Fri, 29 May 2020

Gita Ramjee: a woman who pursued science for the greater good

The Conversation
03 Apr 2020, 04:47 GMT+10

Gita Ramjee dedicated her professional life to HIV prevention research for women and adolescents from the 1980s when the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was first detected among South Africans.

Gita was a renowned scientist both in South Africa and globally. Apart from the decades of service she rendered to the South African Medical Research Council, she was also Clinical Professor of Global Health at the University of Washington, Seattle and held an honorary professorship at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK in the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health.

The last time I met Gita in person was in September 2018 when she received the "Outstanding Scientist Award" from the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trial Partnership at its 9th Forum in Lisbon, Portugal. She was honoured for her life's work on finding new prevention methods for HIV.

She received her award with grace, humility and radiance. I can still picture her in a beautiful red gown, fitting for the austere occasion. We celebrated her success later that evening with other members of the EDCTP scientific advisory committee in a small but cosy Portuguese restaurant. As fellow women scientists we were immensely proud of her achievement.

Science and communities

The day after the award ceremony she and I had a long conversation in which she talked about her research and the importance of ensuring that the ethics and the science were aligned.

Gita led a remarkable team of researchers at the HIV Prevention Research Unit at the South African Medical Research Council for several decades. As Chief Specialist Scientist and Unit Director, she led her team into exploring various methods that would help women to protect themselves from contracting HIV. This included research into microbicides, vaginal rings and vaccines.

As former chair of the research ethics committee of the Medical Research Council I was familiar with the enormous effort she and her team invested in community engagement strategies for all their work. She ensured that a community advisory board was in place for all her research projects to ensure that the community voice was represented.

In honouring the ethical principle of respect for research participants, she established a peer education programme in which members of the community advisory board and research participants were involved. Her colleague and senior research manager of the HIV prevention research unit, Neetha Morar, spent weeks developing educational tools to ensure that research participants understood the research projects they were considering enrolling in.

Her commitment to the communities she was serving was unwavering. One example was that she ensured that research-related information, including research results, was disseminated to communities before it was presented at conferences. She also developed good working relationships with the Department of Health and local authorities to ensure that the results of her research would make an impact on health service delivery to areas with high prevalence of HIV.

Family life

It was only at the awards ceremony in Portugal that I learned that Gita had grown up in Uganda. She left when former President Idi Amin, best known for his brutal regime and crimes against humanity, expelled foreigners from the country in 1972.

The Ramjee family returned to India, where Gita completed high school. Several years later, while studying for a BSc in Chemistry and Physiology at the University of Sunderland in the northeast of England, she met her husband, Praveen Ramjee, in the UK. They travelled to South Africa together. After her two sons were born she completed her Masters degree and then her PhD in 1994.

Like many other women in science, Gita perfected the art of juggling her career with raising her children, fulfilling her duties to her wider family and taking care of herself. Gita was always immaculately groomed. Family was a high priority. Her grandson, Arran, became the light of her life over the past eight months. She was dearly loved by her family and my thoughts and prayers go out to them at this very challenging time.

Despite the busy life she led, she always remembered to send messages to her friends on special occasions. Furthermore, she was always mindful of her responsibility in terms of broader societal issues.

On the 8 March 2020, International Women's Day, as Chief Scientific Officer HIV at the Aurum Health Institute, she posted a message on LinkedIn:

Gita was one of the first people in South Africa to succumb to the COVID-19 pandemic. Her last message to me as a colleague and friend was on 16 March. The message contained educational information about COVID-19, the risks of international travel, physical distancing and hand hygiene.

Go well Gita Ramjee. We salute you.

Author: Keymanthri Moodley - Director, The Centre for Medical Ethics & Law, Stellenbosch University The Conversation

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