Student Spotlight: Rita Masese ’18 is Scaling up Impact as a Physician in Kenya

March 12, 2018

Rita Masese, a physician and second year Master of Science in Global Health (MSc-GH) student from Nairobi, Kenya, has a passion for treating blood-related diseases and cancers. Her experience as a physician and desire to make a larger impact on health in Kenya brought her to DGHI to learn how to conduct clinical research.

Seeking Larger-Scale Impact

After completing a degree in medicine, Masese began practicing as a doctor in rural Kenya at Tenwek Mission Hospital.  But she soon recognized that her community’s needs were far greater than she expected. “I encountered disparities that seemed large, and it motivated me to want to have a broader impact, rather than helping just one person at a time,” she said. As Masese watched others use medical research to inform practices and policies, she decided that she wanted to learn more about how to pinpoint problems and implement evidence-based improvements.

One of these researchers, Andrew McCrary, a global health fellow in the Hubert-Yeargan Center for Global Health at Duke, gave Masese personal insight about how the MSc-GH program could help her meet her goal. “I found out that the field of global health is very interdisciplinary,” she said. “With global health, you don’t have to follow one concentration. I thought, ‘Why not pursue an integrated program that will allow me to be an expert in various fields?’”

Masese was also drawn to the mentorship opportunities for students in the program. “You benefit from someone who is an expert, who is passionate about their work, who’s willing to mentor you and guide you through it and who has a genuine desire to see you succeed as well.”

The research of DGHI professor John Bartlett—specifically his capacity-building education work in Tanzania—also piqued Masese’s interest. She appreciates his dedication to his HIV/AIDS research. “He was there when HIV was first becoming a problem, when it was really stigmatized,” she said. “I appreciate that he was there for those patients despite the fact that society was against them.” 

Fighting Blood-Related Disorders

Masese is interested in cancer and blood-related disorders such as HIV, sickle cell disease, leukemia and lymphoma. She’s following the shift of disease in Africa from communicable diseases to non-communicable diseases, and she wants to develop more effective treatments.

The premature death of a childhood friend also drew Masese to the healthcare field. “All of a sudden, one of my childhood best friends couldn’t come out to play anymore,” she said. “One day I was persistent enough and I was able to see how sick she was—and the next time I asked to play with her, she had passed away.” Later Masese found out her friend had a history of leukemia in her family. That experience inspired her to fight cancers and diseases that often can’t be cured with readily available drugs and build capacity to address those challenges.

Returning to East Africa for Fieldwork

Masese completed her MSc-GH fieldwork in Tanzania with DGHI assistant professor Dorothy Dow, an infectious disease specialist who works with HIV-infected adolescents transitioning from pediatric to adult care facilities. Many fail to successfully make the transition, so Masese is examining how they navigate the change in order to develop a protocol that will help them transition successfully.

Unlike most DGHI students, Masese was closer to home at her fieldwork site than she was in the classroom. “For many students, fieldwork feels like a new world,” she said. “For me, it was the other way around. Coming to the United States was my fieldwork. I initially had challenges with transport, I wasn’t familiar with the environment, and I had to become more adaptive and less rigid in my thinking.” Masese enjoyed her fieldwork because she could speak her native language, Swahili, and work with young people with HIV, a population that really interests her.

Watch this video to hear Rita discuss her fieldwork:


Building Research Skills 

Masese says the interdisciplinary nature of DGHI, the various schools within Duke and the various universities in the Research Triangle are highlights of her learning experience. She’s also thankful for the mentorship she’s received from various health professionals. “I appreciate that they paired me up with someone who was an expert,” she said. “The mentorship extends even beyond the program to all aspects of life. The program is challenging but supportive.”

After graduation this spring, Masese is excited to apply the research skills she’s learned to her professional life. “My plans are to go back to Kenya to get further training in pediatrics and pediatric oncology,” she said. “I want to use these skills in my home country to find more feasible, more applicable ways to tackle issues and do medical research that will be appropriate in the Kenyan demographic.”

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Rita Masese and Duke Doctors
Rita Masese (center) at Tenwek Hospital with Beth Wilson (left) and Haley Peterson-Hostetler (right), two visiting doctors from Duke Hospital.

The mentorship extends even beyond the program to all aspects of life. The program is challenging but supportive.

Rita Masese, 2nd-year MSc-GH student

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