In September 2018, Geneviève Zabré, a young biologist from Burkina Faso, won first place in the international competition for French speakers called “My Thesis in 180 Seconds”. Her victory was due to a very remarkable presentation of her thesis work, supported in part by the IRD. Find out more about her ambitious journey and personality.
In the final round of the “My Thesis in 180 Seconds” competition in Lausanne, Switzerland, Geneviève Zabré made quite the impression in many regards. The first reason for this: the subject of her thesis. Her research demonstrated that Acacia raddiana, a plant used in traditional African medicine, can be used to combat climate change. This is because it eliminates intestinal bacteria that produce methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) in sheep that consume it. During her thesis presentation, this young 32-year-old woman also stood out because of her eloquence and skill at educating people about her research. These skills come from her father, whom she describes as “a deep thinker who knew how to say things at the right time to the right person”. Her ease, enthusiasm, and humour also won over the audience. “People often say they don't get tired of having me around”, she said with a smile. “I hope that will always be the case. When I was young, my father constantly told me I was unique and I needed to work hard to stay that way.”
Born in 1987, Geneviève Zabré began her career as a biologist in 2007 when, after obtaining her high school diploma, she was accepted as a first-year biology student at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. “At first, I chose this path because I felt more comfortable with the sciences than with sociology, law, or modern literature”, she admitted. “But it quickly became a passion. I love to constantly be discovering and learning things”. She successively obtained a bachelor’s in chemistry and biology (in 2010) and a master’s in plant protection and improvement (in 2013). “Thanks to the moral and financial support of my family, I have always been able to pursue my studies in good conditions”, she added.
From parasites to climate change
Then, in January 2014, one of her professors, Bayala Balé from the animal physiology laboratory at the University of Ouagadougou, suggested that she write a thesis in the framework of a project to combat desertification in Africa funded in part by the IRD(1) that was being conducted through a collaboration between Africa, France, and Brazil. Specifically, this research was examining the “nutritional quality and anti-parasite characteristics of four species of acacia (Acacia mangium, A. mearnsii, A. nilotica et A. raddiana) in small ruminants mixed agriculture/livestock farms in arid regions of Brazil and Burkina Faso”. Traditionally, people raising small ruminants (such as sheep) in these regions used acacias to eliminate parasites like nematodes (round worms) living in the intestinal tracts of these animals. These parasites are a significant threat to raising small ruminants. By weakening these animals, nematodes harm livestock farms and foster desertification in Africa and Brazil. Hence the idea to rigorously study the efficacy of several species of acacia, not just against the methane-producing intestinal bacteria in sheep (part of the thesis presented during the final competition), but also sheep parasites. For Geneviève Zabré, this idea was what she had been hoping for. She “loves livestock animals” and “has always had a keen interest in the traditional African pharmacopoeia”. And so she pushed forward!
From one fight to another
For four years--from June 2014 to June 2018--the young biologist worked for innumerable hours. “I created an inventory and a survey to assess the availability of the studied plants in Dori, a city in the Sahel region located 265 northeast of Ouagadougou. At the same time, I conducted in vitro and in vivo analyses in the animal physiology lab in the capital city” she explained. All of this hard work paid off. In addition to earning her first place in the thesis competition (with its 1,500-euro prize) which she saw as a call to do even better, her research earned her no less than three publications in international journals, the most recent of which came out in May 2018(2).
That said, in spite of all of this recognition, the young researcher still has to fight every day to create a space for herself in the very masculine world of science. “In my lab, where I am now a temporary teaching assistant and researcher, there are only five women versus twenty men”, she stated. “The priority of many women here is to start a family and that is often incompatible with having a career. Especially since husbands do not really encourage them to have one,” she explained. To women and girls who want to follow in her footsteps, she recommends “working hard and showing that you are persistent and brave. Nothing is gained without making a serious effort”.
As for her dreams for the future? “[I want to] create my own parasitology lab in Ouagadougou”, she shares. “And above all, I want to be one of the revolutionary women researchers changing the world”. And it seems like she’s off to a good start.
1. Project also funded by the National Institute for Agronomic Research (INRA) and the NGO African Initiatives for Relief and Development.
2. Zabré Geneviève, Kabore Adama, Bayala Balé, Corrêa Spoto Patricia, Lemos Nascimento Leando, Niderkorn Vincent, Tamboura Hamadou Hamidou, Hoste Hervé, Louvandini Helder, Abdalla Luiz Adibe, ; “In vitro rumen fermentation characteristics, methane production and rumen microbial community of two major Acacia species used in Sahelian region of Burkina Faso, Tropical and Subtropical Agroecosystems; May-Aug 2018; 21: 357 – 366.