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The NS Interview: Julie Makani, tropical medicine researcher

“Mothers who have lost children now know their lives mattered”

Why choose to research sickle-cell disease?
It has hardly been recognised from a public health perspective, but the burden of sickle cell is becoming increasingly visible. In Tanzania, about 8,000 to 11,000 children are born every year with sickle-cell disease and the majority don't know they have it, so up to 90 per cent are not likely to survive into adulthood. In 2010, it was 100 years since it was discovered and there's only one drug licensed for use.

When did you decide to become a doctor?
Quite early. My mum's a nurse, but also I come from an area where sickle-cell disease is very prevalent. I have cousins who have been affected; of five of them, three died from the disease. I actually first spent three years working on malaria. My father said: "You should have started on sickle-cell disease earlier . . ." Not that it would have made much of a difference.

Carriers of the sickle-cell gene [who carry a single copy; sufferers have two] have a natural resistance to malaria. There's a horrible irony to this, isn't there - that you can be healthier and yet pass on a disease to your children?
You can perceive Africa as a kind of basket case or a place that should be pitied. But I'd like to look at the prevalence of sickle-cell disease as an advantage - this is an opportunity where we can learn about malaria and genetic disorders.

That's how I try to look at it. Because it can be overwhelming, when you're dealing with all the patients, with very few resources.

In your line of work do you need a certain type of personality?
Absolutely. Because you are questioning facts you need lots of perseverance, to be tough. And you definitely need to be optimistic.

The pharmaceutical company Pfizer earned revenue of $68bn in 2010. Do these companies invest enough in African scientists?
No, that's the tragedy. There is almost minimal investment in research and development in not only Africa, but many third world countries. You need the industry to invest in science, as well as governments and philanthropy. If it hadn't been for the Wellcome Trust having this long-term approach to science funding, it would have been very difficult for us to do what we have been able to do.

What is it like, working in a profession dominated by men?
I am very much aware of that. It's tough, very challenging. One of the things which makes a big difference is having successful women mentors who understand things like balancing child and family life with work. This then allows me perspective and the ability to focus on important things.

Does music have a therapeutic role to play in medicine?
If one looks at suffering with sickle-cell patients, pain is one of the most common debilitating factors. Music allows patients a chance to communicate in a different way, which is quite powerful, I think.

Is there anything you regret?
Yes. Two or three of my colleagues left science because they didn't get the right opportunities at the right times. These are brilliant people, now stuck. It's a big loss. This is one of my regrets. I wish there was a way of identifying talent and getting those people more into pure science.

Do you vote?
Yes, enthusiastically. Both my parents are very political. I've taken the approach that I want to change things from the bottom up, which is why I've stayed in the ward. But there is definitely a role for political leadership.

In science in the UK, it's very . . . patriarchal - it discourages fast-tracking. Very often I was told: "You are not ready yet."

Do you think the way of working over here can be too traditional?
The danger for an African scientist, because there are so few of us, is that you end up taking administrative positions, or leadership positions when you are not ready yet. You can end up being caught in a position where you can't learn, you can't mature, you can't be a proper scientist - whatever that really is.

You find as an African that, by the time you finish your PhD, you are asked to take on these new roles on committees or as a department head, which is good, but also bad because it takes you away from science.

Was there a plan?
Yes. I was very clear I wanted to train in the UK and then develop my career back home. I would really like to retire at 50 and run centres of
excellence in Tanzania where we can make an impact. This is my dream: training the next generation of scientists.

Are we all doomed?
Not at all! There are a lot of problems, but there is a lot of success.

When you talk to mothers who have lost their children, they know the life of that child has mattered when we learn and progress. The memory of the child will continue.

Defining Moments

1970 Born in Tanzania
1994 Graduates as a medical doctor
2001 Becomes Wellcome Trust fellow in department of haematology and blood transfusion, Muhimbili University
2009 Gains PhD from Open University
2009 Awarded a place on Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellowship Programme, run in conjunction with Oxford University
2011 Wins Royal Society Pfizer Award for her research into sickle-cell disease

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State