In Africa, feminine science. The researcher, now a specialist in sleep apnea, had never heard of this pathology before her sister was diagnosed.
For Fatoumata Ba, everything starts with a family story. Sleep apnea, the researcher had never heard about it before this diagnosis was posed on the pathology that suffered her sister. A few years later, she is rewarded by the L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO, Thursday, November 21 in Dakar, for her work on this unrecognized disorder to which she devotes her doctoral thesis.
The Senegalese is recognized as one of the specialists of the subject. One of the few African researchers who are at the forefront of this syndrome, in a country where « studies on sleep are very recent and not thorough, for lack of adequate equipment, » explains the young forty-year-old: « Although this pathology is frequent and leads to complications such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes, it is underdiagnosed because health professionals often do not know it. » And that’s what she would like to help change.
By focusing on this subject, the researcher did not choose an easy path. She soon realizes that conducting sleep studies is a challenge in Senegal, even though she is quickly noticed by Professor Lamine Gueye, director of the chair of health science at Gaston-Berger University (UGB). St. Louis, whom she joins.
However, he will have to learn patience. While it began its research in 2011, the laboratory of the UGB has a polysomnography device, essential for its experiments, for three years. And nine years will be necessary to overcome its problems and write his thesis, which she hopes to support in 2020. « It’s long », concedes the one to whom his peers have so often advised – in vain – to give up and move on.
« Serious and relentless, but cautious »
This tenacity is what makes her, today, an admired scientist. « Fatoumata works with commitment and selflessness, » says Professor Gueye, « She is a good researcher because she is serious, hard-headed, but cautious in the results, she presses nothing and is not easy to discourage. » Her seriousness and discipline earned her the nickname « The Iron Lady » in the corridors of the university. An image that is hard to imagine under his smile.
Still, the relentlessness in the work seems almost natural, as a trademark for this native of the suburbs of Dakar. Very early, the girl excels at school; she even graduated at the age of 17 in 1995. A feat at the time, especially for a girl. « But I was lucky enough to go to school early, » she says, as if to apologize for the precocity that, unsurprisingly, turns her to mathematics and physics.
At home, the love of research and the passion for science are a family affair. She grew up in a big brotherhood whose paths will all be scientific: several engineers, a doctor, a teacher-researcher at the Faculty of Medicine of Dakar. « At home, child, I have always talked a lot and heard about science, » she recalls.
Yet, in her adolescent head, she has a very different project: becoming a pilot in the Air Force … until social pressure catches her with a good word from her older brother: » You’re smart, go to medical school. » It is quickly done and Fatoumata Ba is a promotion major from the first year at the University Cheikh-Anta-Diop (UCAD) of Dakar.
There, she swallows the knowledge without difficulty and chooses to specialize in psychiatry. Head of the psychiatric division of the hospital center next door to UCAD for seven years, this knowledge bulimic is a parallel in master of biological and medical science, option physiology. « Much is never too much » for this relentless work that now exercises both as a psychiatrist, teacher and researcher in physiology at the UGB.
« Success requires sacrifice »
The students she observes at the laboratory give her hope. « Some have a taste for research, they want to know and are very determined, » she notes. Seeing her go abroad to improve is a real satisfaction for her. Moreover, she herself took advanced courses in epileptology, her second specialty, in Morocco then in France, Uganda and Tunisia. But she has never been tempted to leave her native country. « Senegal has invested on me, he gave me a lot, I have to give it back to him, » she summed up solemnly.
« We have to push the research here because the big research is the big universities, » she insists, convinced and eager to convince. In his dreams, moreover, the laboratory of physiology of the UGB becomes a center of reference in the study of sleep. But what does not yet touch her thoughts is that she could be the director … Even if in West Africa, only 8% of research laboratories are led by women.
This inequality, Fatoumata Ba did not suffer. On the other hand, the conventions have weighed more heavily on her in her role as mother. She still remembers being gone for almost three months while one of her daughters was only 17 months old. When she returned, she was criticized for « not being a good mother, » she says with lowered eyes, before adding: « Success in the workplace requires sacrifices, heavy sacrifices. had the chance to stay at school all these years, we must continue as much as possible. «
Moreover, it is already looking to the future, with a project of postdoctoral studies related to the microbiota. An intestinal flora that she would like to see a little closer.