Tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today
Dr Mai Tolba is an Assistant Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Faculty of Pharmacy, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt. She is an Affiliate and a mentee of the African Academy of Sciences Mentorship Scheme. The Mentorship Scheme is designed to enable African early career researchers to find mentors who are experts in different fields to guide them to articulate their career and life goals, pursue them, and reflect upon their growth and impact. In this blog, Dr Tolba discusses how the Mentorship scheme is helping her advance her career goals.
I am a pharmacologist and my mission is to help cancer patients through my research. I was motivated to become a cancer researcher in my undergraduate studies in pharmacy where I studied about cancer and cancer therapy for the first time. It was shocking for me to learn that cancer patients not only suffer from the disease complications but also from the multitude of adverse effects associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. The motivation grew stronger when I started a series of fund-raising campaigns to aid in the chemotherapy expenses at the National Cancer Institute in Egypt and I had the chance to meet some of the patients who have cancer. I became even more determined to dedicate more and more efforts in cancer research when my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Cancer is a world-wide public health problem. According to Globocan 2018, over 1 million new cancer cases were recorded in Africa in 2018 alone. Despite this, our continent is still on limited resources per capita to serve this huge count of patients who need special care facilities. This is sadly contributing to the high proportions of cancer deaths in Africa coupled with the adverse effects of the available cancer treatments. I always loved Ghandi’s quote “Be the change you want to see in the world”. So, I try to focus and do the best I can to improve this situation. The long-term goal of my research is to improve the quality of life of cancer patients. My research focus is studying the mechanisms of resistance of cancers to chemotherapy and immunotherapy and investigating novel approaches to enhance the sensitivity of cancer cells to treatment. I am also developing strategies to prevent chemotherapy-related adverse effects specially chemobrain or chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment.
I, however, realize that achieving my goals will require me to advance my existing skills and gain news ones that will enable me to contribute knowledge to fight this deadly disease and help more people. An African proverb says, ‘tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today,’ which is why I have joined the AAS Mentorship Scheme. Through this scheme, I hope to gain a clearer perspective on career development opportunities that will enable me to advance my career and accelerate my research. I am Particularly looking to establish international-interdisciplinary collaborations that will enable me to move from translational research to clinical trials.
As a woman early career researcher, I am well aware of the challenges that my peers face. I have been lucky to have a supportive family. I know some of my peers' struggle to balance between careers and family. In addition, early career researchers struggle with accessing research funding, world class facilities and lack time for research, publishing and career progression because of the demanding teaching workloads in universities where the ratio of students to lecturers is tipped in favor of the students due to high enrolment rates. Most senior researchers in Africa are too busy and do not have time to mentor the young ones so a lack of mentorship exists.
I have done my best with available resources to make an impact, supervising 15 master’s and PhD students, publishing 25+ articles in international peer reviewed journals. My work gained recognition from prestigious organisations, including the Fulbright Scholar Award in 2015, the regional fellowship of L'Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Levant and Egypt regional Programme in 2016. I am aiming for more and recognize the value of mentorship in making my dreams attainable. Mentorship is important in science-based careers and provides the opportunity to learn from others and to have a role model to look up to.
I have been lucky because the AAS mentorship program matched me with two amazing mentors. Prof Eleanor Fish (Professor of Immunology, University of Toronto, Canada) and Ms. Vee Mapunde (Programme Director, National institute of health research (NIHR), Surgical MedTech Co-operative). I feel supported, safe and more confident because I have kind and supportive mentors that provide expert advice as needed despite busy schedules.
In addition, the AAS provides funding opportunities and through its monthly newsletter has enabled me to learn about research and travel grants from various funders and collaboration opportunities. The Academy also provides platforms to network with my peers across different disciplines, such as “Connecting Minds Africa”, an annual conference for early career researchers, which was first held in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2019. Here, I gleaned opportunities for collaborative research to tackle challenges facing Africa.
I am excited about the AAS Mentorship Scheme as it gives me hope for the future of science in Africa. I encourage other early career scientists to take part for their personal and career growth and senior researchers to sign up as mentors. I hope that mentors from more scientific disciplines can join the scheme because some areas like cancer research are not covered.
The future of Africa lies in the hands of young scientists and we can only build it if we continuously advance our skills and learn more every day!
Here are resources to help would be mentors and mentees.
How to be a good mentor
How to be a good mentee
Read a blog from a mentor