Women In Biostatistics – Susan Wanja Gachau

We have another recommendation from one of the people who support us; Dorcas Kareithi. Meet one of the strongest women Africa has in Biostatistics;

Hi Susan, I welcome you to Words That Count. Thank you for joining us today
Hi Winnie, good afternoon to you. Thank you for inviting me and congratulations on the great work you are doing. We must have some of this information out there. You are creating a platform for many young girls to interact with people who are ahead of them – if even if it’s indirect.

Thank you for the kind words, Susan!

My first question is about you introducing yourself to the audience
My name is Susan Wanja Gachau from Nairobi, Kenya. I am a Statistician by profession – with a passion straight from undergraduate until my recent Ph.D. in Biostatistics from the University of Nairobi. I have been working as a Statistician for a Kenyan research institution called Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) Wellcome Trust. I recently transitioned to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the same capacity as a Statistician.

Biostatistics seems like a hot career in Kenya; did you know that you would end up here?
I didn’t exactly know that I would end up as a Statistician but I used to perform well in Mathematics. As you mentioned, most of us grew up knowing about medicine, teaching, or nursing. No one ever mentioned anything like Biostatistics to me or gave me that kind of direction!

In the first years of high school, I used to perform poorly! I don’t know if it was me or the kind of mentorship I received then. We got a new Mathematics teacher during my third year who changed everything for me. He realised that I was doing well in other science subjects like Chemistry and Biology. He challenged me that if I could do well in those other subjects, why not Mathematics!

It’s at that point that I started improving and performing well in Mathematics. He also mentioned that one of the former Kenyan Vice Presidents was a Statistician. That was my first time to know that someone could pursue Statistics as a career and become a Statistician.

After high school, I had performed well in Mathematics and started seeking career mentorship from professionals who guided me into Statistics. At the university, I chose it as my first choice and was luckily admitted to the University of Nairobi. Statistics wasn’t a popular course at that time; so we were only 10 students, with 2 ladies. I joined the course prepared because I was told that Statistics was a hard course.

Because of our good performance, the university gave us scholarships to pursue master’s degrees in Mathematical Statistics. I remember admiring one lady who was doing Biostatistics during my undergraduate days. She was a well-trained Statistician and I wanted to be like her. This led to my search for a master’s degree overseas, which I got in Biostatistics at Hasselt University, in Belgium.

I differed from my Nairobi program and went to Belgium for 2 years for my intense course. That course made me the Statistician I am today. I then returned to Nairobi and finished the one I had started before taking a break to practice at KEMRI Wellcome Trust. I then went back for my Ph.D. in Biostatistics after 4 years. It took me 3 years, and here I am, haha.

I like the fact that you prioritised yourself above the societal pressure of doing a Ph.D. immediately after your master’s degree.
I faced that pressure while in Belgium. Everyone felt like I had to go for it immediately but I felt like I needed to gather some work experience before getting a Ph.D. And, that’s exactly what I did. I needed the experience and the break. It was also time for me to figure out what exactly I wanted to do. By the time I went for the Ph.D., I even knew what topic I wanted to work on. With the help of my Ph.D. supervisors, I developed a research topic that I was passionate about. I also felt emotionally and psychologically prepared then. So, yeah, it was very helpful.

You have been lucky to make mindful decisions in your career path! What can you say has been your biggest challenge so far?
Statistics is not easy; it requires a lot of focus and high-level discipline. I had to make a lot of sacrifices here and there to understand what I was working on and be productive at it. I had to spend time away from family and other things I enjoyed doing. At the end of it all, I wanted to come out with no regrets. I decided to focus my energies and finish my Ph.D. within a short time (three years) then I would return to my normal life with family and friends.

Another challenge has been having to move overseas when I was young, different culture, and meeting new people. The good thing is that I met people who have been my friends until now.

How do you generally pull yourself out of challenging situations and bring positivity out of them?
One way I usually encourage myself is by knowing that the challenge is temporary, and storms are part of life. So I persevere and make it a point to get out strong and able to move forward. I always look at the positive out of every situation. I start with my end goal in mind. The beauty lies in that feeling of fulfillment after the challenge is gone.

I am also one person who hates starting something and leaving it in the middle. That’s exactly why I had to return to my first master’s in Nairobi; I had to finish what I started.

Tell us about some of the most prestigious moments along your journey
I have several, right from high school, haha. I joined high school with some of the least marks in my class but that didn’t deter me from doing well. In my final year, I was among the best students in the KCSE examinations in my school.

The second prestigious moment was getting a first-class for my undergraduate degree. That has opened so many doors. I believe that the master’s scholarships I got were determined by that degree. Also getting my new job is such a big thing for me.

The climax of it all so far is getting my Ph.D.! Persevering through all the stormy seasons and hardships, then hearing your name being read among the graduating people is huge!

If it has nothing to do with work, what do you enjoy doing?
My hobbies change quiet with time, haha. But one constant thing is spending time with my young daughter and spending time with friends and family. I also love reading books, not just as a hobby but I believe it’s important to keep informed and educated.

Do you have a favourite quote?
There’s one I came across and put on my Whatsapp profile picture. It says; “Do not ask for permission to fly. The wings are yours and the sky belongs to nobody” ~ Anonymous. That motivation comes from within, no one should be permitting you to do what you want.

What’s your word of encouragement for a young girl in STEM?
It goes back to that quote; if you are interested in STEM, it’s not about who says what or why! The moment you identify what you are interested in then you throw your heart into it and everything else will follow suit. Some of us were discouraged to join the university! While collecting my administrative documents, one of the people in those offices asked for my course. When I said Statistics, their attitude was different. According to him, Statistics was for lazy people; my good grades would have been better off in a more serious course. I didn’t listen to him because I knew what I wanted to do.

Lastly, no one can deem the light in you; only you can do that to yourself.

Thank you very much, Susan, for speaking with me. It is always reassuring to speak to strong African women with so much talent and wisdom. Congratulations upon the Ph.D. once again.

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27 Responses

  1. Congratulations Susan.I am following your footsteps closely. after graduating with BSc. Applied Statistics with computing from Moi University in 2017, it took me time to decide on MSC course owing to the fact that I got a job as Monitoring and Evaluation officer in a HIV/AIDS project.
    It was until 2020 in march when I applied for MSc. Medical Statistics at the University of Nairobi. I was considered and I am currently in second year finalizing course work.

  2. This is so great! Congrats Susan. Is there a way I can connect with you? I just started my PhD in Mathematical Statistics from UoN and I need to finish in three years too, I guess I can learn from you.
    You are an inspiration!

    1. Thank you, Daniel, for the kind words towards Susan, and for reading her story. Our purpose is to encourage as many Africans as possible. We wish you the best in your Ph.D. journey.

  3. This is encouraging Susan!!
    I am also an undergraduate BSc Applied Statistics with Computing with a passion to do medical research after my masters in Biostatistics after I complete my undergraduate this year.

  4. Powerful Susan. It was beautiful seeing you walk the Phd journey with so much focus and zeal.
    Proud of your achievement Susan!

      1. Wow. Congratulations Susan. This is very encouraging. I have seen you walk this PhD journey with so much commitment. You really inspired me. I hope to finish my PhD soon.

  5. Am a nursing student.What really made me a nursing student has never revealed to me I guess it was by default.Your path in this life has encouraged me to such a great extent.I have a dream of pursuing medical statistics at masters level.I have noted your encouraging quote down and I promise to fly owing to the fact that skies belong to no one
    Thank you very much.

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