SCI Foundation is now Unlimit Health. Learn more about what the change means for our ongoing efforts to eliminate neglected tropical diseases

Q&A with Sylviane Miharisoa, entomologist in Madagascar

8 February 2024

To mark International Day of Women and Girls in Science we had a conversation with Sylviane Miharisoa, an entomologist with a passion for mosquitoes and vector-borne disease research Madagascar. Sylviane reminds us of the hurdles that women pursuing a career in science face, but also of systemic inequalities that still exist.

Tell us a bit about yourself

Sylviane’s Masters journey with her classmates, starting to learn about insects

My previous research experience has focused on the ecology of insect vectors in my home country of Madagascar. My interest stems from the fact that vector-borne infectious diseases account for a large proportion of diseases of national and global importance here in Madagascar. In fact, the WHO estimates that almost half of the world’s population will be infected with at least one vector-borne pathogen during their lifetime. To reduce transmission and improve surveillance and control of vector-borne diseases, I want to understand the ecology of vectors, the determinants of vector species distribution, and the interaction of the vector community with host populations. 

My research path began with an eye-opening project on dengue vectors in Madagascar. It was fascinating to observe how mosquito species effortlessly adapt to their environments. This experience was a wake-up call, highlighting the scarcity of local studies on such a crucial subject. Moving forward, I delved into projects on Rift Valley Fever and West Nile virus, which were my gateway into the realms of laboratory work and mosquito identification. These projects not only expanded my technical skills but also deepened my understanding of the research community and its workings.

Leading the mosquito surveillance for a malaria project was a pivotal moment in my career. It was an enriching project that not only aimed to tackle malaria transmission but also allowed me to engage with the international scientific community and expand my professional network. I’m profoundly thankful for the collaborations and mentorship I experienced during this period.

Currently, I’m applying for PhD programs at various universities with the aim of leading my own research projects and pursuing excellence in my field. My ambition is to explore scientific questions that have long intrigued me, particularly in the realm of vectors and vector-borne diseases. My research question is: “How do mosquitoes and the diseases they spread adjust to novel geographical areas?” These issues are a constant presence in the lives of people in Madagascar, a country challenged by poverty. Unfortunately, due to limited access to education and awareness, many live with the threat of these diseases without a full understanding of them. My goal is to contribute to changing this through my research and advocacy.

What are the barriers facing women who pursue a career in science?

Larvae sampling with children in the community.

In Madagascar, women aspiring to careers in science face numerous challenges, rooted deeply in traditional expectations, cultural values, and gender stereotypes. These barriers are compounded by familial and financial constraints, making it difficult for many Malagasy women to pursue STEM fields. Additionally, communication gaps between professors and students can further hinder their personal and professional development, preventing them from acquiring essential scientific knowledge and skills. And the most intriguing is the access to resources. In other places that are the capital of Madagascar, access to resources like the internet is difficult, the access rate will be under 19.73%.

Have you faced any barriers? If so, how have you overcome them?

Throughout my journey as a woman in the realm of science, I’ve encountered numerous obstacles not just within the confines of research. Being a woman, especially in fieldwork, often means facing underestimation due to both my gender and sometimes my youth. The struggle for respect and acknowledgment is real, particularly in areas where cultural norms still place women in a subordinate position. 

From a young age, my curiosity and eagerness to learn were boundless. At six, I dreamt of taking classes in violin, cooking, and languages. Yet, financial constraints limited my educational opportunities; my family struggled to consistently afford even my basic schooling. Post-secondary school, I was fortunate to receive a regional scholarship for the top 14 students in Vakinankaratra, a province of 2 million, which covered my tuition for three years. With a modest scholarship of USD $90 per year, I managed to purchase a USD $40 computer that, predictably, fell short of meeting the technical needs for data analysis. University life was marred by frequent strikes and subpar courses, often leaving us with little more than a PDF or a link as our educational resources.

Sylviane exploring the forest for new fieldwork on mosquito collection. Leading the mosquito surveillance for a malaria project was a key moment in her career.

The challenge of mastering English added another layer of complexity to my scientific education, given its limited usage and instruction in Madagascar. During the E2M2 training, conducted entirely in English, I struggled initially but was determined to improve my language skills. Despite making progress, the lack of practice post-training meant my newly acquired skills quickly faded. Motivated by a desire to learn, I sought out both funded opportunities and free online courses to improve my English, allowing me to better communicate with my American principal investigator during these times and other English-speaking colleagues.

One of the most disheartening aspects of my career has been observing the dominance of foreign-led research in Madagascar, conducted primarily in languages other than our own. This not only complicates the learning process for local students but also restricts the sharing of research findings with the broader community. Equally troubling is the apparent disparity in treatment and opportunities between local and foreign researchers, despite comparable qualifications and experience. This stark inequality has led to profound disappointment and a critical reevaluation of the prevailing academic system.

This narrative isn’t just my story; it’s a reflection of the broader challenges faced by women in science, particularly in environments where systemic and cultural hurdles persist. It underscores the importance of resilience, adaptability, and the ongoing struggle for equality  in the scientific community.

What would be your advice to women in endemic countries wanting to pursue a career in science?

Sylviane at the RSTMH annual lecture, receiving a prize for best academic poster from Dr Wendy Harrison and Prof Margaret Gyapong, co-Presidents Elect.

If you’re a woman wanting to work in science in places where it’s hard, remember this: your dreams and big goals are important. Even though I’m still growing in my career and might not have all the answers, I believe in aiming high and chasing your dreams. I want to finish with a short story that says a lot: ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, try spending the night in a room with a mosquito.’ This means even if you feel small or face big challenges, you can still do important things. Like a mosquito, you can make a big impact in science, no matter the obstacles. Keep going and believe in yourself.