Woman in Public Health: Prof Lizette Koekemoer

Lizette Koekemoer Prof Lizette Koekemoer is the Head of the Vector Control Reference Unit University of the Witwatersrand and her assay that differentiates between malaria vector species and other species has made a big impact on the South African malaria control.

What career path led you to the position you currently have?

I graduated with a BSc Agric(Hons) in 1995 at the University of Pretoria and started working as a Junior Medical Scientist at the end of 1994 in the South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR), today called the National Health Laboratory Service. The Medical Entomology Unit was headed by Prof Richard Hunt during that time. I started my MSc in 1996 under the supervision of Prof Maureen Coetzee and Prof Hunt and upgraded my MSc in 1998. I obtained my PhD in 1999 at the University of the Witwatersrand working on the molecular systematics of African malaria mosquitoes and specifically the Anopheles funestus group. I was also holding a Joint appointment with the University of the Witwatersrand as a junior lecturer. I was promoted to Senior Medical Scientist after I obtained my PhD in 1999 and worked in this position till 2008 when I was promoted to the Head of the Vector Control Reference Unit (former Department of Medical Entomolgy). I currently hold a joint appointment with the University of the Witwatersrand as Reader/Associate professor.

What is the nature of your current work?

Currently I supervise 9 students (5 PhD, 3 MSc and 1 BSc Honours) and host 2 Post-doctoral fellows. These students are currently involved in projects to understand the molecular mechanisms of insecticide resistance and immunity in malaria mosquitoes. There are also projects investigating molecular systematics of malaria vectors and fly species associated with forensic entomology. Most of these projects have led to the development of collaborations between scientists across the world and has led to an increased capacity within the Unit. I am also involved with co-workers in the Unit in looking at specific research questions that are relevant to the malaria control programmes in South Africa. In addition to this our Unit provides field support, laboratory support and training to these teams as needed.

What do you think is the most significant contribution you have made to the field of Public Health?

When I started my post-graduate studies Prof Coetzee identified a major limitation in identification of a specific group of species involved in malaria transmission. I therefore spent the next few years developing an assay that can rapidly and economically differentiate between malaria vector species and those species not involved in malaria transmission. This assay is currently the gold standard and is used by malaria control programmes across Africa. During the 1999/2000 malaria epidemic in South Africa it was possible to use this assay to rapidly determine that An. funestus had re-invaded South Africa and a swift change in the malaria control policy resulted in preventing an even greater epidemic. The success of South Africa’s malaria control after this epidemic is well known across the globe and my research made a significant contribution towards this.

Is there a particular women in Public Health that inspires you?

During my 17 years of working in the Public Health Sector I have been inspired by many people and two incredible women stand out for me. The first is Prof Maureen Coetzee who inspired me in starting my research career and provided me with mentorship and guidance as my career developed. She has taught me many things these past few years starting from collecting to identifying malaria mosquitoes in the field and today I love working with these small fascinating insects. There have also been very informative and intellectual discussions around the various aspects of vector control, student supervision and staff management around the tea table or during lunch, which was of great value. The second woman that has an impact on my career is Prof Valerie Mizrahi who I had small brief encounters with, but who helped me tremendously when I was torn between working and being a mother and helping me deal with guilt feelings and worries about neglecting my husband and my children. She placed things in perspective and allowed me to balance my family and research life and therefore allowed me to continue with my career.

What message would you like to give to women who want to make a successful career in Public Health?

The first golden rule from my side will be to absolutely ‘love what you do and believe in what you do’. Sometimes people will raise stumbling blocks in your path and make you believe that they cannot be overcome. It is during these times that you have to go on doing what you love regardless of these stumbling blocks, which then just become speed bumps, and they might slow you down, but they should never stop you. It is very important to meet up with people who can mentor and guide you during your career, these people will be able to support you when you need it and also help you to put life, opportunities and problems into perspective.

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