Dr Elizabeth Itotia, 29, has swallowed many bitter pills in her path to becoming the first female radiopharmaceutical scientist in Kenya, a feat confirmed by the Pharmaceutical Society of Kenya.
We meet the bubbly Dr Itotia at Kenyatta University Teaching, Research Referral Hospital (KUTRRH), where she has been working for the past few months since her return from the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Pretoria, South Africa.
Her position came after years of excelling in a demanding field that many consider a man-only domain.
Dr Itotia graduated with a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy from the University of Nairobi (UoN), which took her five years to complete. There, she graduated as the valedictorian (best student overall in the entire university) in the class of 2017.
Being a valedictorian secured her a fully-sponsored scholarship by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to study radiopharmacy at the South African university, which she recently completed.
A radiopharmaceutical scientist, also known as a nuclear pharmacist or radiopharmacist, is mainly tasked with preparing radioactive drugs in a safe and quality way.
These drugs are used for the diagnosis of various diseases, mainly cancer.
Unlike other drugs, these drugs are prepared on site since they “expire” in a matter of hours or sometimes minutes or seconds as opposed to other drugs that can stay in shelves for years.
“They are also radioactive and therefore the aspect of radiation protection comes in,” she says.
Once the radioactive drugs are ready, they are injected into the patient, who is then imaged using either a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan or a Single-Photon Emission Computerised Tomography (Spect) scan.
“It’s exciting that Kenya now has a public facility with a PET scan (Kenyatta University hospital). This is actually one of the main reasons people travel to India seeking treatment,” she notes.
She says her journey to success was a deliberate move she made way back in secondary school since she hated working in the farm — which was a mandatory chore at her parents’ house.
“My parents used to do a lot of farming ever since I was a little girl. I hated farming. We’d wake up early in the morning to plant kales and potatoes. My weekends were always booked for the shamba,” she recalls.
She notes that this was in addition to looking for grass and other vegetation for the domesticated animals at her parents’ farm.
“It was a lot of work and I honestly didn’t like it. In secondary school, I made a deliberate decision that I would not want to continue with the farming life in my adulthood.”
She vowed that she would work hard and be successful; something she kept sharing with her grandmother who advised her that the only way out of this was books.
“And that’s exactly what I did. While in Form Three and Four, I would spend my holidays in books,” she explains.
She managed to score an A plain, qualifying her to join UoN for the pharmacy course. Dr Itotia describes her university life as that of a bookworm.
“I was not the kind of student who was content with a 50. And that’s how I came out as valedictorian.”
Her journey in the radiopharmacy world has been interesting as she says it completes her world. Growing up, she wanted to be in the medical field, mainly to make a difference for people with cancer.
Her main inspiration
Her typical day starts at 3am since production of radioactive drugs starts early in the morning so that the drugs are ready for use by the time the first patient comes in the hospital at 7am.
She has to ensure that the production is according to the set standards and that all safety and quality measures have been taken.
“It’s a relatively new field in the country and so there’s a lot of reading and adoption of documents to fit our setting,” she says.
“I also love routine pharmacy work, so sometimes when having a bit of free time, I join my colleagues in other pharmacy sections,” she adds.
She notes that her main inspiration is the fear for failure, adding that she detests letting herself and her parents down, but mainly the patients who depend on her.
So, does she feel out of place in the male-dominated field?
“I take it as a learning opportunity. I do not view my male colleagues as competitors, rather as people whom I can learn from. The beauty with life is that everyone has something unique they know; something you can always learn,” replies Dr Itotia, noting that she prides in being among the pioneers of the field in the country.
She notes that the field has also attracted few professionals — even the male ones — and Kenya is currently counting on those that are currently undergoing training.
“I feel really proud being the first female in the field. It shows that if given a chance, women can equally shine in any field,” she said.
“There’s one more lady training currently in South Africa,” she adds.
The Pharmaceutical Society of Kenya, a 57-year-old body, told Lifestyle that it looks forward to more women joining the field.
Dr Itotia says some of the challenges she has encountered in the field are not having a reference point in the country.
“So, you just trust your judgment and hope for the best, which at times is like stepping on a minefield where anything can happen.”
She notes that there has been so many fears surrounding the profession.
“There is always the phobia of radiation exposure, but there are ways to mitigate that if you do your studies well,” says Dr Itotia.
Her future plans include mentoring as many pharmacists as possible to join the unique field so they can make a difference for cancer patients.
While in South Africa, Dr Itotia had to deal with a number of challenges, some that were due to the distance from home.
Among them were harsh weather conditions like a very hot climate, which made her fall sick often.
“The lowest moment was when I got terribly sick when in South Africa. It’s really hard being admitted and no family member is around. I almost called it quits. I can only thank God that I made it,” she said.
She notes that her mother is her strongest pillar, whom she looks up to and always shares with her all the challenges she encounters.
Her hobby is playing chess, which she played at a professional level before her studies took precedence.