Her father and grandmother were traditional herbalists and she grew up wanting to be a healer too.
But the idea of pursuing herbal medicine at Kenyatta University was overridden by the desire to study clinical medicine at the University of Nairobi.
“Our home was surrounded by herb trees, and our kitchen garden had all sorts of herbs such that when I got a little cold, I knew what leaves to pluck and make some herbal tea, or if I got a bad stomach, I knew which roots to pick and chew on to make it better, and this is why I knew I wanted to be a healer, just like my dad,” recalls Dr Hellen Barsosio, now a senior clinical research scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI).
Dr Barsosio was hugely fascinated by her father and his knowledge of herbs for different illnesses. Stories of his early childhood experiences had a huge impact on her life. Like how he grew up wearing animal skins until he turned eight years and only wore his first pair of shorts when he joined school.
He often hid behind class until his mother told him he couldn’t be admitted to school without a school uniform.
Her dreams of being a doctor were jolted in high school after a class teacher asked students to write down their future career choices. She wrote down a doctor and the teacher asked her to change it.
“She asked me if there was anything else I wanted to be if not a doctor, I couldn’t think of anything else,” says Dr Barsosio. “When I looked at their school record, they hadn’t produced a doctor in a long while.”
She not only broke the school record by scoring very good grades but also became a doctor.
You see, she was always good in academics right from primary school. She sat her KCPE exams in Class Seven, an idea from her father who had registered her but only informed her later.
She emerged as the third-best student, a trail of excellence that has followed her life and career like a second shadow.
For her research work, just so you know, Dr Barsosio was recently named the 2022 American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) Young Investigators Award winner - for a project on new drugs to prevent malaria in pregnancy.
In her presentation, she argued that the new drugs are more complex; three tablets taken in three days unlike the normal three tablets given to women at the clinic may be a burden to the nurses to keep on reminding the women to take their regimen. But her research proved that women can remember to take their regimens without reminders.
“This study showed that all the nurses needed to do was to put stickers on women’s cards to serve as reminders and up to 85 per cent of women were able to remember to take their regimen without supervision,” explains Dr Barsosio of the project she had been working on at KEMRI since 2018.
Dr Barsosio says one only makes it in the world of research through the help of great mentors “and you will need the male allies- I know we are all about female empowerment but you will always need male allies- and the main one for me is my father and my mentors in research such as Prof Feiko ter Kuile, Dr Simon Kariuki of KEMRI and Prof James Berkley.”
Dr Barsosio joined KEMRI after graduating and interning at Aga Khan Hospital in Nairobi before working for eight months at Aga Khan in Mombasa but shortly realised her heart and mind were in research.
That was why she applied to work at KEMRI before enrolling for a Master’s degree at Oxford University and later the London School of Health and Tropical Medicine- a place where she would get an open playground to do research, especially on pregnant women: Her passion for pregnant women morphed alongside her passion for medicine.
You see, her grandmother, who was the fifth wife had trouble conceiving and when she did, it was miscarriages, stillbirths, or mortalities.
Nothing in her world of herbal medicine would help her, even with the help of her herbalist sisters.
But lucky for her grandma, missionaries put up a mission hospital near their home and where doctors “checked her blood pressure, and blood sugar and gave her some drugs that helped her sustain her pregnancy until my father was born, although he was a pre-term baby,” says Dr Barsosio.
Mother and son stayed in the hospital but it wasn’t until six months later that he was named.
“Imagine that is all she needed to do; to go to the hospital,” exclaims Dr Barsosio who grew up with the curiosity to understand why women suffered miscarriages, and what caused stillbirths and infant mortalities.
The questions are what form the basis of her research to demystify some of these issues revolving around pregnant women and most especially in malaria prevention, one the leading causes of child mortality in the Western parts of Kenya.
When not holed up in a lab draped in white lab coats, Dr Barsosio loves hiking with friends and charity work-including helping teen mothers resume their studies after their deliveries, the reason she started Maya Health, a WhatsApp Chat Board where young girls ask questions freely around sexuality besides offering guidance and counseling.
“Girls ask all sorts of questions without fear of stigma or judgment because it’s a chat board, and we get questions like, can I get pregnant the first time I try it, where can I get contraceptives, if I want long term, what are the side effects or where do I get treatment for STIs and many other questions and we have realised that what young people are lacking is information,” explains Dr Barsosio who also works with street children in Kisumu.
All in all, she looks forward to the use of monoclonal antibodies in malaria prevention, which are still under research, especially for use in the first trimester.
“These are chemicals that target the malaria parasites as they enter the bloodstream and kill them before they move to other parts of the body,” offers Dr Barsosio, “I am already excited about these monoclonal antibodies because I believe they will be a game changer.”