Few Kenyans know much about the village in Wajir, aside from its location in a hot, dry region in the North of the country. But it is here in a sandy-floored school lacking proper walls or windows that a young Abdisalan Noor first learnt about science.

Today, Dr Abdisalan Noor sits in his laboratory at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri), surrounded by  computers and other high-tech equipment he uses in his work as a research scientist, finding new ways to more effectively fight the burden of malaria in Africa.

His is a story of beating the odds and succeeding in an arena where few Kenyans have made their mark at the global level. Noor grew up the ninth in a family of 27 children, spending his time with brothers looking after his father’s camels and cattle or minding the small shop in the village.

Yet he distinguished himself by becoming only the second person from his village — and one of the few from Wajir district — to attend  Mangu Boys High School where his interest in mathematics, geography and biology began.

The interest led him to study for an engineering degree at Nairobi University, majoring in geospatial modelling, a new discipline at the University then. He followed this with an internship at the International Livestock Research Institute (Ilri) in Nairobi, where he gained practical experience in using computer software to solve real-life problems.

“Ilri offered me the chance to get practical experience using powerful computers and advanced software. At the time, it was the only place to do geospatial modelling in Kenya. Having no salary was no reason not to do it.” Geospatial modelling mixes maps with other information to create visual representations of different things.

Using additional data scientists can, for example, show on a map how long it takes for a person in Wajir Town to reach a hospital or how many malaria patients there are in Narok district, all in relation to roads and the location of major towns, hills or valleys. This helps to clearly show where healthcare resources are being concentrated and where gaps exist.

Noor’s determination to learn these complex techniques, as well as his keen eye for detail, hard work and passion for the subject, landed him a post as a research assistant at Kemri. His first project was to develop a national map of public and private health services, which had not been updated since 1959.

Project’s success

The success of the project gave him confidence in defining and addressing health-related issues. Sparked by this interest, he embarked on a PhD at the UK-based Open University while based in Nairobi.

His PhD project provided him with the chance to work with scientists at the UK’s University of Oxford to develop models of how Kenyan’s travel to seek help when they have malaria from government health facilities. Noor developed some of the first mathematical models of health travel times for malaria in Africa.

After completing his PhD, in 2007 Noor won a prestigious international research fellowship from UK medical charity The Wellcome Trust, one of a handful of African scientists to receive the award.

His research now focuses on how spatial models and maps can help define access and needs for one of the most important malaria prevention strategies, insecticide treated bed nets.

The award gave him the opportunity to further develop his research, investigating areas that interest him such as whether health prevention reaches the poor and marginalised sectors of society and improve public health policy with high quality science.

Noor is the lead author of a study recently published in the Lancet, one of the world’s most respected medical journals. His models show that more than 82 per cent of Africa’s children are still not protected by bed nets, with a quarter of them living in Nigeria alone.

The huge public benefit of such research makes the hard work and long hours worth it, says Noor. “It can be frustrating, but the rewards when an experiment or a piece of analysis works are huge.”

He has already helped to steer international health policy: his research helped persuade the World Health Organisation to recommend that malaria programmes provide bed nets free to people in malaria-affected regions. He says he would like to see more Kenyan research being used by Kenya’s policy makers. Noor attributes his success to the opportunity he has had to work with Kemri.