Associate Professor Aster Tsegaye: Beyond Shattering the Glass Ceiling

Dr. Aster was born in Adama on April 2, 1965 and grew up in the famous Eastern Ethiopian city, Harrar. She attributes her interest in the clinical field to the numerous leprosy patients she encountered on the streets on her way to school.  Wanting to make a difference, she vowed to become a nurse. Growing up, Aster’s contact was only to male doctors which led her to believe a girl like her could never become one until one fateful day her 4th-grade Amharic teacher confessed she, a girl, too can become a doctor. From that moment on, Dr. Aster knew she could be anything she wanted to and pursued her career in medicine.

Dr. Aster’s journey to become a leading scientist in her field and first female Chief Executive Officer of Black Lion Medical Teaching Hospital in 2010, (the CEO position rotates every three years) was full of ups and downs. As the years went by, the number of girls in her class kept dropping.  Having to balance multiple responsibilities–family and social–a woman’s career ambition becomes the least priority. “Women do not choose to drop out but are challenged daily and in the end, most are forced to give up,” says Dr. Aster.  She attributes her success to her tenacity, ability to multi-task, and above all her solution-oriented approaches when faced with challenges. Dr. Aster is an accomplished world-class scientist with a fighting spirit and an unmatched commitment for her passion.

She is a passionate educator and researcher with an accumulated knowledge and skill as a medical laboratory service provider in the Immuno-Hematology. Dr. Aster has advised and co-advised about 100 graduate students including 4 PhDs. She has authored and co-authored about 60 scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals.

Dr. Aster is Associate Professor at the Department of Medical Laboratory Science, Addis Ababa University. She has also received numerous awards for her outstanding contribution to the field of Medical Laboratory Profession and HIV/AIDS training and research skills.  Currently, she works in Leukemia/Lymphoma Research and National Reference Interval for clinical laboratory parameters and Quality control project.

Dr. Aster is not only treating the symptoms but has made her contribution to improving patient care. In 2016 she was able to win a 220,000 USD Research grant from Ministry of Science and Technology to find alternative solutions for Health Laboratory challenges in Ethiopia. The project which she is currently leading is done in collaboration with 8 Universities, Regional laboratories, and National Blood transfusion service. Dr. Aster explains that in Ethiopia, laboratories are unable to run quality control materials because of the difficulty to transport perishable products across the country. Cost and short half-life of whole blood are some of the reasons. At a time where most clinical decisions are being based on laboratory results, without a strong laboratory with good quality control, Ethiopia cannot support diagnosis and monitoring of infectious diseases. So this project will investigate the use of alternative quality control methods, such as retaining patient blood for hematology and pooled human sera and bovine sera for clinical chemistry tests. Establishing an Ethiopian reference interval, the clinical laboratory parameters for a physiologic measurement in healthy persons is identified as the first challenge in this mega project. The ever-resilient Dr. Aster is meeting the challenge head-on. Currently to find the healthy Ethiopians to be used as parameters, 14,000 biological samples from all over Ethiopia are being collected. These will be screened for viral infections, intestinal and hemoparasites. Results of the study will dictate the type of quality control material and reference interval used in all health facilities across Ethiopia. Thus effectively building a strong laboratory with good quality control across the country effectively and efficiently supporting diagnosis and monitoring of infectious diseases like leprosy.

Dr. Aster holds BSc in Biology (minor Chemistry) from AAU, MSc in Zoology from AAU and a PhD in Immunology from the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Dr. Aster is grateful for her family, friends, teachers, and colleagues who have encouraged her to keep on going. The life lessons and encouragement she has received from her mentors have taught her the wisdom in giving back. As a result, she founded the Society of Ethiopian Women in Science and Technology (SEWiST) in collaboration with the Ministry of Science and Technology to help early-career female scientists ease their way in a male-dominated world.

Dr. Aster’s work in creating opportunities for women to access and excel as scientists is impressive. By investing her time and knowledge she has been able to secure several grants to enable women in science to build their capacity and overcome challenges. To mention a few, in 2015, she won a 10,000 dollar grant for Encouraging Women in Infectious Diseases Research from TDR/WHO that was used for a workshop designed to empower the members through training, mentoring, role modeling and networking. Thirty-five women scientists from five academic institutions took part in the workshop. The training covered various topics including research methodology, communication, promotion requirements, drafting a grant proposal, and how to strike a balance between work and family life. In 2018 to build strong networking among women scientist, she secured a 25,000 euro grant from Co-PI for Alexander Humboldt Alumni Award for Innovative Networking Initiatives. Dr. Aster has been serving SEWiST as its president since 2017.

 “I’m the kind of person who never gives up.” Dr. Aster Tsegaye

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