Author: Ethel Mendocilla Sato, PMP
Thanks to research on Human Microbiome, we know that our “microbial self” has a profound influence in human physiology, immunity, and metabolism. For example, extensive study of the gut microbiome has shown its most significant importance on our short- and long-term overall health. However, other parts of the human body are largely unexplored, including the vagina. Although the vagina is the second place most populated by microorganisms, which have a critical role in women’s health, it is under-researched. Surprisingly, the vaginal microbiome field only represents 3% of scientific publications related to the Human Microbiome field. This knowledge gap prevents the development of effective and practical clinical therapeutics that could protect and improve women’s health and well-being.
However, since the start of the pandemic, it has become harder to get funding for continuing research in topics unrelated to SARS-CoV-2 virus. Furthermore, the COVID pandemic has revealed how challenging it is to communicate science effectively and timely to the public. What we have learned and still learning from this pandemic is that now it is more important than ever to pay attention to our other self – that is, the trillions of microorganisms that populate our bodies, our microbiome. For this reason, our*goal is to implement the Marie project in Switzerland, a citizen science study with scientific and societal objectives. First, we want to raise public awareness about the importance of vaginal microbes in women’s sexual and reproductive health. Second, we want to engage citizens and work together to increase our understanding of the vaginal microbiome and its role in health and disease.
In addition, we believe that the promotion of vaginal health knowledge within the women’s community in Switzerland is a crucial strategy for entrusting women to participate in self-care, and ultimately, enjoy healthier and happier lives. With that in mind, we decided to launch the Marie project in the well-known crowdfunding platform, Wemakeit. For this scientific campaign, we organised the project into four phases: 1) Planning, 2) Pre-launch, 3) Launch, 4) Follow-up of the campaign in Wemakeit.
When we started the adventure of moving forward with the campaign for Wemakeit, we had never imagined facing various challenges that we had to overcome. We provide below a few of them:
1. Obtaining the support from key collaborators in the project
Making an alliance with Prof. Sarah Lebeer and her team based at the University of Antwerp (Belgium) was the most important milestone we could have achieved. Prof. Lebeer led the citizen science project called Isala and had the objective to study the vaginal microbiome of almost 6'000 participants from Flanders. Even though we managed to get their support, we had to find a host lab and local collaborators to support us with expertise in Public Health, Citizen Science, cutting-edge technology for the microbial DNA analysis, etc. We were fortunate enough to raise the interest of PD Dr. Sonja Merten, project leader and head of the Society, Gender and Health Unit at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (our host lab) in Basel, the Citizen Science Center and the Functional Genomics Center, both located in Zürich.
2. Understanding our stakeholder’s engagement needs
In July 2021, due to nationwide COVID measures from the Swiss government such as: quarantine rules and work-from-home order, most of our interactions with eventual collaborators happened via virtual meetings. What we learned is that from the very beginning, we ushould take time to understand each stakeholders’ motivation, concerns, preferred communication, and engagement frequency to determine the best way to work together. If the stakeholder analysis is done later in time, then it will be much more difficult to build their trust and future engagement.
3. Maintaining virtual team members engagement
A daunting challenge since the start of the project until now was to coordinate recurrent video meetings with our stakeholders, build effective and clear agenda with objectives and discussion points. Since most of our stakeholders are geographically distributed, we could not meet face-to-face and therefore, had to rely on various forms of technology and videoconferencing tools for communication and information sharing needs. By maintaining effective, meaningful and timely communication, we reinforced mutual commitments and achievements.
4. Searching for ambassadors and sponsors
It was surprising and discouraging to not receive any replies from the thirty small, medium and large companies we contacted. This showed once more how disregarded is the topic of vaginal health. On the contrary, we were lucky enough to find enthusiastic and supportive ambassadors, such as: Petra Volpe (movie director), Dagmar Bocakova (visual artist) and Fanny Georgi (science communicator).
The scientific campaign was launched on February 23rd and will run until April 8th, 2022. As of today, we have managed to raise 7% of our first financial goal of 70'000 CHF.
If you support our mission of engaging citizens in vaginal microbiome research to advance discovery in this field and break taboos and misconceptions about vaginal health in Switzerland, please, help us with your donations on the following website: https://wemakeit.com/projects/unveil-vagina-s-microworld
Also, we would be very grateful if you could share the project link with your family, friends and networks.
- And…let’s work together today to make the future of women’s health look brighter! -
*Initiators of the scientific campaign called “Unveil vagina’s microworld”: PD Dr. Sonja Merten, Monica Ticlla Ccenhua and Ethel Mendocilla Sato.