Women in Medical Statistics – Sarah Mulwa

Have you ever wondered whether the world of Medicine could intersect with Statistics? We have your answer today! Sarah walks us through her journey into joining Africa’s women in Medical Statistics;

Hi Sarah, thank you for joining us today. We should give Dorcas a trophy for all you wonderful women, haha
Hi Winnie, thank you for inviting me here. I am happy to share my story. And thank you for the work you are doing; allowing people to see all the unlimited opportunities before them. Through this exposure, people become curious and from there start exploring all these career paths.

Thank you for the kind words! Please give us a brief introduction about yourself
Thank you once again for having me, Winnie! My name is Sarah Mulwa and I [am] from Kenya, currently based in Nairobi. I was born and raised in Kitui county, which is a rural setting in Eastern Kenya.

Currently, I work as a research fellow, and my work involves using data to understand the mechanisms of impact for a complex HIV prevention program [DREAMS] among adolescent girls and young women in urban and rural Kenya. I am also involved in evaluating the impact of an education-entertainment campaign (MTV Shuga Down South 2) on the awareness, demand for, and use of HIV prevention products like Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis and HIV self-testing. I am a trained Statistician and I have been working in the medical research field for the last five years now.

While growing up, did you imagine yourself doing this kind of work?
I did not know that there was a career path related to being a statistician – the work that I am doing now! But it‘s funny when you sit back and look at all that has happened. You realize that all these things have somehow contributed to who you are today.

I attended a local school called Ngomoni primary school, before joining Maliku Girls Secondary School (where my dad used to teach). My parents invested in our education, and the mentorship, support, and encouragement from them have contributed greatly to who I am. In high school, I remember my Chemistry teacher telling me about this pre-university mentorship program by Equity Bank. I did not think much of the program, because it was only open to the best male and female students from each county.

Surprisingly, after the national exams, I emerged as the best female student in the county. So I got into the program for one year before joining university. This was a fundamental step in my journey because of the exposure it brought my way. The mentorship wasn’t specific to STEM, but I got to learn from amazing people including the CEO of the bank, and leaders of different international organizations. In addition, the opportunity to start working early on, – straight out of high school – instilled in me a very strong work ethic, interpersonal skills, and time management skills, which are useful attributes for any professional.

As I mentioned before, I did not know that I would be a Statistician. For my undergraduate studies, I pursued a degree in Actuarial Science, which involves applying mathematical and statistical methods to assess risk in insurance and financial markets. The course gave me a very strong foundation in statistics, probability, and numeracy skills. It was through the Equity program that I first engaged in designing a survey to study the prevalence of select health issues among scholars.

Results from that survey led to a plan aiming to increase awareness among the scholars. This was my first introduction to a research problem outside the classroom. That experience, combined with the courses we were undertaking at the university, and discussions with a few friends who were pursuing postgraduate degrees in statistics at the time led to a certain curiosity about the utility of statistics in understanding real-life issues.

I graduated from college and worked with the bank a couple of months before undertaking my master’s degree in medical statistics. Since then, I have worked with various organizations in health research both locally and internationally. As a Statistician, my work mainly involves designing studies, conducting research on various health outcomes, and leading statistical analyses. Every time someone asks me what my professional interests are, I like to say that it is “to apply statistical methods to better understand health and social problems”.

Let’s talk about some of the challenges you have faced along this journey
One of them was limited knowledge and exposure about opportunities available within STEM, especially during the transition period between high school and my first degree. This challenge mostly affects students in underserved areas like rural areas. Noting this gap, we started an initiative to create awareness about various courses within Kenya. Parents, as well as students, can use the resource to learn more about the different courses available in Kenya, and what each of them entails.

My other challenge was not having mentors; people who are more experienced [in the field] than I was, especially during the early years of my undergraduate studies. I sort of learned “on the way”. I need to mention that most of this has now changed. Right now, I actively pursue people or work that I believe will have an impact on me; people I would like to learn from. I am not scared of asking questions. Initially, it was different; I felt the urge to make everyone believe that I understood what they were talking about. I am now more knowledgeable, more competent, and more willing to learn.

You have mentioned what you do better now, but, can you throw more light on that, please?
The ability to overcome some of these challenges comes as you grow, gain more knowledge, and expand your networks. For example, in terms of the awareness bit, I now have a larger network of professional peers. We are on the same level in our careers and share experiences and opportunities.

Having mentors and supervisors who believe in me has also been a strong point in my life. There are times I do something that I am unsure about, but then my supervisor praises me for it. Those “tiny” moments build confidence and give me the courage to take on more complex work. I know that sometimes we can be hard on ourselves, but having people in our lives to cheer us on makes a big difference.

My other conscious decision is about my professional development; I am well-invested in it. This shouldn’t be something complicated for anyone; a simple but constructive discussion with a supervisor or someone you look up to counts!

Tell us about your prestigious moments of recognition as a Statistician
We all know that 2020 was very challenging for everyone. I managed to get 2 first-author academic papers published in peer-reviewed journals. One of the papers had taken a whole year to write, but I was able to finish it in 2020.

In 2021, I got awarded a scholarship to pursue my Ph.D. That’s another exciting news for me. Generally, through my education journey, I have gotten many awards and scholarships.

If it has nothing to do with work; how do you like spending your time?
I am an outdoor person; so you will probably find me taking long walks and appreciating green spaces. I also like spending time with my friends and family. However busy I am, I try to spare some time to catch up with them.

What is your favourite quote?
Haha, so I like reading/watching fiction and I am a fan of A Game of Thrones. My quote is from that series and it says, “Different roads sometimes lead to the same castle”. I love the quote because it reminds me that there’s no one specific way of achieving something (a goal).

How would you encourage a young girl in STEM?
Having said there’s no one way of achieving something, I would say that it is important to get someone who has more experience in a field you are interested in. Utilize events organized by different organizations within your area of interest. For example, if there are boot camps, conferences, workshops, or any other like-minded groups of people, try to join them. Their discussions will give you the exposure that you might not find in a classroom.

Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me, Sarah! Your love for nature is admirable. I hope we shall continue having more green around us to soothe our minds.  I appreciate your time with us and with you the very best at work. 

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8 Responses

    1. Thank you for reading, Mary! We hope this is information that younger girls can access and utilize for the best.

  1. Wow!! What a powerful encouragement to us the upcoming generation,thank you so much for such a word Sarah

    1. Thank you for reading, Sarah! Sarah truly has an inspiring journey. It’s upon the younger generation to make use of all that’s before them.

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