Stella Ifeanyi Smith: The Consummate Researcher
Prof. Stella Ifeanyi Smith is the Director of Research, Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at Nigerian Institute of Medical Research (NIMR).
She also doubles as Professor of Microbiology, Mountain Top University, Oba, Ogun State. In recognition of her contribution to the development of science and technology in Nigeria, she was elected as Fellow of the prestigious Nigerian Academy of Science.
Having distinguished herself in the field of medical microbiology through grants, publications, capacity building and workshops, Prof. Smith was appointed as the only African Consultant, in the European Maastricht VI/Florence, Italy, Consensus conference with 29 countries and 42 members.
Recently, she organised the first-ever African Helicobacter and Microbiota Study Group (AHMSG) conference, a group of African experts on Helicobacter pylori, who, came together to fill the gap created by neglect of this germ that causes ulcers, gastritis and gastric cancer in small percentage of cases and its associated complications, despite the high prevalence in Africa.
Prof. Smith speaks more on the journey to curb the spread of this germ, the need for a healthy lifestyle, life as a medical practitioner and more.
Congratulations on hosting the first ever African Helicobacter and Microbiota Study conference in Africa. How do you feel about that and what informed the idea?
Thank you. I really feel elated that it actually came to pass and successfully too as all my collaborators in the African countries were present, as well as two members who are representatives of the European Helicobacter and Microbiota Study Group (EHMSG).
What informed the formation of the AHMSG?
What informed the formation of AHMSG came some 12 years ago, when I was nursing the idea of having an African Group that could look into proper diagnosis and management of Helicobacter pylori infections in Africa as a whole. My experience in Nigeria showed me that little or no funding was given to pathogens like H. pylori because it was considered as important pathogen where HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria were concerned. And now, Lassa fever, Ebola and SARS Cov-2 have been given prominence.
In 2010, the idea came to me because of the German African funding I got on H. pylori. I tried to get some support on this but it did not work. I still nursed that idea until I met Dr. Christian Schulz, whom, together with two other collaborators from two countries were to apply for German funding. I brought up the idea again and he discussed with Prof. Peter Malfertheiner, the big masquerade of European Helicobacter Group and founding President. Peter asked Christian if I was really keen on taking up that responsibility and I excitedly informed him that I would do that. He now asked me to get my members and I set to work on that; and with the support of RICHEN Medical Science, the rest is history. RICHEN Group design and develop high performance safe equipment and reagents for the diagnosis of H. pylori infection.
How do you intend to actualise your aim?
To actualise this, we have decided to look at the appropriate way in which the germ Helicobacter pylori can be diagnosed and managed, as well as complications that can arise from it. We want to know what is the actual prevalence of this organism in our environment since published work has always been on hospital cases.
How is the Helicobacter infection contracted and how can it be prevented from getting into the body?
H. pylori is contracted through the faecal-oral, oral-oral routes. For us in Africa, contaminated water may be a source of infection. It can also be gotten from vomitus and saliva of infected persons. Finally, person to person transmission within families is also possible, particularly from infected mothers and siblings.
The general way to prevent it from getting into the body just like any other disease is keeping a clean, healthy environment. Eating healthy foods particularly, leafy vegetables. In addition, not taking too much salt. In general, live a healthy lifestyle.
The formation of the AHMSG, is it a direct outcome of your appointment as a Consultant representing Africa in the Maastricht VI, Florence Italy conference in Europe?
No, it is not a direct outcome of my appointment as a Consultant representing Africa in the Maastricht VI, Florence Italy in Europe, but a direct consequence of my being one of the longest African researchers on H. pylori. H. pylori is not an easy organism to work with, and it is also very expensive working with the organism. For example, culture of the organism alone is quite expensive. I have been working on this organism since 1999 with postdoctoral fellowships, several grants and so that made me a famous person in terms of H.pylori research in Africa; and because of this, I have 41 publications on H. pylori alone and I stood out amongst African researchers on H. pylori. That was exactly how I became the only African Consultant in the European Group.
Recently, you were also elected as a Fellow of the prestigious Nigeria Academy of Science. How did this come about?
Yes, it was another event that made me very happy this year. Indeed, as my Bishop Mike Okonkwo said, 2022 is my year of acceleration. Lots of good things have been happening for me in this year of acceleration. I have distinguished myself in the field of medical microbiology through grants, publications, capacity building workshops, external assessor to various projects and supervision of Ph.D projects. Those were some of the qualities they saw that gave me the edge. More are on the way with God on my side.
What informed your choice of educational career as a teenager?
I actually wanted to be a medical doctor, but could not get the cut-off mark for medicine in JAMB. So, when I was asked to read medicine after a year into the sciences, I declined and here I am a medical microbiologist, which was the closest I could get.
How was your growing up? And were they the circumstances that informed attitudes
Growing up was great, with a caring mother who supported me all the way and provided for all my needs. My mother gave her all to make sure I attended the best of schools trending then. She was a disciplinarian and I picked that aspect from her. In my high school, I was made lateness prefect, because I was always in on time and that, has been with me till date. I am noted for coming to meetings promptly in my place of work. I am a very compassionate and dedicated person to the cause in which I believe in. I am ready to support any serious- minded person to achieve their goals even at my inconvenience. I have done that several times, although some I regretted.
The journey to the top comes with challenges; what we’re yours and how did you navigate through them?
Yes, lots of challenges, particularly as a woman. There were times when just being a principled person landed me a lot of ridicule and mockery even from those I once assisted, but my popular statement is always “Whatever a man sows that shall he reap”. I
always tell people I do not have wickedness in my DNA so people take me for granted a lot,
but that has always been a stepping stone to success. At times, I just wonder why people I had gone out of my way to assist, people that came begging for support and assistance, suddenly turn around and back stab one and even do it arrogantly.
Between your father and mother, who influenced you more?
My mother of course. I lost my dad when I was just a year old.
So you are a mummy’s girl?
Yes. When she was alive, she never used to joke with me. Her name for me then was Star. This was because she knew I am a Star and nothing could stop that. It is a pity she is not alive today to witness the grace of God upon my life. I acknowledge unashamedly that, I am nothing without God, and I am what I am by the grace of God. So, those who gang up against Stella Smith, had better think again, because my life is hidden with Christ in God.
You don’t use any form of make- up, no attachment, no lipstick, no artificial nails etc? Is there a reason for that?
No, I don’t use make-up. It generally started with my not having enough time to use lipstick or eye liner because of the several activities that I had starting from 8 am till late. So, gradually, I stopped using it and I don’t miss it. I like to look good generally. I like good shoes, bags and clothes, however, all within my affordability. I do not go for what I cannot afford.
How does your husband react to that and how did you meet your husband?
My husband is okay with that. On our wedding day, I used no make-up because I told myself that I don’t use this, so why bother on my wedding day. I am a very disciplined and principled person. My husband even boasts that can’t you see his wife, she doesn’t use
make-up, so he is cool with it. My hubby and I met in church. He saw me while singing in the choir. I love singing and that was how he approached me for marriage immediately and not even courtship. We got married 6 months after our courtship started.
How do you unwind?
I love to sing. I also like to watch some interesting programmes on TV that have to do with singing, cooking, educational channels. I also like travelling out of the country. It keeps me away from work and makes me relax.
Who are the heroes and role models that have influenced you along the way?
My heroes and role models are Bishop Mike and Bishop Peace Okonkwo, my parents in the Lord, as well as Dr. D. K. Olukoya, my dearest Egbon and mentor. Finally, my late mother, who had been a strong pillar of support in my life. She was the one who moulded me into what I am today.
What is your advice for the girl-child?
Believe in your dream, have a focus and go for it despite the obstacles on the way and it will be actualised. However, do not do it in a crooked way.