Posted on Friday, August 28, 2020

An interview with Prof Quarraisha Abdool Karim - A Living Legend

The following is based on an interview by Sanabelle Ebrahim with Prof Quarraisha Abdool Karim.

Stellar scientist, Prof Quarraisha Abdool Karim finds interacting with students “very inspiring and rewarding especially when I see how confident and self-assured they are about what they want to accomplish as scientists and have the focus and drive to pursue it.”

A powerhouse of knowledge, expertise and unwavering commitment to her work and the wider community, Prof Abdool Karim is an academic, a mother and a globally recognised leader in HIV prevention and treatment research. She is an Associate Scientific Director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA).

“As long as I can remember, I have been curious and being a scientist was a natural career choice for me. Generating new knowledge is a very long and slow process and challenging as you more often end up with a negative result than a positive one. You need to be very passionate about what you are doing so that when you encounter failure you are able to reflect on it and move forward building on the lessons learnt. You need persistence as you can’t give up every time you fail. Having a goal one is passionate about gives one resilience to keep focused and continue despite adversity encountered along the way,” she acknowledges.

I met Prof Abdool Karim at a Minara Women’s Association (MWA) meeting where she shared an inspiring presentation on her work with women and HIV prevention. She strikes me as a woman with breadth of vision; someone who empowers women by listening to their concerns and seeking out practical solutions to improve their plight. It is the sense of agency that her work affords women that is perhaps most admirable.

Her work seeks to give adolescent girls and young women the opportunity to live HIV free and make their full contributions to society.

When asked to comment on the defining moment that brought about her success, she says: “I don’t think I can pinpoint a moment as my scientific contributions have grown slowly over three decades to the point in 2010 where we demonstrated for the first time that the use of antiretrovirals could prevent HIV in women.”

Her dream for the future is to expand this early work and ensure that women have an array of safe and effective prevention options.

Her biggest fear is “complacency – it is the death knell to progress.”

She is a member of the Executive Group of the World Health Organization (WHO) International Steering Committee for the Covid-19 Solidarity Trial and the South African Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19.

“The Executive Group provides oversight of the conduct of the largest multi-country, multi-centre trial evaluating multiple drugs to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 in hospitalised patients in the midst of a pandemic and where our knowledge continues to evolve. This includes monitoring the trial progress in terms of enrolments; safety of participants; monitoring data from other studies and its implications for the Solidarity trial products being evaluated; and identifying new products for inclusion in the trial.”

“The South African Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee provides advice to the Minister of Health on how to enhance the response to Covid-19 based on the best knowledge available.  As an infectious diseases epidemiologist, my contributions are primarily in the public health space.” 

She is a Living Legend for the City of Durban – an honour bestowed by the city for citizens who have made an exemplary contribution to increase the profile of the city nationally and internationally.

“For working parents, balancing home and work life is a challenge and especially when you have young children. I have a supportive family who are all hard working and passionate about our careers but also appreciate the importance of quality family time that we are protective of.  Having shared values helps with striking a good balance.”

Her advice to the women of South Africa: “It is your time to shine. You have many opportunities to make a difference, seize them and soar! Be the architect of your own destiny!”

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