Researcher of the Month: Dr Safari Kinunghi
Our Researcher of the Month for March is Dr Safari Kinunghi from MITU and NIMR in Tanzania. As co-PI of the Mikono Safi intervention, he tells us about his background, how he developed his field of expertise, and what he'd recommend for aspiring researchers.
What is your background?
I studied Veterinary Medicine at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania. I spent three years as a field vet, and then in 2001 completed my Masters in Tropical Veterinary Epidemiology and Infectious Disease at the Free University of Berlin, Germany. In 2002, I got a place in NIMR as an epidemiologist for tropical diseases – but this time in humans not animals.
In 2004, I undertook a Diploma in Research Methodologies in Demark, where I had the opportunity to work on schistosomiasis and soil transmitted helminths (STH). This short-term training gave me a chance to undertaken PhD at University of Copenhagen. My main research focus has been on schistosomiasis and STH infections.
In 2011 I returned to NIMR and continued working on tropical disease research and control. I headed up a research programme on parasitic diseases, and also led some studies on malaria.
How did you come to work on WASH?
I joined SHARE project because of my expertise in STH as well as community-based studies. We are exploring whether a hand hygiene intervention can complement other control measures like deworming campaigns, to bring about a more effective reduction in STH infections. I came in from a schistosomiasis and STH background, and have been able to link these skills together.
What are you learning from this study?
We are trying to integrate control approaches. STH focuses so much on treatments, but the research evidence has started to show that treatments alone are not enough. We need other approaches, such as hygiene, education and involving communities. By integration, you get the whole thing – you don’t just focus on one aspect. It’s important to see if these approaches can be integrated for better outcomes.
What do you enjoy about your work?
There are lot of things I enjoy. I like to interact with others, both those working in Tanzania but also with others elsewhere. We are able to meet to exchange ideas and information, design a way forward together, develop new research priorities, and refine our methods. It feels like you’re not alone but working together.
What do you find most challenging?
There are lot of challenges, a big one is getting research funds. Most of the time we have research ideas we want to pursue, but it’s difficult getting the funds. Developing research networks with the same interest helps us to strengthen our proposals for large-scale funding.
What have you worked on that you feel has had the greatest impact?
A number of our projects have had an impact where research is translated into policy. One example is a project on rapid diagnostic methods for schistosomiasis, which is now being taken up into policy and is being rolled out in national disease control programmes. This is one success – what we’re doing is being taken up by policymakers and being applied at a larger scale.
Our research has also contributed to developing personnel and infrastructure. MSc and PhD students join and become researchers. By developing individual researchers, you develop the institution. We also contribute to infrastructure development through projects purchasing equipment and building labs. When these projects come to an end, we’ve built a base for other projects to take over.
What one thing are you most proud on in your career to date?
I’m proud that I’ve been able to achieve my goals – not all, but at least many of them! Now a senior researcher, I have become an expert in schistosomiasis and STH research, and am well recognised in Tanzania and beyond. Colleagues who need expertise can come to me, both for simple things like reviewing applications or manuscripts or even contributing into regional or global initiatives, such as research and treatment guidelines. I’ve also been able to develop research networks across the world (in Denmark, UK, US, China).
What advice would you give to someone starting out in this area?
I like to help give young people guidance, including choose the right research area for them and matching their dreams with reality. If they have a good idea, they can succeed if they put in enough effort – but it won’t happen overnight! Young researchers will face challenges but these can be overcome. They should look for and take advantage of opportunities.