Where is she now? Sylvia Mwanza-Kabaghe, Zambia – INTEREST 2019 Joep Lange Award Winner

Sylvia, born and raised in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, has worked in the pediatric sector for nearly her entire career. Her undergraduate degree in special education led to her first position as Child Development Officer at the Paediatric Center of Excellence, where she performed cognitive assessments on children with special educational needs. Sylvia’s desire to work in child development stems from an event in her personal life.

“My daughter was delayed in speech. I remember wanting to do more to help her and, with a few strategies from a friend in speech therapy, I managed to. Today, she has definitely caught up and is very talkative!”

Sylvia sought to know more about the source of the issues that these children encountered. “It’s impossible to pinpoint the issues when dealing with invisible disabilities. They come from the brain and I needed to know more about their source to address them more effectively.” No sooner said than done, Sylvia branched off to study developmental and educational psychology, a joint master’s degree between the University of Zambia and the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

“I’ve always loved research and never had the opportunity to do it on a big scale. The environment did not allow for it in Zambia”. Her master’s pursuits motivated her to continue with a PhD in educational psychology at these same institutions. Her passion for research only grew more. In 2017, Sylvia co-founded a school to help children with special educational needs in Zambia, named Proactive Ways Academy.

Sylvia mentions that she was very fortunate to be sponsored for her PhD by Leiden University through the Lolle Nauta Foundation under the Joke Scholtens Awards. This grant gave her an opportunity to find several colleagues in the United States with whom she started research projects after she had obtained her PhD. In 2017, she became principal investigator for a project on neurocognitive disorders related to HIV. This also led to the award-winning abstract that she presented at INTEREST 2019 in Ghana, an honor that took her completely by surprise.

“Catherine Hankins called me to the front. It was unbelievable to get chosen among 600 plus participants to receive the Joep Lange Award for best abstract. I never won something of this magnitude. It was so unexpected and such a humbling experience. It meant a lot to me, as an early scholar who had only been doing research since 2015, to get recognition for my work. I was proud of myself and thankful to God and the HANDZ team.”

Her award-winning research and achievement were highly publicized in Zambia. “They put this news on the website of the University of Zambia, and it went viral. My dad called me to say I was being talked about on the radio. I was receiving calls from all over the country!”

Having her research recognized with this honor remains a significant milestone for Sylvia to this day. “It was the realization that I can actually do more. I started writing for grants after this because I started believing in myself; it gave me courage. It put me on the map. I still get requests from reputable international journals today to review their papers. The award pushed me to publish research.”

In addition to her current work as a researcher, she also teaches educational psychology at the University of Zambia. Zambia has progressed in special education provision, but Sylvia mentions that the pace is very slow. “I started working with these children in 2008. If you look at the number of years and the growth rate of special education provision, not much is happening. It is not an area people are interested in researching.”

Sylvia plans to expand services for children with educational needs and to develop more sensitivity around the topic. She highlights the importance of intervening at an early stage of childhood development. Additionally, Sylvia wants to work on prevention and simplified information dissemination to increase awareness among parents and policymakers. In her opinion, the research that is produced on this topic ends up in the hands of educated people and not the grassroots movements and communities where the children come from. “Children with special needs are being neglected and they have not been given the attention they deserve.”

Sylvia also plans to continue with research. She has been writing for grants to assess the implementation of cognitive behavioral therapy in adolescents with subtle neurocognitive disorders. We wish her the best of luck with her endeavors!