Dr Firdausi Qadri’s research aims to understand and prevent infectious diseases affecting children in developing countries, and promote early diagnosis and vaccination with global health impact. In recognition of her outstanding achievements, she is receiving the 2020 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science award, given each year to five exceptional women scientists from different regions of the world.
Globally, over 800,000 children die of diarrhoea each year, and 56% of children in low-income countries do not receive the recommended treatment*. In Bangladesh, cholera and typhoid are both major causes of enteric diseases, yet many people lack the knowledge or means to prevent these debilitating, even life-threatening, conditions. Expanding access to vaccination and promoting early diagnosis are fundamental to decreasing the country’s disease burden and helping to ensure that more children and adults lead longer, healthier lives.
Dr Firdausi Qadri is leading pioneering work to understand the microbiological and immunological basis of bacterial diseases and treat infectious enteric (gastro-intestinal) and diarrheagenic diseases affecting children in Bangladesh and beyond, optimising vaccines for young children suffering from malnutrition. Her scientific excellence and passion to help others have led to major studies of an oral cholera vaccine among nearly a million people at risk in vulnerable Bangladeshi communities – with a vaccine due to be launched imminently. To promote the rapid diagnosis of cholera and typhoid, she has also developed innovative diagnostic tools and successfully overseen their journey from the laboratory to a practical, commercially viable reality. “The suffering of thousands of diarrhoea patients is due to poor living conditions and highly contagious, contaminated food and water,” she says. “Staying close to my roots [in Bangladesh] has enabled me to better understand people’s needs and find life-changing solutions.”
As a scientist at the unique International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dr Qadri has used biochemical, immunological and molecular approaches to research the bacteria behind cholera (Vibrio cholerae) and typhoid (Salmonella typhi), as well as enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli (ETEC). She explores the capacity of mucous membranes to protect themselves against these pathogens and investigates the respective bacteria at a genetic level to better understand their infectious characteristics. This builds on her longstanding interest in understanding Vibrio cholerae as well as ETEC and their potential to cause cholera epidemics in Bangladesh. “I knew I wanted to find a diagnostic method and work towards a prevention mechanism,” she recalls.
Dr Qadri’s ground-breaking work on cholera vaccinations has had a positive ripple effect, advancing progress on vaccines against diseases including cholera, typhoid and ETEC diarrhoea. In particular, she is working on a typhoid vaccine in the urban slums of Dhaka, and both this and her cholera vaccine studies are being replicated in Asia, Africa and Haiti. “I would like to see our work scaled up to treat many more people globally, as they struggle with the risk of disease linked to humanitarian crisis and climate change,” she says.
In 2014, Dr Qadri founded the Institute for developing Science and Health initiatives (ideSHi) to help develop novel approaches to diagnosing genetic disorders and train biomedical scientists and clinicians in immunology and molecular biology-based research. Under her leadership, ideSHi also conducts humanitarian and research programmes to identify pragmatic solutions to public health challenges in Bangladesh, and participates in health discussions at a global level.
Dr Qadri is active in fostering a supportive national culture for biotechnological innovations, and acts as an expert adviser nationally and internationally, working with the Bangladesh Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization, for example. Her interest in life sciences began at an early age. “I felt that knowing the biochemical and immunological mechanisms of the living being was extremely important,” she recalls. “I’ve been amazed by the way microorganisms grow and help humans to live on this planet. But I’m also alarmed by their capacity to endanger peoples’ lives.”
Dr Qadri’s family was a real source of inspiration and support for the early stages of her scientific journey, encouraging her to reach ever higher in her ambitions. Yet life as a scientist in Bangladesh has not always been easy. To overcome the lack of funding, resources and researchers and fight entrenched cultural expectations and gender prejudice, she has leveraged courage and determination, and achieved excellence through rigorous multi-tasking and a superb team of scientists.
“I dream that in countries like ours, we will develop state-of-the-art, self-sustaining facilities to support the mentoring and capacity building of young people, especially women, in scientific research.” Importantly, she sees international collaborations as “the building blocks of my achievements.” These have included partnerships with leading researchers in the US, Sweden, France, the UK, the Republic of Korea and India.
Balancing the demands of scientific research with family life remains the greatest challenge Dr Qadri perceives for women in science today. Ultimately, she believes that women scientists must play a dual role in the quest to further the cause of science – both succeeding in their field and serving as role model for future generations. Beyond this, achieving gender balance in science means instilling the wonder of science in girls and boys, and encouraging them to embrace its potential to change the world.