Go back

My story so far

Nigerian researcher Enitome Bafor overcame a dearth of funding and mentorship to excel in her field, all while raising her family. This is her story.

  • Age 39

  • Postdoctoral researcher studying uterine and ovarian biology, metabolomics and gynaecologic oncology at the University of Benin, Nigeria

  • PhD pharmaceutical science, University of Strathclyde (2014)

Before I began my MSc in 2004 in Nigeria I was intrigued by the incidence of leiomyoma (uterine fibroids) and wondered why there seemed to be no cure. I took an interest in the condition and hoped that through my research I could increase our understanding of it and provide possibilities for new treatment options.

Unfortunately, at the time my supervisor wasn’t quite aware of leiomyoma animal models. Reproductive pharmacology was not his primary research focus, and there was little funding for research. I had no choice but to change my research focus to something that could easily be performed in Nigeria. I took an interest in uterine contractility research and began to learn the basics.

I had so many questions regarding uterine (womb) function and activity, most of which I couldn’t get adequate answers to from my supervisors. Access to scientific literature was a huge problem and the people in the field I contacted rarely responded on time, or at all. I found myself having to find the answers by observing the uterus through my own experiments.

In my environment at the time, investigating medicinal plants was a trendy topic. Most of the studies were quite preliminary, but they seemed like the most cost-effective research that could be done with limited funding, facilities and resources.

I proceeded and came across a plant used in Nigeria traditionally for labour complications: Ficus exasperata. In my preliminary studies I found that the plant affected uterine contractility in two ways: both to prevent labour and to cause labour. This was a rather intriguing outcome, as the more common observation is for plants or natural products to have only one major effect.

I studied this plant’s activity with the resources available to me and graduated with a distinction in my MSc. By this time I had successfully established the activity of the plant on uterine contractility.

I decided to take the work further and see if I could isolate the active chemicals responsible for these activities and at the same time determine the mechanisms by which they do it. Of course, this next stage could not be adequately performed in Nigeria.

After searching for and writing to researchers around the world for over a year, I finally got a breakthrough at the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom. I was able to eventually clinch a Nigerian scholarship that enabled me proceed for a PhD in the UK. After this, I returned to Nigeria.

Funding has been, and still is, one of my biggest challenges.

Because of the kind of research we do in Nigeria (which is also due to poor resources), we are unable to successfully compete for international research grants.

It is a vicious cycle. I have applied for well over 50 grants and have been largely unsuccessful. I have, however, remained committed and continue to search for opportunities and grants.

The other challenge is mentorship. It’s been a Herculean task to find mentors to guide me through my career. At the early stages, I was on my own a lot. That is not to undermine the contributions of my supervisors, who have been as helpful as they possibly can.

Another great challenge has been raising a family alongside my academic studies and career as a lecturer. I am currently married with three children aged 14, 11 and 9. I had to cater for my family all through my MSc and PhD studies.

One of the most intense periods of my life was when I traveled to the UK, a new country, with my kids for my PhD. It was not an easy task, to say the least.

However, I managed to get my kids through school, maintain my home and finish my PhD in two years, which was considered an extraordinary feat (though I was not permitted to leave after two years as I was told that a PhD was for a minimum of three years).

My biggest help has been my family— my husband, parents and parents-in-law.

They pulled in the money I needed to obtain my visa and pay the initial instalment for my UK tuition fees. They have also been very supportive of my academics and career so far.

I also believe in prayers and consider dedication, commitment, patience and hard work to be virtues that have seen me through to this time.

The rewards have been refreshing. From my PhD I identified 14 compounds with potent effects on the female reproductive system. Six of them are novel compounds. In preliminary studies, one of the new compounds has shown greater potency in killing ovarian cancer cells than a currently widely used drug.

I have also effectively used modern technologies such as metabolomics to determine novel mechanisms of action of currently-used gynaecological drugs and proceeded to discover a new role for sodium channel blockers and a structural motif for calcium channel activity.

I achieved these discoveries and innovations despite the surrounding limitations. I currently lead a versatile and active research group in the University of Benin, where I strive to serve as an inspiration to younger generations of scientists, especially female scientists. I am also an active gender advocate. All this has earned me several awards and recognitions through the years, which make my struggles feel worthwhile.

Nigerian policymakers can and should make it easier for young scientists to excel.

I believe they should institute policies that adequately support research and then see those policies through. They should interface with research institutions and find out their needs and priorities. They should invest in research while putting proper measures in place to check for misuse of research funds.

There should be policies to encourage Nigerian companies and industries to take an interest in funding research institutions. There should also be policies to support training of individuals and reduce the workload of early-career researchers.

Research institutes should take a firm stand and call for funding. The amount of funding individuals bring into the institution should become a criterion for promotion. Fund-seeking should become an active culture, which is not the case in several research institutions in Nigeria.

Research institutes should also have policies that ensure laboratory development through student fees as well as policies that cater for female scientists, especially those who run families alongside careers.

Enitome Bafor is on twitter as @BEE_2017

Do you have a story to tell? Email editor@research-africa.net