SEATTLE — Zilahatou Tohon is a Fulbright scholar from Niger studying epidemiology at the University of Kentucky. She started her Fulbright scholarship in 2011 with a quick summer course in English as a second language at DePaul University in Chicago.
She was my student in the program’s highest level reading course, in which she established herself as a highly intelligent and enthusiastic participant. Here she shares her ambitions and dreams as a Fulbright scholar from a developing country.
Why did you choose to come to the U. S. to study?
I wanted to study in the U.S. and take advantage of the awesome educational system. The opportunities and expertise in the higher education sector are outstanding, and I wanted to be trained by the best, so I applied for the Fulbright scholarship that allows students from underdeveloped countries to study in the U.S.
What did you want to study and why?
My domain of study is public health with a concentration in epidemiology. I have a medical degree, and I’ve always wanted to help people. Therefore, choosing to study epidemiology was a way to be able to contribute to the improvement of the health status of the Nigerien population by providing policymakers with the necessary tools for effective health decisions.
Niger is among the poorest countries in the world with several public health problems, health care disparities and a long way to having an effective health system. Through my doctoral degree in epidemiology, I hope to be able to alleviate some of the pressing health concerns of my fellow citizens, such as infectious diseases.
Malaria occurs all year long, and it is not unusual for an individual to have several episodes each year. Young children under 5 years of age and the elderly are the most affected with a higher prevalence of the neurological form of the disease, which can be fatal.
Bacterial meningitis is another burdening disease, deadly in 10 to 50 percent of cases, depending on the type. Tropical neglected diseases (schistosomiasis, filariasis, onchocerciasis, intestinal worms) also take a toll on the health of the Nigerien people.
Malnutrition is a constant concern given that the agriculture is traditional and solely reliant on the capricious rains. To that are added the chronic diseases caused by an increasing lack of physical activity: heart disease, hypertension and diabetes.
Why did you choose the University of Kentucky?
The choice of the university is not really up to the applicant. The committee selected several universities (four in my case), and I applied to all four through the SOPHAS program, which centralizes all applications for public health.
The University of Kentucky was the first to accept my application, and I was glad because the university’s College of Public Health is among the top 20 in the country.
What are you planning to do after you finish your studies at the University of Kentucky?
After completion of my degree, I’m planning to do a postdoctoral fellowship in order to apply what I’ve learned and jump start my career. I have acquired a lot of knowledge in program evaluation as well as infectious disease and cancer epidemiology.
My capstone research investigates the risk factor and survival of liver cancer. I would like my postdoctoral research to be in cancer epidemiology with a particular emphasis on molecular epidemiology and how Hepatitis B virus-related liver cancer can be influenced by viral genomic diversity.
It will be a good way to build a professional network that I plan to take advantage of once I get back to my home country. I’m planning to go back to Niger after my graduation (December 2015) and eventual postdoc. A
return home is part of my Fulbright contract, but I also strongly desire to make the knowledge I received available to my home country, which is in dire need of well-trained health professionals. There is currently a great need for more epidemiologists in Niger given the current status of public health in the country. With this opportunity, I will be able to contribute to increasing the national capacity in Niger for dealing with public health issues.
It seems that your career path is very untypical of Nigerians, especially women. How did you become interested in studying medicine and specializing in epidemiology?
My somewhat untypical career path is to the credit of my parents, especially my mother. She has been a wonderful inspiration in my life. My mum was the first born among six siblings and was raised in a little village in Niger at a time when children were sent away to attend school.
Only she and two of her siblings went to school. Awarded with an elementary school teaching degree, she got married at 18 and began her marital life taking along with her youngest sister to raise. My childhood memories are full of examples of how she studied to earn another degree in order to obtain promotion along with taking care of her eight children and a husband as well her parents and extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles.
She was a very peaceful person and rarely involved herself in conflicts. All my life I have not taken anything for granted and continue to try to improve myself in all ways. I have graduated from the Niamey University Medical School in 1999, and I began working the year after that.
I kept looking for improvement, and my quest for the best education I can have brought me to Belgium in 2004, France in 2007 and the U. S. in 2011, thanks to the Fulbright program.
Losing a younger sister to measles when I was in middle school fostered my desire to be in the medical field. After graduating from medical school, epidemiology chose me instead of the other way around. After my thesis work and my first involvement in a clinical trial, it just felt natural.
How long will you have been here by the time you return home? Do you have a lot of family waiting for you in Niger?
By the time I return home, I will have been gone for 6 years. I have a very large family of 24 waiting for me. I have, unfortunately, lost both my parents within a five-month interval between 2014 and 2015. It’s been a bumpy ride sometimes, but I am thankful for the support of my husband and daughters as well as the believers connected to my fellowship.
– Janet Quinn