Lessons Learned at APOPO

By Kate Sears-Webb | Behavioral Research Technician

APOPO's Researcher Kate reflects on her time in Morogoro

Twenty minutes before I discovered APOPO’s posting for Behavioral Research Technicians, I bought a blue Rhino keychain. The beaded animal was handmade in Kenya and traveled a great distance to end up for sale at my office in North Carolina. When I approached my husband, Jamie, about wanting to move to Tanzania and work with African giant pouched rats, I held up my new keychain. It’s a sign, I declared!

It has been over a year since I joined the R&D team in Morogoro and as I transition from APOPO to a neuroscience PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I am reflecting on some of the themes I realized at APOPO and hope to build upon and foster throughout my career:

Promote women in science and science education. World-wide less than 30% of Research and Development professionals are women1. In the U.S., less than 10% of STEM field professionals are women of color2.

In high school I recognized the importance of identifying female scientists to admire. My 12th grade AP biology teacher stands out, but it was difficult to find women in science in my daily life. APOPO doesn’t just hire women, they hire women into managerial positions. I arrived in Tanzania and found myself surrounded by brilliant women in science!

APOPO’s Head of R&D and Training, Dr. Cindy Fast, and Head of TB, Dr. Lena Fiebig, promote science education and capacity building for our entire staff. At the time, even APOPO’s Chair of the Board was a woman and our Head of Mine Action Grants is Ashley Fitzpatrick, based in Mozambique. That is not to mention the many women working at various levels within the organization as managers, technicians, and trainers.

From the leading ladies of APOPO’s headquarters in Tanzania, I have learned that supporting women in science and encouraging science literacy is an active choice that anyone can make at any time. I plan on making that choice every day in my career!

Meet a diverse crowd and grow together. APOPO’s workforce diversity spans nationality, languages, religion, education, gender, and race. I am native English speaker, an American, with a behavioral research background and (previously) little knowledge about TB diagnostics.

During meetings about our TB programs, our Morogoro TB team, data coordinator, Stephen Mwimanzi, training supervisor, Haruni Ramadhani, and QA Officer, Dian Kuipers, mentored me until I mastered the terms and background information I needed to properly conduct behavioral research with TB samples.

I found that by explaining behavioral terms, such as extinction and motivation, to my colleagues who are non-native English speakers or have little science education, I established a better grasp on science and semantics. I intend on mentoring and supporting my future peers in the same fashion that my APOPO family continues to mentor and support me.

As much as I will miss my rats at APOPO and working in Tanzania, I leave behind a beautiful rat in TB training named Kate who will one day save lives. The rhino keyring now hangs beside my wooden APOPO rat keychain and both serve as a reminder of lessons learned and a reminder to always say yes to new adventures!

1.  UNESCO Institute for Statistics, August 2016.
2.  National Science Foundation, “Scientists and Engineers Working in Science and Engineering Occupations: 2015,” Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering Digest (2017).