Female scientists uniting across borders to improve home hygiene and infant health

Bridging knowledge and practice: Jenala Chipungu’s transformative experience

The Weaning Food Hygiene Behaviours research study, led by Jenala Chipungu, a PhD student under the Reckitt-LSHTM Scholarship programme, is a pioneering effort to enhance food hygiene practices in low-income settings. Jenala's journey to Mozambique, supported by this programme, aimed to deepen her understanding of food hygiene behaviours and their impact on the microbiological quality of weaning foods. This immersive experience was not only about acquiring practical skills in food sample collection and laboratory analysis but also about fostering international collaboration among female scientists dedicated to improving infant health during the critical weaning period.

Mastering the art of food sampling

Jenala's first significant learning experience in Mozambique was the meticulous process of food sample collection. Under the guidance of Elly Mataveia from the Centro de Investigação e Treino em Saúde da Polana Caniço (CISPOC) team, she learned to handle various food types, from hard solids like fried fish and nshima (a soft food made from maize flour and hot water, eaten in parts of southern and eastern Africa). Observing the field team's strict aseptic procedures to prevent cross-contamination was a vital part of this training. "The field experience was rich," Jenala reflects in her write-up, emphasising the importance of maintaining sample integrity.

Jenala collecting food samples from a household in a community in Maputo
Jenala collecting food samples from a household in a community in Maputo

Assembling the laboratory arsenal

Another crucial aspect of Jenala’s training was developing a comprehensive list of lab supplies necessary for food sample processing. With no prior lab experience, she found it challenging to envision the required items and their specific uses. However, this hands-on training illuminated each piece of equipment's role, enabling her to compile a detailed and accurate lab list. This knowledge was instrumental in planning for the efficient processing of food samples back in her home lab.

Navigating the complex world of microbiology

Perhaps the most daunting yet rewarding part of Jenala's training was mastering microbiological food sample processing. Under the mentorship of Elly, she learned essential techniques such as pipetting, homogenising, using lab weigh scales, and making sample dilutions. "Elly believed in my abilities and constantly affirmed my progress," Jenala expresses, highlighting the supportive environment that bolstered her confidence. This intensive training equipped her with the skills to analyse food samples using IDEXX quanti-trays which is an innovative advance in the bacterial enumeration  model to provide easy, rapid and accurate bacterial counts and accurately interpret the results.

Jenala in the CISPOC lab learning how to use the IDEXX equipment to detect E coli in food samples
Jenala in the CISPOC lab learning how to use the IDEXX equipment to detect E coli in food samples

The power of peer support and international collaboration

Jenala's collaboration with Elly and fellow PhD scholar Liliana Dengo-Baloi exemplifies the profound impact of peer support among female scientists. "Working with Elly and Liliana was great!" Jenala exclaims. She appreciated Elly's patience and encouragement and formed a close bond with Liliana, who made Mozambique feel like home. Their discussions on various aspects of their PhD studies and the practical challenges of fieldwork fostered a collaborative spirit that transcended borders:

“As with my other PhD Reckitt-LSHTM scholars, Liliana and I formed a close relationship making Mozambique the perfect location. She made me feel at home and welcome. It was especially nice working together in the field with the field team as I could ask all the questions related to the study and how I can adapt them to my study. For example, we discussed the implication of using the caregiver’s spoon or aseptic project spoon to collect the sample. We also had rich discussions around our PhDs and shared ideas about working together after our PhDs.”

Their teamwork highlighted the striking similarities between the peri-urban settings of Mozambique and Jenala's home country. This realisation reinforced the idea that solutions developed in one region could be applicable and beneficial across similar contexts. "Our solutions must be applicable region-wide as we face the same contextual problems," Jenala notes, underscoring the potential for broader impact through shared knowledge and practices.

From knowledge to action: enhancing home hygiene

The insights Jenala gained from her training are poised to make a significant impact on home hygiene practices. While the knowledge won't directly alter home hygiene routines, it will pinpoint critical contamination points in the food preparation process. This understanding will serve as a foundation for developing targeted interventions to promote effective food hygiene practices, ultimately reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses during the weaning period.

Inspiring future generations of female scientists

Jenala's experience is a testament to the power of female scientists supporting each other and the importance of international partnerships. "We have the capacity and the ability to build each other," she emphasises. The mentorship and camaraderie she experienced with Elly and Liliana are inspiring examples of how women in STEM can empower and uplift one another, creating a ripple effect that extends beyond individual achievements.

A heartfelt thank you to Reckitt

Jenala's transformative journey was made possible by the generous support of Reckitt’s global health and hygiene business. "Through your generous fund Reckitt, you are building us in more ways than you know," she expressed. The scholarship not only facilitated her research but also ignited her passion for future scientific endeavours. "I am excited for my future because you’ve made this possible. Thank you!"