I am overwhelmed and extremely delighted but also humbled and thankful to the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for this great honor. I am grateful to the Foundation for selecting me, to those who have nominated me and supported my nomination. And, of course, I thank my husband and children and friends, people of Bangladesh, and my team at icddr,b and ideSHi for their continued support.
Dear friends, let me share with you my journey until this very day:
I was born in Bangladesh, in a middle-class family with many other girl siblings, in a family dominated by women. This matriarchal family was actually headed by my grandmother, Firdausi Bano, after whom I was named. She did not go to school herself but was self-taught and knew many languages. She believed in girls' education and saw to it from our childhood that we sisters learn to have a purpose and determination in life. She saw us off to school with tasty tiffin boxes each day and would always be waiting for us with hot lunches. She cooked and stiched pretty dresses for us and made us feel like we were special. It was for her that I grew up with a determination to do something purposeful.
When I was around five years old, I already wanted to be in public health, and my first wish was to be “Florence Nightingale,” and from then onwards, I kept on changing my interests until I got into the University of Dhaka to study Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. This was when I learned the details of the physiology, biochemistry, immunology, nutrition, and molecular biology of life and the working of the human body.
It was with great interest that I tried to assimilate all this information and my efforts were always aligned to better understanding all the health and nutritional problems of people in my country. After doing my PhD from Liverpool University, I returned to Dhaka within a week. I started teaching at the University of Dhaka and tried to carry out research. But it was difficult for me to do both research and teaching simultaneously. Within six years, I realized that I was born a researcher and a full academic profession somehow left me dissatisfied. Although fortunate to start my profession as a teacher in the best university in Bangladesh, I soon moved to icddr,b to become a full-time researcher.
Ladies and gentlemen, I do not know how much you know about Bangladesh.
In the beginning of my career, I had to learn a lot about the public health problems confronting our country. Infectious diseases in the 1980s were still a major killer in the country. Cholera and typhoid though these are ancient diseases were still causing so much suffering and misery to people every day. Our icddr,b hospitals were filled up with mostly needy people seeking free care suffering from dehydrating diarrheal disease, especially cholera. I involved and immersed myself in laboratory work to understand the immunological basis of the disease. I started exploring ways to connect clinical work in the early 1980’ with laboratory experiments to answer questions that still remained unaddressed. The role of vaccines to protect against these diseases appeared to me to be the most important solution in tackling these problems.
Indeed, I was inspired by the work that was being carried out for so long at icddr,b both in clinical care and vaccine development. Although I published a lot, I soon realized that if I do not reach out to communities and tried to help them, I would end up my career and not achieve anything. I then decided to focus on studies to reach out to people to protect them against cholera and typhoid using solutions offered by vaccines, which are the main public health tool/short term tools for eliminating diseases from high-risk populations with poor access to clean water, sanitation, good living conditions-basically diseases of poverty-stricken people.
In 33 years of my research career, I have attempted to learn about different aspects of public health which is needed for implementation science. I do not know how much I have been able to deliver and contribute. I am grateful for this award to Bangladesh, to icddr,b, the institution that has given me the environment and encouragement to carry out my work, and last but not least to my great team in Bangladesh and all over the world without whose support I could never have achieved anything. I thank my family for their support.
Ladies and gentlemen, I finish on a very tragic and sad note. My husband passed away just several hours after the official announcement of the Ramon Magsaysay Award on 31 August 2021. He could not hear this wonderful news. His encouragement and strong support in the 45 years of our marriage have made it possible for me to dedicate my life to science and balance family life with research. I remain indebted to him. I want to share a message he wrote to me 46 years ago:
“Wish you God Speed, May Allah grant you much glory in your search for knowledge”
He is not here today to join in this celebration but his wishes for me have come true. I feel his presence all the time, and he will always be with me.
After receiving the Ramon Magsaysay Award, I now feel that I need to deliver even more for Bangladesh, for the people living in low- and middle–income countries, and for people living in fragile settings. The award has made me feel more responsible, and I promise to dedicate the rest of my life to public health and contribute to saving lives.