SAMRC funding impacts on young scientist’s success journey

When Prof Salome Maswime first discovered her love for maternal and foetal medicine some years back, little did she know that today she’ll be hailed as a high-achieving Specialist Obstetrician and Gynaecologists – one of the few in South Africa. A success story which she says may not have been possible without the support of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC)’s Self-initiated Research (SIR) Grants Programme.  

The SIR Grant Programme is designed to support original research initiated by a researcher at a recognised research institution in various areas of health. This is one of the many funding mechanisms the SAMRC uses to contribute to the development of the next generation of scientists that will respond to the country’s burden of diseases.

As a beneficiary of this Programme, Maswime was able to complete her PhD in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Wits University, which focused on investigating the reduction of maternal morbidity and mortality from caesarian section related hemorrhage. She says it was through the grant that she could cover the running expenses and ongoing research costs, which included publishing her work and travelling to and from international meetings where her research was recognised. In her study, she looked at bleeding during and after caesarean section, which she says is one of the leading causes of maternal death in South Africa.

“We studied 15 hospitals in Johannesburg, and outcomes of women and found that women in a functional health system, with access to multidisciplinary care were more likely to survive complications related to caesarean section,” she said. She added that according to a recent study which she also contributed to, African women are 50 times more likely to die from caesarean section complications than women in high income countries. Further highlighting the need for quality surgical care during and after caesarean sections.

The passion for saving mothers and babies – where it all began
Asked what sparked her passion, the Limpopo-born scientist says because of her love for working with people and wanting to help those in need, she has always wanted to be a doctor. But it was during her community service training in Greytown Hospital in KwaZulu Natal that she began to find working in the labour ward as both thrilling and a more rewarding experience.

She explains that her journey to this point has not been an easy one, saying that being a clinician scientist meant she had to split her time between treating patients and conducting the much-needed research that can improve health outcomes for mothers and babies. In 2018, she was awarded the Discovery Foundation MGH Fellowship, and she spent a year as a research fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. During her stay there, she says not only did she learn specific skills related to her research and clinical interests, but she also had a grasp on advocacy and policy, often attending meetings organised by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF.

“Whilst I have always been passionate about my work as a clinician, I found that through research I can be a voice to policy makers, locally and internationally,” said Maswime.

More about Maswime
If indeed multi-tasking is a thing for women, then Maswime is one good example. When the 35-year-old wife and mother of two playful boys, is not doing research or treating high-risk pregnancies and making critical surgical decisions as part of her clinical work, she is President of the South African Clinician Scientists Society, which she together with seven other specialists, founded in 2018.  She explains that the Society was established to create a collegial environment and support for clinician scientists to become medical experts and global leaders – through research training, advocacy and collaboration; celebrating excellence; and leadership training and mentorship. Again, she says the SAMRC has been supportive to the society since the time of its launch and hopes to have them as one of their core research partners in the future.

Because of her interest and proven track record in global health and disparities in caesarean sections, Maswime has attended and presented her work in global surgery conferences, this led to her recent appointment as Associate Professor and Head of Global Surgery at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Effective from July 1st, her role is to lead and develop the UCT Global Surgery Consortium – which she says aims to be the interface between public health and surgical disciplines, as we work towards achieving universal health coverage.  

She explains that there is an unmet need for safe and timely surgery in 5 billion people globally, majority happen to be in Africa and other low- and- middle income countries and that her new job doesn’t only focus on disparities caesarean sections, but all surgical disciplines in UCT and anaesthesia.

“We plan to create an academic programme that will equip leaders in health to improve access to surgical care, and we aim to create research fellowships, that will contribute to the development of new knowledge,” emphasized Maswime who aspires to become a global leader in health, and to make a meaningful contribution to science and to humanity.  

Accolades
Among her many accolades, in 2017 Maswime was listed as one of Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans. On the same year she received the Young Achiever and trailblazer recognition by the then President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma and the Destiny Magazine’s Power of 40 Award for her commitment and tenacity in the public sector.

In 2018 she received the Young Achiever Award for ‘Ongoing research in Maternal Health’ from Africa Forbes, Africa CNBC and the Africa Business News Group. Maswime was recently named by the Next Einstein Forum as a Next Einstein Fellow.