Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Nerds without borders – Juliette Mutheu


In part 2 of my series on scientists/researchers who work in international development (read part 1 here), I’d like to introduce you to Kenya’s First Lady of Science Communication (and closet science fiction fan), Juliette Mutheu…


Juliette has never allowed the extra thumb growing behind her left ear get in the way of her glamorous lifestyle.

1. What flavour of nerdy scientist are you?
I am a biomedical-flavoured scientist, with sprinkles of epidemiology and population health ingredients. During my honours degree I carried out research on a Melbourne cohort examining the risk factors linked to developing osteoarthritis in people over 40 years of age. After my honours, I moved back to my country of origin, Kenya, and did some research investigating malaria admission of children under the ages of 14. This research involved visits to several district hospitals around Kenya to collect 20 years worth of inpatient malaria admission data and also visits to the local meteorological stations to collect data that would be used to investigate the relationship between weather patterns and malarial cases in young children. Further on we would look at various government interventions like introducing bed nets in communities and how this impacted on the admissions numbers, was this beneficial or not. I could go on but I will stop. Research can be very exciting and I love to talk about it.

2. What do you do now?
Currently I work at the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP) as the Science Communications and Policy Specialist. My job involves translating research evidence into easily comprehensible materials. I.e. take a paper or report and turn it around into a 2-page fact sheet or 4 page policy brief, contributing to the design and implementation of a communication and policy dialogue programme as well as managing the Institute’s website and social media platforms… twitter, facebook etc…

3. What has research got to do with international development?
Research for me is all about data and how we use that data. Data can be used to tell us a lot or provide a lot of information about a particular situation and how if we wanted to move from situation A (crappy health care, funds not being used strategically etc) to situation B (great health care for all, funds used to promote disease prevention or public health etc) we need to know what is the current situation. Research not only tells you where you are coming from… background of that situation, it also provides you with the current situation and further offers recommendations of how to tackle the problem and hopefully solve it and find yourself at Situation B. Development cannot happen without research really. If research was a person… I see it as an old (old here can be relative) wise man, experienced in the ways of the world and quite knowledgeable. Research is knowledge, it takes time to collect this knowledge and further takes time to be able to think about how this knowledge can be applied into existing contexts or situations. There are times in our personal lives that we go through this process of collecting information, thinking about it and then applying it… – you didn’t need to be a genius to do that?!

4. What have you been up to recently?
I recently moderated a session by HIVOS on the use of health data to inform policy and planning. I was seated with a panel of speakers, representatives from the Kenya Medical practitioners union; people with disabilities network, youth and development organisation and a patients’ rights activists foundation. These panellists just amazed me. I love great minds and problem solvers or people who just get on with solving problems. The thing that struck me the most was how quickly as a panel there seemed to be consensus that responsibilities should not only lie on governments or policymakers but also citizens. This was not at all surprising to me, working at AFIDEP, I quickly learnt how Kenya for example has some really good policy documents the problem is in implementing or putting into practice these policies. If you know Kenya well or have lived in Kenya for a while you will be familiar with the Swahili phrase: ‘Haki Yetu’ (Our Rights). An expression the public will chant when the government goes off the rails and it seems as though our rights are suddenly at peril. But to be honest do we really know our rights? Are we aware that we have good policies that are just waiting to be implemented and that we cannot rely on the government to do it all, i.e. we all demand for affordable and accessible health services for all… but am I at my specific locality finding out what needs to be done, how to facilitate/contribute to improvements and doing something about it?

5. What advice would you give to other science types who want to work in development?
There is a very good reason why you are doing/did research. Simplistically put it’s for progress for growth, success, understanding and gaining a deeper knowledge of an issue. All these contribute to development. I personally, treasure communication, making connections and creating/exchanging ideas because I want to see progress happen. In development I find that it’s a lot of dialogue, communication, talking to people about the evidence; problems and solutions; what’s the latest data on a given situation and what do you need to do about it. Scientists already have some, if not most of these attributes so focus on the dialogue, being supportive and learning from best practices.

6. Tell us something to make us smile?
I don’t know if this will make you smile… but I saw it on an organisation’s page and I just love it because I feel this should be the principles by which scientists and indeed development experts live by!

Go to the People
Live with them
Love them
Learn from them
Start with what they have
Build on what they know
But of the best leaders
When their task is accomplished
the work is done
The people will say
We have done it ourselves

– Lao Tzu

Hope you liked the interview – watch out for more nerds without borders coming soon!


6 thoughts on “Nerds without borders – Juliette Mutheu

  1. Pingback: Nerds without borders! | kirstyevidence

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