Crossing two oceans for science
Hudaa Neetoo was born in the Republic of Mauritius, a small island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, and she often says that she had to cross two oceans to pursue her scientific education in Europe and the United States. Although she might have stayed, she decided instead to retrace the route all the way back to her country to share what she had learned abroad.
“In the US there are so many well-trained people, and in Mauritius there is a lack of specific expertise," Neetoo explains. "I felt I was needed by my country.”
Today she is a lecturer in microbiology in the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Mauritius, with a focus on food and environmental microbiology. She became a TWAS Young Affiliate in 2016 and, at the age of 35, is already making important contributions to food security and the agricultural economy in her country.
Food safety is a key component in food security, and Neetoo's work has reached such a high level that she was invited last year to give a TEDx talk. She used the occasion to deliver an engaging presentation on a new technology to improve the quality and safety of seafood – a commodity of great economic importance.
During a recent meeting of the TWAS Young Affiliates Network (TYAN) in Brazil, Neetoo presented her work: “Modelling the growth of pathogenic and spoilage bacteria in cooked tuna loins”. Her work highlights the use of predictive microbiology to ensure a safe food supply but also to set precise expiration dates, storage conditions and other measurements for consumer health protection.
Neetoo first thought of becoming a scientist during secondary school. However, because of the pressure to find a career with higher job security, she applied to a dentistry course in the UK. She did not go ahead with it, however, as biochemistry caught her attention and drew her back to science. She moved to the UK to get a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Imperial College London and then to the US, where she completed her master's and PhD courses in food science at the University of Delaware.
The scientist’s choice to focus on food research stemmed from a personal commitment to improve people’s lives. “I wanted to do something that could use biochemistry principles in a more applied way,” she said in a recent interview.
The decision to go back to Mauritius after obtaining a PhD had two main motivations: She wanted to be close to her family, and she wanted to work on local challenges, where science could bring improvement to the daily life of Mauritians, especially the type of food they consume.
Mauritius is an intriguing country for a young scientist, full of promise and potential. It is a small country located in the Indian Ocean, with about 1.3 million residents. Its income remains low, but its economy is among the strongest in Africa and its political situation is stable.
And science is a priority for Mauritius: Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a biodiversity scientist and former professor of organic chemistry at the University of Mauritius, rose to become the country's first woman president in 2015. Gurib-Fakim has spoken strongly of the need to bring more women – and their intelligence and creativity – into science.
After Neetoo returned to her home country in 2011, she worked for 18 months in the food industry, where she managed food laboratories that ran routine quality tests of tuna samples. “It was a very cool position," she said. " I had never worked in the industry before and I realized how we always had to think on our feet and how accountability is so important – you can’t afford to mess up.” Working every day in a high-pressure environment was a good training ground, but after a while, she felt that her job became too predictable and she needed to get out of her comfort zone.
In her current research, Neetoo still works closely with the food industry, while at the same time advising undergraduate students to develop solutions for specific industrial needs – a mutual partnership where the university benefits from industry support, and the food industry benefits from the knowledge produced at the university.
But working in a low-income country can also present a young scientist with two competing challenges: scarcity of funding and time-management.
Getting funds for research can be difficult, as there are not many big grants available, especially in the area of food science. Some funding schemes also require co-financing from the university, industry or other institutions, which is not always possible. Industry, while contributing equipment and supplies, is not often willing to contribute money.
The time issue relates to Neetoo's position at the university, which requires her to juggle teaching many different courses and at the same keeping pace with her research. She struggles sometimes to balance the two roles; both are time-consuming, not to mention all the administrative work done in the background. She also felt that young researchers and academics in Mauritius are often confronted with difficulties that could have been more easily resolved with mentoring from senior members.
Changing the external environment can actually be very challenging but the most effective way, according to Neetoo, is to “be an internal ambassador of change, and to always bring improvement.”
Similar motives guided the formation of the TWAS Young Affiliates Network last year, with important funding from Lenovo, the global computing giant based in China. The TWAS Young Affiliate programme was officially launched in 2007. Every year, TWAS's five Regional Offices each select up to five excellent scientists under the age of 40 to serve five-year terms in the Academy. It is a time in their careers when they bring a valuable combination of energy, experience and perspective.
It has been only a little over a year since Neetoo was selected as a Young Affiliate, but she can already see how her position in TWAS has led to key partnerships and collaborations for several research projects. “I have been able to meet people that have complementary fields of research, while not being too far away," she explains. "Some of them are on the East Coast of Africa, or in India, or in South Africa. Without TWAS, I would have never come to know them.”
In the long term, she believes TYAN can help young researchers rise to more key positions in the domain of science diplomacy in the developing world. And, she adds, “TYAN can help us identify our roles in policy-making.”
Making valuable contributions to her country and improving the condition of people in sub-Saharan Africa are among Neetoo’s goals for the future. She also aspires to get more proficient in the field of predictive microbiology, which has potential applications not only in food security, but also in other areas of knowledge, such as health and environmental research.