Warrior in the white coat
Unwilling to pass up an opportunity to be clad in a white again, I was a research intern at Infectious Disease Institute – Makerere university. This internship was in light of my give-back idea to contribute to the intervention against antimicrobial resistance and HIV/AIDS in Uganda through scientific research and capacity building. I envisaged that this would have a large laboratory work component in which I would train while supporting the laboratory staff in ongoing studies. Essentially, this internship would bridge the gap between my idea and its execution by giving me more information and skills for feasibility assessment.
My work at IDI was predominantly laboratory-based as I expected: I was exposed to methods used to monitor HIV/AIDS treatment, for antimicrobial testing, and several other components of microbiology and molecular biology. If anything, I was impressed by the capacity Uganda already has to tackle these issues. In my time at IDI, I was able to learn how to monitor drug levels in patient’s blood using High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC). This remains impressive as a technique to study whether the Antiretroviral drugs HIV patients take actually reach the blood. I was also able to learn and perform various key pieces to infectious disease translational research including but not limited to: Tuberculosis diagnosis, leukocyte cell counts, DNA extraction and the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). As part of my microbiology training, I was also actively involved in preparation and inoculation of media. drug sensitivity tests, biochemical tests and blood culture. However, I was not able to adequately study the relationships between external (and non-Ugandan) researchers and IDI. I was not able to sufficiently learn about the challenges faced in the translation of ideas developed in other parts of the world into Ugandan context and capacity. I did observe some of the challenges but it would have been a lot more rewarding to have a full conversation. This is an opportunity that did not come very often probably because there weren’t many international researchers in the laboratories in which I worked. The staff attributed this to the time of the year of my placement, which is not as work-intensive. At least, this internship has shown me that I have to pay more attention to the details of this cooperative research system since I would have to translate ideas probably not developed within the country.
Nevertheless, I was able to attend a conference during which guests from Cornell university were unveiling a mobile prototype of DNA amplification technology. This was one of the few opportunities I had to network with individuals from an external university, and a different but related field – biomedical engineering. By observing and interacting with the testers of this technology, I learnt more about the intimate relationship between the scientific techniques I am learning and engineering in developing affordable innovations.
I was able to work in four different laboratories which had slightly different working environments. Generally, all the laboratories were dealing with samples containing virulent pathogens, and hence there were varying levels of risk prevention measures enforced depending on the enforcement by laboratory managers. Working with virulent pathogens was daunting but I was able to work with care under supervision by the staff, especially during training. Many a time, the tension created by the nature of work was mitigated by the socially vibrant environment. The staff were able to socialize even within tasks and still get objectives done – and this is not uncommon from my prior experiences living in Uganda. It is these social moments that constitute the best part of my internship because I was able to become part of the workforce both professionally and socially.
Despite not being able to meet him often during my internship, Dr. Andrew Kambugu, my supervisor was the most influential person I met. There was a lot to learn from the way he interacted with the staff. He was positive, considerate and respectful to everyone including juniors and interns. His style of leadership is atypical in comparison to the highly hierarchal system in many Ugandan workplaces. It is no surprise that he is internationally engaged to represent and foster the research at IDI.
IDI is a dynamic research environment that I would recommend any intern looking to do international-standard infectious disease research in Africa. It would be helpful for interns to know about the risks involved in the laboratory work IDI does and prepare appropriately e.g. get immunizations. Nevertheless, I consider this internship to be an overall success because all these pieces constitute a newfound pool of information from which to derive ideas for my future career research.