leave behind in the field of entomology and public health?

I aspire to be the modern-day Marie Curie, leaving a profound impact in both fields. Much like Curie’s trailblazing efforts, my message emphasises that determination and knowledge transcend barriers. Through my work, I aim to unravel the complexities of insect behavior and disease transmission, offering innovative solutions to vector-borne diseases that burden communities. Simultaneously, I am dedicated to dismantling gender disparities by mentoring women and promoting diversity in the field of vector-borne diseases. I seek to reshape the landscape, fostering an environment of inclusivity and fresh perspectives. My legacy bridges scientific exploration with social progress, empowering individuals of all genders to challenge stereotypes and biases that hinder scientific growth. Ultimately, I envision a future where my journey inspires others to passionately pursue their aspirations, catalyzing positive change in entomology, public health, and gender equality.

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