Two Wits women scientists share a common passion: To arm their communities with the information necessary to protect their health, especially in the time of covid-19 vaccinations. 

The Wits University vaccines and infectious diseases analytics research unit (VIDA) is home to two women researchers allied in sharing vital health information. 

Malangu Blose, an immunologist and first runner-up in the FameLab competition, shares her experience of taking part in the event and highlights its significance: “We need to be able to explain what we are working on without confusing the public. I need to know how to effectively communicate my work to a layman,’’ she said. 

FameLab is a platform for individuals in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) careers. It helps to develop communication of their often-complex research in a relatable way. ‘‘This is a needed skill we need to have as scientists,’’ said Blose. 

She thoroughly enjoyed her time in the competition and emphasised the joy it gave her: ‘‘I laugh because I had so much fun.’’ 

Sarah Downs, also known on social media under the alias Mistress of Science, is a Wits PhD candidate in infectious disease. She is part of an online community, Pro Vaccination South Africa, that stands against covid-19 vaccine misinformation on Facebook. 

She said that at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with no vaccine yet in sight, she could already see from what people were saying that vaccine reluctance would be an issue: “When covid first hit and there was no vaccine, I could really see the kinds of things people were saying that were going to be a [vaccine hesitancy] problem.’’ 

Downs’s activism was motivated by the tangible effect of the covid-19 pandemic in her own life. She was put in the uncomfortable role of having to debate her grandmother’s passing with strangers online. She said she felt she had been placed in a difficult position. 

‘‘She meant a lot to me,’’ Downs said. ‘’It was a hard moment; we couldn’t attend her funeral. It was just frustrating. I should not have to explain the passing of my grandmother to someone who thinks I am gaining through a lie.”  

Both scientists are greatly invested in cultivating knowledge about vaccines, and they share the same opinion on the anti-vaccination attitude, highlighting its potential danger. 

“Covid has affected people in a different way to other diseases,’’ Downs said. ‘’There are many consequences for our daily lives. I guess maybe explaining it away can somehow make it sound as if it will end sooner.”  

She said, however, that anti-vaxxers were aiding in masking the truth: “Those are the groups of people who have not seen the effect of vaccine-preventable diseases on their own children.’’ 

Blose explained her perspective on the matter. ‘‘I feel that anti-vaxxers in most cases are not people in this field. Anti-vaxxers need to have a change of mind,’’ she told Wits Vuvuzela. 

These women of science expressed pride in their chosen profession, as well as gratitude. Downs feels lucky to be working with plenty of female role models. She said their unit was women-friendly and she was grateful for that because ‘’I know that is not always the case.’’ 

While Blose appreciates what her career has shown her about herself, she did find it refreshing when she won recognition for her skills. Until the FameLab experience, she said, “I did not realise that I am actually good.’’ 

It is to be hoped that both scientists can expect more well-deserved accolades in the future. 

FEATURED IMAGESarah Downs(left) and Malangu Blose(right) in the Wits VIDA lab hard at work on their respective research projects. Photo: Provided