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Profile: Dr Desire Habonimana

Man wearing sub fusc outside Sheldonian Theatre

Dr Desire Habonimana (2021, DPhil Clinical Medicine)

Dr Habonimana received his first MSc in Epidemiology (Implementation Science) at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and his second MSc in Health Economics and Decision Science from the University College London. He has worked in NGOs, academia, and research institutions mainly in Africa. He is a WHO/TDR Alumni, Chevening Alumni, former International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) Research Fellow, and former Associate Fellow at Evidence for Sustainable Human Development Systems in Africa (EVIHDAF). Dr Habonimana has also received several international awards including The WHO Special World No Tobacco Day award in 2018.

What did you do before coming to Univ for your DPhil?
You will discover that I am not a little boy when you look at both my academic and career history. I trained in Burundi as a medical doctor (2007-2015), moved to South Africa (the University of the Witwatersrand of Johannesburg) where I successfully completed the MSc in Epidemiology – Implementation Science (2016-2017), and continued at University College London where I obtained a distinction for my MSc Health Economics and Decision Science (2018-2019).

Far from being focused on one career as most do, my professional history has many forms. I worked (and continue to work) as a University Lecturer in the College of Medicine of the University of Burundi, have worked on several WHO consultancy assignments, and have invested a lot in the NGO sector. For instance, I and my small team won and implemented many small and medium grants for public health and we received an award from the WHO Director-General in recognition of the amazing tobacco policy work in Burundi in May 2018. I also consulted for other public health players including The Global Fund and provided technical assistance to the Ministry of Health in Burundi on countless occasions.

Why did you decide to do a DPhil at University College?
Being a duo-MSc holder on top of medicine was seen as “enough” for many including my lovely wife Petronie Nyawenda and it is thanks to her invaluable support that I was able to achieve the above-listed and the innumerable unsaid accomplishments. When you realise that good education pays back – and this was evident to me after my degree at University College London (UCL) when I found myself unintentionally making the news in Burundi and receiving several awards and different job offers, very well-paying indeed – I started to want further education, now in a college better-ranked (reputed) than UCL.

Plus, I require a PhD to progress in my academic career! Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, or Cambridge was my target! But I didn’t really want to go to the US too much, especially with their five-year PhD programme, to be honest. In fact, I declined one PhD offer from the USA at the very beginning of the training when they required me to start to use a ruler and compass for triangles and shapes drawing… (don’t want to openly say which one, sorry).

When I tried Oxford, the first time I wasn’t successful at the interview as I struggled to understand the Kenyan health system where the project I applied for takes place, but I was successful the second time with huge thanks to Professor Mike English who accepted to supervise me. This time, I designed my own research in my preferred field of interest and on Burundi’s health system. I was assigned a college, coming to Univ wasn’t my choice, I was most enthusiastic about joining the Oxford community. But Univ is a great college, I am proud of being a Univite. Often, I question the following funny coincidence: I studied at University College London and continue at University College Oxford!

Man wearing suit and speaking while holding a mic What is the current state of your research?
My research aims to contribute to Burundi’s aspirations to deliver on maternal and newborn health agenda by 2030 by studying and proposing the redesign of the designated health care system that provides emergency care for maternal and neonatal complications. A full protocol paper has been published. It is an ambitious study that draws on huge and hard-to-collect datasets across 112 health facilities scattered throughout Burundi. Fortunately, I successfully gained country stakeholder buy-in and raised funding from WHO in Burundi. I designed the survey tools, which were validated by the country stakeholders and WHO-funded fieldwork. Many data collectors were trained and deployed to the field for data collection. Before the end of the fourth term (Michaelmas term, second year), I obtained most of the datasets and published a protocol paper. I’m currently focused on data coding and analysis plan development.

How do you feel you’ve changed since walking through Univ’s doors for the first time?
I continue to tell friends that I achieved my goal. Since I joined Univ, I am proud of the great step, but very cautious about a successful exit. Very mindful of that! I am excited that I have wonderful supervision beyond imagination — friendly supervisors who create a convivial environment while, at the same time, throwing at you great scientific advice that often makes you look somehow stupid. I don’t feel ashamed to ask a silly thing but I continue to push on my own as well, I believe that a DPhil student should necessarily be able to work independently. The change is still loading, now that I am familiar with the College and Oxford, I have started to feel differently, more at home – new friends, new church services set up, and a new lifestyle, which includes cooking my own food.

What do you do apart from your DPhil?
I have a family of six – including myself and apologies if this counting isn’t correct – and many siblings and orphans and vulnerable people I continue to take care of. Well, I am a regular gym guy – not for the sake of a hobby but for health reasons – and continue to closely monitor my genuine management of free time. I earn income for my family and the University of Burundi uses my spare time to teach one or two modules a year (typically less than 60 hours) or be given short-term part-time assignments by WHO or The Global Fund. I dream to join sports clubs here in Oxford but am yet to fulfil this aspiration.

Have you faced any challenges in your life that you are happy to share here? If so, how did you cope with them?
How many challenges have I faced? I can’t remember exactly! Closely linked to my educational goal, the greatest challenge that anyone could face is where you are from and where you obtained your basic and junior education. In other words, Burundi is neither known for science nor for great educational achievements! And the country is French-speaking. Therefore, getting to Oxford could be seen as a huge achievement. I know, many won’t understand this!

I taught myself the English language by setting up an on-campus English club and attending other off-campus language clubs. I divided my studentship into medical and English language courses. I was growing: fine, good, and better. Off to South Africa. Off to London. And now at Oxford University.

Many people have a dream, but a dream is not a vision. A dream becomes a vision when the person decides to march towards realising the dream – but many people lack this. My advice, which is experience-based, is to dream and work for the dream. As Nelson Mandela said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Do you have advice for prospective postgraduate students?
Before joining a DPhil programme, grab some work experience and familiarise yourself with your field of interest. Publish a few papers and get used to academic mistakes and writing. Joke with datasets. Plan your academic journey. The number one step is finding your supervisor. I wish you good luck in finding as great a supervisor as me.

Describe Univ in three words.
Hospitality, thriving, oldest.

Published: 21 November 2022

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