During each AuthorAID MOOC, participants submit their photos for our Capture Your Research Contest. After the recent 'Mastering Grant Proposal Writing: Pathways to Successful Research Funding', the Top 10 entries were shortlisted, with the AuthorAID community then voting for winner.
We are pleased to announce Usman Abubakar Ibrahim, from Nigeria, as the winner! Below is his winning photo:
We recently met with Usman, on a Zoom call, to learn about his research, career, the story behind his winning photo, and his involvement with AuthorAID. The 30th of January was World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day - Usman's research in the photo is on Schistosomiasis, one of the listed neglected tropical diseases. To bring awareness to this important day, we also asked him to share some words about the day, and this year's theme of 'Unite. Act. Eliminate.' You can learn more about the day and the diseases here. Keep reading for the full interview!
Could you tell us where you are based and what your field of work is?
My name is Usman Abubakar Ibrahim, and I am a Nigerian living in Nigeria. To be precise, Katsina state, which is one of the northwestern regions. I trained as a biologist for both my BSc and MSc degrees, in Nigeria. Now, I am working as a classroom teacher, also a tutor. To talk about my work, like I said, I’m a biologist. But most of my specialisation lies in parasitology. I give much emphasis on infectious diseases. Additionally, I am interested in bioremediation, the one that involves the use of living organisms in controlling environmental contamination. That is my area of research interest for now. Sometimes I do engage myself in educational research, something that has to do with management of primary schools, secondary schools, and even tertiary institutions.
What inspired you to study this field and can you tell us about your career path so far?
Well biology wasn’t actually my chosen area of study initially. I couldn’t get admission in the first place. That was 2008 and my first degree, so I decided to go for remedial studies in the same university that I graduated from as an undergraduate. But with my results and achievements then I got the chance to study biology. I accepted it as my destiny, then I go with it. As time went on, I began to develop interest in the field, considering the fact that living organisms are amazing and the field has so many applications. From there, I chose a path. We have so many branches or divisions of, or areas of specialisation, in biology, like genetics for example. I chose to go with zoology; parasitology to be specific. That is what I have my master’s degree in. During my master’s degree, I was driven by the devasting complications of the environment. I’m mostly interested in issues of environmental contamination, especially the ones that are caused by climate change and unruly behaviour of humans, and parasites that are prevalent in local areas or villages around my own area. So, from there I developed an interest of working, and that’s why we have the picture I shared for the contest. I was conducting fieldwork that has to do with the disease of schistosomiasis [parasitic disease which infects a person through their skin when in contact with infested water, affecting over 240 million people] towards determining the distribution of the snail vectors.
My career path as an academic started beautifully as ‘MasterGrade I Teacher’, in 2019, having been fully employed by the state government with a graduate degree. This was preceded by completion of my student-teacher training, educational certification, and volunteering in community schools as a beginner. Presently, I am a licensed and qualified professional teacher hoping to reach greater heights in academia. As a young researcher, I have attended conferences, seminars, and workshops. I have also published scientific papers in both national and international journals.
How do you hope this research will impact your community?
This research was for my masters’ dissertation, and I had the opportunity to work in a place close to my hometown; in Rimi Local Government Area of Katsina, with many local communities. Neighbouring those villages is a dam, which is the major source of water for farm and domestic use. In that area, I sampled four primary schools for determination of schistosomes among school-aged children. I was able to examine over 250 urine and faecal samples each, from all the four primary schools, with the consent of their schoolmasters and parents. The research was aimed at determining the prevalence of both intestinal Schistosomiasis and urogenital Schistosomiasis. Compared to the previous record of the Federal Ministry of Health in Nigeria (well documented data on Schistosomiasis in the same area), the prevalence of the disease was relatively higher. I came to think, what is the major cause of the increase in prevalence and transmission of the disease in the area? I assumed that the dam may have been contaminated. Then I decided to study the biodiversity of the snail vectors/intermediate hosts transmitting the parasites, as it is a waterborne disease.
Talking about making an impact in the environment, where I conducted the research in 2018, people in the area are still using the dam water for their consumption; this exposes them to the risk of transmission. I was able to detect both species – Bulinus and Biomphalaria snail species. These are the major vectors of these two diseases, intestinal and urogenital Schistosomiasis. So, if those vectors remain present in that water, it is a clear indication that the disease will keep on being transmitted. I’m now working to see if I can get a scholarship to pursue my PhD. Hopefully during my PhD, I can build up on the previous research for possible intervention, or maybe develop a means of public enlightenment, and to get the government to take care of these places. I would love to make a change in that particular area. Public enlightenment can increase awareness on the impact of the disease and its associated risk factors. School health education programmes will also help, most especially for those pupils vising and playing close to the shores of the dam. It would be an achievement if parents of the children will also be enlightened, to restrict their kids from going to such risky areas.
Tell us about the story behind the photo you submitted?
The photo was taken in March 2018 when I was conducting field work. I sampled for those snail species for 11 months, starting from September 2017, and I was able to complete it in August 2018, before I bagged my MSc degree. I was often accompanied to the site by a friend. Sometimes we would go twice a month. I had to measure for the physicochemical parameters of the water, which may fluctuate from time to time. In the best periods, I got the exact species I was looking for. They are not the only species there; there are so many other species, like those in the other pictures I shared. I was able to collect the vectors of schistosomiasis, most especially the Bulinus snail. The Bulinus snail is the one that transmits the urogenital Schistosomiasis, otherwise known as bilharzia. Initially one cannot conclude that the dam is the primary source of transmission of the disease among people living there. I took it forward, by examining the snails’ for schistosome cercariae. I was able to find out that those snails contain the larvae of the parasite. That was a clear indication to show that the parasites have been transmitted via the same water body. That was when I concluded there is a need to make a control of the water, maybe through biological or chemical control, in a way that will not affect individuals who use the water. That was how I got to snap the picture. If you notice in the picture, I am using something like a shovel. It is not a shovel actually – it’s a scoop net. I improvised it myself. I couldn’t get one in the market in my area, so I had to get the net and metals and take it to welder to produce it for me. I was able to use it efficiently to do the work, and I got what I wanted.
What are your long-term career goals?
Well, back in my days as an undergraduate, I have always been zealous to reach higher feats of academic excellence. By finding myself in teaching profession, I have already started achieving some of the goals. Like I mentioned, I am a classroom teacher who takes secondary school students biology classes. I am also a part-time lecturer working in a named college of health sciences, taking courses like General Biology, Introductory Microbiology, and Genetics. It made realise that I am now in a better position to make positive change in the lives of others.
However, another major concern is how I can extend the knowledge to other people out there, especially people that are vulnerable to the diseases we are studying in class. Hopefully in the next two to three years, I’ll be able to extend that knowledge far, possibly through networking. Now that we are in the digital world, we could make simple groups on social media, WhatsApp, Twitter, and the rest, to collaborate with other scientists who are more expert than me.
I am a member and Educational Advisor of an initiative called ACRI, which is a non-profit NGO, founded by concerned youth in western Nigeria. The acronym stands for Almajiri Child Rights Initiative, which is popular and all over Nigeria. In Katsina we have our own unit and office, and we are working towards the success of those Almajiri students. This has been achieved by providing them with access to better healthcare, nutrition, shelter, and a reinvigorated educational curriculum that prepares them for a life of dignity. As a team, we have promoted the welfare of more than 100 Almajiri children through our monthly contributions, individual donations, awareness campaigns and advocacy, wide stakeholder engagement, and persuading executive and legislative levels to take decisive action. We work as a close peer group, playing a vital role in the actualization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially in limiting the number of out-of-school children and ensuring quality education by enrolling Almajiri children in formal schools. Under my supervision I have 10 to 11 children who have now graduated from primary schools, and they are moving ahead. But we are not a big organisation. The little we have cannot sustain those children, and that’s why we are calling on all stakeholders to intervene. This is one of the career goals I have always wanted to achieve. As a teacher I am a role model, and as teachers we are always aiming to change the lives of others, either with our words or even using our own manpower to help.
God willing, in the next five to six years I see myself as an academic doctor and senior staff working in an educational or research institution. I hope to build research networks during my career, which will pave the way for future collaborative studies. I hope to accomplish good research results, publish more qualitative papers, and be well prepared to take on the chances of a future career in lecturing or community intervention programs.
Can you tell us about successes in your career that you are proud of?
One of the major successes is I was able to graduate on time. In Nigeria, a bachelor’s degree normally takes four years. I started around 2008 and graduated in 2012. I couldn’t find a job early on, so I started as a volunteer in schools as a biology teacher. Later on, in 2016, I went for my Masters’ in Umaru Musa Yar’adua University in Katsina. I was able to graduate in 2018 and immediately after I graduated, I was able to secure a job with the state government. This is one of my successes and it reflects on my performance. Secondly, being part of ACRI is a success as I have made a lot of changes there. Being part of the team, I have contributed my little experience and skills I have into the group, and we are able to achieve some of the goals. Even if it is only one person’s life that we were able to impact positively, then it is a great win for us. Hopefully the government will intervene and maybe international bodies.
What do you love most about being a researcher?
What I love most about research is its own transition. Wherever you lay your hands on a particular research area, one has to learn something new. That is what I love most about research. Even the fields that you are into, like I said I’m into biology, there will always be something new that comes out of it. That is what I love as a teacher. You can’t just continue teaching without going for additional qualifications or education. You have to diversify, and in that process, you get to new ideas; new knowledge will come in. I love learning about new things, especially the environments that I have no knowledge about. To get to know people more, getting to know interdisciplinary research – it doesn’t have to be my own field of study. Maybe the relation between my own field and in relation to other fields, not only in sciences but also in humanities for example. Knowledge is always good; no knowledge is wasted.
Have you got anything exciting coming up this year that you’re working on?
Currently we are working on a review paper. Two of my friends and I are collaborating on a paper that has to do with this outbreak of dengue fever in Bangladesh. Dengue fever is transmitted by the mosquito vector. We already have a manuscript that we have submitted for publication. Dengue fever has been persistent and continuous there – the outbreak started, based on the literature, around the year 2000. It is believed to be due to climate change, as well as behaviour of people towards waste disposal and contamination of environment. Instead of the mortality rate dropping over the years, based on the records we have, 2023 was the year with the highest rate of mortality. We decided to go back to the literature, to the year 2000 and up to 2023. That will give us a clearer picture of what is happening in Bangladesh and how to take care of it.
What do you enjoy doing outside of your work?
A lot of things! One of them is playing table tennis. When I have breaks or holidays, I love watching movies and soccer with my loved ones at home. Even sometimes I don’t mind playing video games with the children, just for fun and sharing happiness.
When did you first learn about AuthorAID and what AuthorAID activities have you participated in? How have they helped you in your career?
Well, I am new into the community. I started with the course that we just completed, the proposal writing course [Mastering Grant Proposal Writing: Pathways to Successful Research Funding]. That was the first time I got to know about AuthorAID, and it was through a friend who sent the link to me to register, and here we are. I will find opportunities to engage myself in free courses like this as I learnt a lot from the course. There are a lot of mistakes that I have been making while writing research proposals. Probably, some of them were reasons I couldn’t get grants or Masters’ scholarship when I was applying as a graduate assistant. I’ve come to realise, for example, sticking to mission statements, which is one of the most important things. Another thing I have learnt in the recently completed course was the method of “Assert-Justify” also called “tell them your aim, and then convince them”, by justifying how you want to achieve that aim. That was very helpful. I submitted an assignment which was based on a short research grant proposal, and the person who reviewed the assignment made many positive comments on it. This goes to show how I was able to correct some of the mistakes I have been making earlier. Thanks to AuthorAID and all the facilitators, without them, I wouldn’t have noticed some of the mistakes.
If you could give early career researchers like yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
My advice to all early career researchers is to always have perseverance. Sticking to something, you have a goal on, and dedicate your time to it. There are issues of financial status, or the inability to secure a grant or scholarship, but one should not be redundant. You can make a change; it’s not just about getting bunch of degrees – changing the life of a person can start even within your home. One has to be dedicated enough to come into the society and contribute. So, when it comes to researchers, perseverance is what counts. One has to be steadfast when it comes to the issue of research. In my own case, for years I could not get scholarship to pursue a PhD degree, but that did not stop me from engaging into community activities, or learning something new, just like the recently concluded course. I also believe that should not be an excuse for me not to share my little knowledge to the outside world. You can try once and fail; you could send a paper and it gets rejected, or you don’t get accepted for a scholarship. One shouldn’t think OK, so I didn’t get accepted this year, so I am not going to apply next year. You have to improve from your failures. It’s just like the saying: ‘success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is only the courage to continue that counts’ in life. So, one has to continue moving. This is a piece of advice to me and to all early career researchers out there.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Almost all the pictures I shared were snapped by my friend who used to accompany me [to the sampling site]. Thanks to him! We normally use his car for transport to the study area. I’ll also say thank you to AuthorAID for giving me the chance and opportunity to pursue the course in the first place, and also to take part in the “Capture Your Research” competition, which I was able to win. Shout out to the members of the AuthorAID community who voted for me. A lot of people took the effort to vote for my picture. It is not that mine is better than the rest; all of us are winners in one way or the other. Luckily enough I was the winner and I’ll say thank you to the AuthorAID community, and to the other contestants for joining the competition.
The theme for this year’s World Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) Day is ‘Unite. Act. Eliminate’. Would you like to comment on the day and the theme?’
For the World Neglected Tropical Diseases Day, I would like to extend my warm condolences to the families of about 2000 Bangladeshi who lost their lives as a result of the 2023 Dengue fever outbreak (one of the NTDs). As for Schistosomiasis, the NTD of my research interest; who’s 85% of global cases are from Africa, I am deeply touched. There’s very urgent need to increase surveillance and devise new strategies for mitigating and preventing the disease. This calls for immediate intervention of all stakeholders. Act now! Invest in NTDs! People are at risk, suffering and dying!
However, in response to the 2024 NTDs theme (“Unite, Act, Eliminate”), I say:
We need to wake up! We are humans. We need to be resilient. It’s not too late. Let’s come together; We can still fight against the devastating impacts of climate change and the un-ending abuse of environment caused by pollution and violation of rules.
If you would like to connect with Usman, he has provided the below links:
We really enjoyed speaking with Usman, and thank him for his time. We wish Usman all the best in his future endeavours and studies.
Thank you to the AuthorAID community for voting in this Capture Your Research Contest, and we look forward to sharing the next one with you!
Keep an eye on this page https://www.authoraid.info/en/e-learning/ for upcoming courses, or participate in one of our self-study courses.