In the current global pandemic, science has become a subject of public discourse to a degree perhaps unprecedented in recent decades. Emerging from the laboratory to the public square, science has been politicized, but mostly people have become more acutely aware of the vital role of science in improving the quality of life and preserving life itself. Let us then praise science and scientists.
Bangladeshi FIRDAUSI QADRI, seventy years old, was born to a middle-class family that encouraged women to pursue an education and a career. Early on, she decided to specialize in medical research, earning a degree in biochemistry, and culminating in a doctorate from Liverpool University in the United Kingdom. Set on working in her homeland, she taught in a local university and in 1988 joined the International Centre For Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b), an international health research institute based in Dhaka. Here, Dr. QADRI focused on communicable diseases, immunology, vaccine development and clinical trials.
Her most challenging engagements came in the fight against cholera and typhoid, major diseases in Bangladesh and Asian and African countries with poor access to safe water, sanitation, education, and medical care. In this, she had a key role in the development of a more affordable oral cholera vaccine (OCV) and the typhoid conjugate vaccine (Vi-TCV) for adults, children, and even infants as young as nine months. Under the auspices of World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), she led a team of experts in the 2017-2020 OCV mass vaccination of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, thus preventing a mass cholera outbreak in what is the largest refugee camp in the world. In 2020, she helped facilitate the OCV vaccination of 1.2 million people in six high-risk districts of Dhaka. Not surprisingly, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr. QADRI was involved in vaccine trials and Covid-19 testing and research in Bangladesh.
Beyond current health interventions, Dr. QADRI dreams of building in Bangladesh the human and technical infrastructure for research in health science. It is a role she is well positioned to fill, having participated in scientific networks and institutions both locally and globally. In 2012 she was awarded the Christophe Rodolfe Grand Prize from the Fondation Christophe et Rodolfe Mérieux. Two years later, she used her prize money to found the Institute for Developing Science and Health Initiatives (ideSHi). Dr. QADRI leads ideSHi, which conducts biomedical research and runs training courses and a testing center. It has become a hub of scientific activity by local and visiting scientists in Bangladesh.
Dr. QADRI loves to train and mentor young scientists and inspire them by putting them in contact with well-known scientists in other countries. But building local capability is her greater goal. She is focused on upgrading laboratories so that Bangladeshi scientists will not have to go abroad (as she did early on) for lack of facilities available. Building local capability is demonstrated in her work on typhoid and cholera vaccines (already approved in Bangladesh and other countries), her current work on E. coli diarrhea vaccine, and interest in Covid-19 vaccine development.
Dedicated to science, she believes that finding answers to the health problems in her country will benefit other countries as well. She has worked in Bangladesh as a scientist for more than forty years but has no thought of retiring. Of her research niche, ideSHi, she says: “I want it to be bigger in the coming years and self-supporting in the future, less dependent on international funding. It should carry out research at the highest level and have a good number of scientists who will carry out this work. I am looking at that in the future.”
In electing FIRDAUSI QADRI to receive the 2021 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes her passion and life-long devotion to the scientific profession; her vision of building the human and physical infrastructure that will benefit the coming generation of Bangladeshi scientists, women scientists in particular, and her untiring contributions to vaccine development, advanced biotechnological therapeutics and critical research that has been saving millions of precious lives.
I am overwhelmed and extremely delighted but also humbled and thankful to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for this great honor. I am grateful to the Foundation for selecting me, to those who have nominated me and supported my nomination. And, of course, I thank my husband and children and friends, people of Bangladesh, and my team at icddr,b and ideSHi for their continued support.
Dear friends, let me share with you my journey until this very day:
I was born in Bangladesh, in a middle-class family with many other girl siblings, in a family dominated by women. This matriarchal family was actually headed by my grandmother, Firdausi Bano, after whom I was named. She did not go to school herself but was self-taught and knew many languages. She believed in girls' education and saw to it from our childhood that we sisters learn to have a purpose and determination in life. She saw us off to school with tasty tiffin boxes each day and would always be waiting for us with hot lunches. She cooked and stiched pretty dresses for us and made us feel like we were special. It was for her that I grew up with a determination to do something purposeful.
When I was around five years old, I already wanted to be in public health, and my first wish was to be “Florence Nightingale,” and from then onwards, I kept on changing my interests until I got into the University of Dhaka to study Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. This was when I learned the details of the physiology, biochemistry, immunology, nutrition, and molecular biology of life and the working of the human body.
It was with great interest that I tried to assimilate all this information and my efforts were always aligned to better understanding all the health and nutritional problems of people in my country. After doing my PhD from Liverpool University, I returned to Dhaka within a week. I started teaching at the University of Dhaka and tried to carry out research. But it was difficult for me to do both research and teaching simultaneously. Within six years, I realized that I was born a researcher and a full academic profession somehow left me dissatisfied. Although fortunate to start my profession as a teacher in the best university in Bangladesh, I soon moved to icddr,b to become a full-time researcher.
Ladies and gentlemen, I do not know how much you know about Bangladesh.
In the beginning of my career, I had to learn a lot about the public health problems confronting our country. Infectious diseases in the 1980s were still a major killer in the country. Cholera and typhoid though these are ancient diseases were still causing so much suffering and misery to people every day. Our icddr,b hospitals were filled up with mostly needy people seeking free care suffering from dehydrating diarrheal disease, especially cholera. I involved and immersed myself in laboratory work to understand the immunological basis of the disease. I started exploring ways to connect clinical work in the early 1980’ with laboratory experiments to answer questions that still remained unaddressed. The role of vaccines to protect against these diseases appeared to me to be the most important solution in tackling these problems.
Indeed, I was inspired by the work that was being carried out for so long at icddr,b both in clinical care and vaccine development. Although I published a lot, I soon realized that if I do not reach out to communities and tried to help them, I would end up my career and not achieve anything. I then decided to focus on studies to reach out to people to protect them against cholera and typhoid using solutions offered by vaccines, which are the main public health tool/short term tools for eliminating diseases from high-risk populations with poor access to clean water, sanitation, good living conditions-basically diseases of poverty-stricken people.
In 33 years of my research career, I have attempted to learn about different aspects of public health which is needed for implementation science. I do not know how much I have been able to deliver and contribute. I am grateful for this award to Bangladesh, to icddr,b, the institution that has given me the environment and encouragement to carry out my work, and last but not least to my great team in Bangladesh and all over the world without whose support I could never have achieved anything. I thank my family for their support.
Ladies and gentlemen, I finish on a very tragic and sad note. My husband passed away just several hours after the official announcement of the Ramon Magsaysay Award on 31 August 2021. He could not hear this wonderful news. His encouragement and strong support in the 45 years of our marriage have made it possible for me to dedicate my life to science and balance family life with research. I remain indebted to him. I want to share a message he wrote to me 46 years ago:
“Wish you God Speed, May Allah grant you much glory in your search for knowledge”
He is not here today to join in this celebration but his wishes for me have come true. I feel his presence all the time, and he will always be with me.
After receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award, I now feel that I need to deliver even more for Bangladesh, for the people living in low- and middle–income countries, and for people living in fragile settings. The award has made me feel more responsible, and I promise to dedicate the rest of my life to public health and contribute to saving lives.