Career Path With Executive Director, African Population and Health Research Center

October 19, 2020

Dr.Catherine Kyobutungi is a distinguished Ugandan epidemiologist and research leader who currently serves as the Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Center, a pan-African research institution headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.

The 48-year-old mother of two joined APHRC as a post-doctoral fellow in 2006 and worked her way up the ladder, serving in different capacities to get to where she is. In 2018, she was also elected to the African Academy of Sciences. She shares her Career Path with the Nation.

I am the fourth born in a home of seven siblings. I am Ugandan, born, and raised there. We lived in Kampala up until I was five years when my father- a police officer retired at 40. My mother, who was a nurse went back to school and so we had to relocate to the village. It was a huge culture shock for me because in the city, we were used to speaking English and wearing shoes while going to school. In the village, it was different but, anyway, we made it through.

I was a bright student and so I secured a slot at Makerere University to study medicine. I was the only girl from my high school class who made it to a medicine course. To be honest, I did not choose medicine. Back then, if you were bright in primary school and went to secondary school and you were able to do physics, math, chemistry, it went without saying that then, you would enroll for medicine.

So, such was my case but I don’t regret it at all. I graduated and practiced medicine for three years then quit to take up a job as an assistant lecturer at a university in Western Uganda. I served for a year and a half then got a scholarship for Master of Science at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

PhD course

I later enrolled for a PhD in Epidemiology in 2006 in the same university. My experience here was eye-opening because during the lectures, we would analyse global data on non-communicable diseases. While we had tables with data from all over the world, Africa’s tables were always blank. By the time I was done with the course, all I wanted was to come back to Africa to do research on non-communicable diseases and fill those data gaps that existed. I knew if I went back to Uganda, my research work would be limited. Then I got a chance to join APHRC as a post-doctoral fellow. The most humbling bit of joining APHRC was, despite having a PhD, I was still at the bottom of the ladder – everyone else was way above. I had a long way to go.

This was a difficult transition and I thought if I had gone back to Uganda, I would have made it to the head of department real quick. But here I was, my predecessor encouraged me to apply for a fellowship that would give the organisation some funding. I got it and this remains one of my greatest achievements career-wise – it was a lot of money and my premium went up a little bit.

Around the same time, the organisation was restructuring and splitting in specific themes. And since I was the only person doing research on health, I ended up being the health theme leader. I ultimately became part of the senior management and was exposed to the good and bad side of management. I learnt about funding and money and the deficits and all.

I am driven by the belief that Africa has the potential to solve its own problems and as such, at APHRC we are bringing our research findings into public and policy-oriented conversations. We have also embarked on structured public engagement as a way to bring the findings from our work back to the communities providing the data. Our intention is to expand our footprint to achieve the truly African vision we have of nurturing the continent’s next generation of research leaders. I consider it an achievement when I mentor young researchers and watch as they make small wins. It warms my heart.

Strong values

Over the years, I have learnt not to second guess myself because I have very strong values and I am competent enough. I have embraced speaking my mind. Also, when given a task, I make sure I go an extra mile like in meetings where I’m to make a presentation, I go over and above and present things that are beyond the expectations. This is one thing that has propelled me to where I am currently.

Growing up, my dad instilled in me that a woman can do what a man can do and so, if I find myself in a position where I’m the only woman or even African, I don’t focus on that. Rather, I focus on why am I here? With this mindset, I am able to deliver exceptionally well.

My parting shot: Power is never given. It is taken. So you have to be aggressive, believe in yourself and go for it.

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