For our April Women in COG event, the team hosted a discussion with Dr Senjuti Saha, a molecular microbiologist who is currently Director at the Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF) in Bangladesh – and also the country’s foremost researcher in the genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2.
You can watch the full recording of the event from the 7th April, 2022 and read our summary of the conversation below.
After acquiring her PhD in Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto in Canada, Senjuti moved back to Bangladesh to work on the front lines of public health. Expanding on her decision further, Senjuti said that “while it was very exciting, I didn’t know how my work in Canada would reach people. I like talking to people, I like being part of the community – and I was missing that working in a lab in Canada.” For Senjuti, science is an invaluable discipline that can have a tangible impact on improving the communities we live in. She added that this is particularly the case in Bangladesh. “In resource-constrained settings the scientific work you do has a much better chance of having a high impact.”
However, Senjuti is open about the fact that there were times when she questioned herself, when the attitudes of the people around her – both in Canada and Bangladesh – would affect her confidence. This stemmed from the fact that her scientific ambitions did not receive the same level of support as her male peers. “Usually when a man moves for work the question is, ‘is your wife coming with you?’ but when a woman moves the reaction is, ‘oh, you’re leaving your husband here?’” Senjuti explained that this type of feedback was so frequent and normalised that overcoming it was like having to deal with “death by a thousand cuts”. During these challenging moments, where Senjuti’s sense of purpose was disrupted by unwelcome opinions and unsolicited advice, she turned to her parents and her immediate family as a form of support – she believes that having this support system in place was vital.
The conversation next turned to the work that Senjuti and the CHRF team have done over the past two years, where the COVID-19 pandemic has had both negative and positive consequences. When the virus initially began to spread, its novelty predictably garnered a lot of attention. The CHRF labs were the first in the country to carry out SARS-CoV-2 sequencing – and the first private labs to start COVID-19 testing. Senjuti clarified that while “we felt very privileged that we were in a position to do this, it meant that all our other research projects and surveillance mechanisms, for endemic diseases for example, came to an abrupt end.” Senjuti doesn’t envision that the funding or resources that were in place before will return. “A lot of the surveillance systems for endemic diseases, like dengue, and vaccine-preventable bacterial diseases, that we have been conducting for decades now, will probably not happen again – or we will have to start them from scratch.”
The COVID-19 pandemic changed not only what funders and charitable organisations attended to, but also what the media focused on. Senjuti pointed out that outlets ranging from national newspapers to popular TV stations in Bangladesh started to notice their work. “This was amazing because we had been sequencing for a while and nobody was interested, but suddenly when it was SARS-CoV-2 our work was highlighted,” she says. For Senjuti, the most encouraging result of the coverage of the CHRF’s pioneering work was re-igniting people’s interest in science, especially young girls’. Senjuti now receives a lot more applications for internships and career opportunities, and personal notes from young girls saying, “I also want to become a scientist and work for the country and for the community”.
Senjuti and some of her closest colleagues and collaborators have also recently launched a new programme, ‘Building Scientists for Bangladesh’, in which they hope to promote science as a viable career for girls and young women. To that end, CHRF’s profile and increased visibility as a result of the pandemic has been crucial. Senjuti noted that, “launching the programme so quickly has been possible because a lot of the country knows about us, so when we want to partner with schools and universities, it happens very quickly. People know us and people know that we deliver”.
Senjuti Saha, PhD
Senjuti Saha is a molecular microbiologist and an activist based in Bangladesh. She is currently the Director & Scientist at the Child Health Research Foundation, where she works at the intersection of microbiology and public health. After acquiring her PhD in Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto in Canada, she moved to Bangladesh to work in the front lines of public health. Currently, she focuses on preventable pediatric infectious diseases, with the goal of using modern molecular technologies including on-site metagenomics to identify etiologies that evade standard laboratory testing. She has established genomic surveillance to track and understand the molecular basis of antimicrobial resistance in endemic bacterial pathogens. Her team also works to estimate the indirect impacts of vaccines on the overall health system of resource-constrained settings. Her work is grounded in advancing health and research equity – Senjuti believes that everyone across the world should have equal access to the practice and benefits of science.
About Women in COG
The COG-UK consortium has over 500 members with a range of scientific and business expertise in genomics, bioinformatics, operations clinical science and public health. Women in COG is a supportive network to share experience and knowledge and to promote science careers in women and girls.
This was an event in our series of monthly lunchtime Women in COG events and everyone (regardless of gender) is welcome to attend. The events will feature a conversation with a guest or consortium member followed by an informal Q&A.
Check out our past and upcoming Women in COG events.