Warrior in the white coat

Back in the battle against infectious disease..

2017 summer found me back in Uganda, and back at the Infectious Disease Institute – Makerere University. This being my second internship at this organization, I had a warm welcome from very familiar faces in a familiar space. But for a single staff change or two, nothing about the laboratory had changed. This time, knowing more about the lab gave me more precision in choosing the nature of work I did.

What was different

Cell pelleting

Prior introduction to several labs at Mulago steered me away from high performance liquid chromatography (Pharmacokinetics lab), towards molecular biology, immunology, and microbiology. Therefore, I spent the entirety of my internship in the translational research lab. It also helped that I was familiar with the staff in this lab and some of the work they were doing, so I spent less time adjusting to the environment. Like my previous internship here, the nature of work available and duration of my internship did not allow me to develop or latch onto a research project for a more holistic research experience. I eased into the routine lab work and fortunately this time I had more experience in the lab from my third-year microbiology lab courses. I was ready to suit up in the white coat and dive deeper into the wet lab than before.

The work.

Drug sensitivity testing(right) with Emmanuel M. (left).

This internship offered fuller days, and more complex tasks. There was a lot to confect and more to practice. I slotted into tasks that were already being conducted by the staff, and two contributions especially stood out for me. Between these major tasks, I did trivial tasks within experiments and assays, processed and stored components of whole blood, and breast milk samples. One of the prominent studies in which I spent ample time supporting the staff was the gonorrhea study. Funded by the Center for Disease Research, the study was aimed at studying the trends of antibiotic resistance and susceptibility at select health centers around Kampala. The work I did included receiving urethral swabs, gram staining and streaking the bacteria on selective media. I also helped subculture, and set drug sensitivity tests and minimum inhibitory concentration test strips. By honing these techniques, I am more equipped to investigate antimicrobial resistance which was one of the targets in my Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) commitment to action.

Taking the fight to leukemia

Half way into my placement, the Texas Children’s hospital introduced a project to enhance leukemia diagnosis and treatment using flow cytometry. This was aimed at using fluorescent markers to identify abnormal cell populations that would be targeted during treatment. Work done under this diagnosis felt meaningful to me because it augmented treatment and provided useful data for future cancer research. More importantly for me, this was an unforeseen opportunity to develop a skill I had been fascinated by for a long time.

Far from home, yet far from dismay

Using the FACS canto for flow cytometry.

In the way of luck, the leukemia study gave me an unforeseen opportunity to interact with Mike Cubbage, the lab manager of the Texas Children’s hospital core laboratories. A master of flow cytometry, he possessed a wealth of insight into flow cytometry data analysis. Having done research/diagnosis work around Africa, he was a resource in my efforts to learn more about laboratory-based work done on the continent but instigated from overseas. I learnt that if the capacity to conduct research was available, the costs were similar on and off the continent, for different reasons. Limitations to research in Africa arose from equipment and accessibility to reagents, while limitations to research overseas arose from high wages for complex work.

Setting up PCR (right) with Joshua M. (left).

At about the same time, Megan Neary, a PhD student from the University of Liverpool launched part of her pharmacogenetics project in the lab. Her work was focused on investigating the relationships between genes involved in HIV Antiretroviral drug metabolism and contraceptives in African populations. This was a rich opportunity for me to learn more about PCR. Although I did not seize this opportunity to the extent I did flow cytometry, I had shadowed and conducted each part of the experiment. My conversations with Megan contributed to my understanding of international research. From her, I learnt that collaborations between universities tremendously eased research in Africa. And aside from limitations like unstable electricity supply and reagent shortages, some research was better off done in Africa. This leaves an opportunity for domestic researchers to use the samples for further studies in the future.

Not withstanding challenges like my personal health and interpersonal adjustments, this internship was a success. I appreciate the time that the staff invested in training me in the skills I required, and relish their patience in moments where I was proffered the opportunity to work without supervision. It has left me a lot to ruminate about, and certainly enriched my proficiency in research and the work place. The translational lab has been a place I can learn from enthusiastic colleagues and enjoy diverse conversations with friends. This is an organization I would recommend to scientists who seek involvement in infectious disease research in Africa.




A rat’s tale

Through the academic lab..

My initial expectations of the Microbiology and Immunology (MBIM) major at UBC were rife with laboratory-based research courses. And before long, I was well on my way to finally becoming a lab rat. Ascertaining that I was going to spend half of my degree doing chemistry and biology laboratory courses was particularly dispiriting.

BIOL 140 – Studying the behavior of p.vulgaris

Over the course of these first two years, I did CHEM 121, CHEM 123 and CHEM 235 which were mostly focused on inorganic and organic chemistry techniques. I also did BIOL 140 which was a change from the chemistry scenery but still far from my expectations. However, I learnt to appreciate these courses more because they brought life to classroom concepts in my chemistry courses at the time. My craving for research in MBIM was far from quenched at the time, but they provided a valuable foundation for my courses. Reflections on my experiences in BIOL 140 can be found in my other blog.

My promotion to third year standing in the 2016/2017 winter session cleared my path to laboratory learning in microbiology and immunology. MICB 322 and MICB 323 offered me academic laboratory experience through the MBIM program. Through MICB 322 (winter term 1), I was introduced to fundamental microbiology techniques like: inoculation of agar broth and plates, gram staining, isolation and identification of bacterial species, biochemical testing, API testing, antibiotic sensitivity testing, and general dilutions.

MICB 322 – Staphylococci growing on agar plates.

Interweaved with these were molecular techniques like: protein quantification, spectrophotometry, DNA extraction, Genomic DNA digests and transformation, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), running agarose gels, DNA sequencing and using BLAST for identification of genes. More importantly, I isolated and identified a staphylococcus species from my skin using various biochemical tests, antibiotic sensitivity tests and PCR. This project was written up in the Journal of bacteriology format (without a methods section), and will always serve as my first laboratory-based project/study. In addition to learning more about my own microbiota, this project is something I can always use as a reference point as I aim to improve my writing in the future.

I proceeded to MICB 323 (winter term 2) which in addition to providing a host of learning experiences, turned out to be more academically challenging. MICB 323 was more heavily focussed on molecular biology and virology. I honed some of the aforementioned skills, and was introduced to: eukaryotic cell culture, protein expression systems, ELISAs and western blots for protein quantification and identification, viral infection and cultures, RT qPCR, and theories underlying flow cytometry. Doing this course exposed to me some of my crucial strengths and weaknesses. The more challenging parts during this course were preliminary calculations which dominated the quizzes and exams, but my performance was exalted by the written assignments. This ascertained confidence in my ability to write and present my research, and highlighted the need to improve how quickly I grasped calculations for experimental set up.

In the 2017/2018 academic year, I will be doing MICB 401 and directed studies (MICB448). This promises more independence in laboratory research but I look forward to exploring my research interests and expanding my abilities in and out of the lab. I will update this blog to include my reflections for this course.


Growing into a face of UBC

The University of British Columbia (UBC) has two main campuses which offer similar quality of education, but different programs and environment. Every year, prospective students from all over the world find themselves able to choose if they want to join UBC, and the campus they want to spend the next few years at. In January 2016, I received information from the MasterCard Foundation leadership offering me my first shot at being part of that important decision. I had already been part of shaping the UBC student experience as part of the jumpstart program. Joining the International Student Initiative (ISI) as a student ambassador seemed like an opportunity to be involved with prospective students throughout the year as part of the University. I picked interest in the posting and in the March of 2016, I was selected to join the student ambassador team.

I had had to give tours before, as a Jumpstart orientation leader, and I had enjoyed sharing my stories about different parts of the university. Having to give tours as part of the ISI program felt like a chance to expand this experience in several ways. The tours I would give would be longer, the participants more diverse and the content more precise. Every day I would go to Brock hall would be a new chance to reflect on my experiences and meet new people.

Joining this team was a big step for me; it was my first time to take on a job during the school term. At this crucial step in my professional learning curve, I had to grow to cater to more than just my academics. Becoming a student ambassador was the perfect choice for this development because as a work-learn position under the university, there was a lot of support in successfully balancing work and classroom commitments. My colleagues and employers have been very supportive in my efforts to become better for this job, and my career. There have been a lot of opportunities for professional development through the meetings and retreats. I have learnt to express myself better, to speak in public more coherently, and be more considerate of individuals within groups. Often, I find myself inspired by the glimmer in the eyes of the participants when I deliver a tour impeccably. Furthermore, the ambassador adventures and informational sessions are creatively crafted to exhibit UBC as the dynamic place it is. Because of this, I am aware of what happens around me at UBC, why it happens, and what it means to the people who call the university home. Certainly, it has given this university a lot more meaning to me. In as much as the program is highly professional, some of the people I work with have grown to become my friends. Whether it is through covering my shifts when I could not make them or having personal conversations outside work, my colleagues have made this team feel like my community. As I move into my fourth and final year, I am excited to keep growing as an ambassador.


Small town, big dreams


Last Christmas, I had the opportunity to travel to Westerville Ohio for the holidays. Dr. Opiyo Steven, a faculty member from Ohio State University and personal family connection, was my host. This trip was my first time to plan distant travel; I was as anxious as I was excited. This was also the first Christmas I spent with family ever since moving to Canada for my university education. I fondly recall the taste of typical Ugandan food, which I had not had out of Uganda before. I also recall the warm feeling of being around family, and being able to interact with international guests.

With Dr. Opiyo at Colombus zoo.

While in Ohio, I spent most of my time in Westerville, a small town close to Colombus. I explored the commercial horticulture farm where Mrs. Opiyo worked. Towards the end of my trip, I explored Colombus city where I spent most of my time at Ohio state university. More importantly, I had a tour of Dr. Opiyo’s research laboratory and a conversation about his work in bioinformatics. In addition to reinforcing my perception of bioinformatics as an increasingly relevant and lucrative career, I had an opportunity to speak to Dr. Opiyo about his experiences establishing his professional career in North America as an immigrant from Uganda. I also learnt a lot from his innovations, and big dreams for diversifying the nature of his data analysis work. I find his experiences inspirational especially as I plan to apply for graduate school to advance my research career next year after graduation.

In as much as I had well-deserved moments to rest after a challenging academic term, there were many moments of learning on this trip.


The presidential pit stop 2017


With Dr. Santa Ono (center back), the student ambassador team and one of the award winners (center front).

This year, I was selected to attend the annual leadership recognition event at the Robert H. Lee alumni center. Much like last year, I found myself surrounded by a remarkable congregation of outstanding UBC students. However, my involvements since then have drastically changed. My on-campus involvements have shifted from student society (Science Undergraduate Society) and orientations (Jumpstart), to representing UBC as a student ambassador. Akin to my role of representing student clubs as part of the Science Undergraduate Society (SUS) clubs commission, my work as a student ambassador with the International Student Initiative proffers an opportunity to represent the university to prospective students. In a way, the nature of my involvements has not changed much but only evolved in form. And regardless of this nature, it has all been driven by my enthusiasm to serve a community that has been fundamental to my personal development. It is this enthusiasm that Dr. Santa Ono, the UBC president and host of the event, encouraged in student leaders that day. This encouragement culminated with the conferring of a special book Injustice to all attendees. This was a token to complement the noble motivations behind the contributions for which we were being recognized. Outstanding students, one of whom was a fellow student ambassador, were also conferred special awards for their achievements.

This event was my second invitation to a breakfast hosted by the UBC president in the 2016/2017 academic year. Although it did not offer as much opportunity for direct dialogue Dr. Santa Ono, there was more to take from the larger group of student leaders. This day was an opportunity to enjoy overdue conversations with over-achievers from all over campus in the company of scrumptious finger-food and live music


Battling infectious disease with infectious passion.

Warrior in the white coat

Cell counting in the translational lab

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.

Setting up HPLC in the pharmacokinetics lab.

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.


A tale of two commissioners

My first contribution in the faculty of science started with a momentous email in the June of 2015. This is when I was chosen by the Vice president Administration as one of two Science Undergraduate Society (SUS) clubs commissioners for the 2015-2016 academic year. To me, growing my UBC experience was strongly supplemented by growing within my faculty and this was an opportunity to grow at the pace that would support me without overwhelming my capabilities. The clubs commissioner role gave me unique opportunities to build my personal network and also support cooperation. As a clubs commissioner, I was supposed to ensure that science clubs got access to resources offered by the Science Undergraduate Society, and collaborations between the clubs were supported.

2015 Clubs orientation.

In August 2015, I co-organized the 2015 clubs orientation. This was meant to introduce the club presidents to the Clubs commission, inform them about resources through the Science Undergraduate Society, and instigate relationships between the clubs. With the reliable support of the VP administration and the co-clubs commissioner, the 2015 clubs orientation remains high up in my personal list of achievements in event organization.

The retreat.

In the spirit of team building, the Science Undergraduate Society organizes an annual retreat for all councillors, executives and associate executives. This year, I was lucky to join the SUS retreat to Hope BC. In addition to a change of pace, this weekend was a great opportunity to meet all the SUS student leaders and learn skills relevant to leadership within the SUS. Minor, yet entirely new to me was the nature of the meeting system of the SUS and AMS councils. It still impresses me as an effective way to conduct meetings involving large numbers of people quickly and efficiently. To me, the SUS retreat remains as one of the displays of UBC’s investment into building team cohesion and increasing capacity.

Science Students Appreciation Dinner.
With Ho Yi (left), the second clubs commissioner.

With Ho Yi (left), my fellow clubs commissioner.

Each academic year, the clubs commission organizes the end of year club presidents’ dinner to celebrate a year of achievement and collaboration. This year (2016) however, the clubs commission, with the support of other SUS executives, organized the Science Students Appreciation dinner. The first of its kind, the appreciation dinner was an expansion from the clubs dinner. This was intended to expand recognition from clubs exclusively to science all science students. Students were recognized for outstanding leadership, club activities and a vote was allowed for the “people’s choice” club – which the Undergraduate Research Opportunities (URO) scooped.

In addition to being a great opportunity to share scrumptious Greek food while listening to live music, this was my first opportunity to co-MC to a large group.

Indeed, being part of the Science Undergraduate Society as a clubs commissioner has been instrumental in my leadership journey and I look forward to getting involved within the faculty of science again in the future.


Pollution lab 2015/2016

Baby steps…

My involvement at the Chan Yeung Center for Occupational and Enviromental Respiratory Disease (COERD) holds due significance because it was my first step into research in a laboratory. Set up as a dynamic research environment, COERD (also known as pollution lab) was a unique opportunity for me to get my feet into medical research. Pollution lab UBC is involved in momentous research on allergies, respiratory disease and pollution; exploring the interrelations between these and their implications on the control, prevention and treatment of respiratory afflictions. Under the supervision of Dr. Olga Pena, my Mastercard Foundation Scholarship career mentor, I have been exposed to the research process right from publication, grant applications and laboratory work. As of September 2016, one year later, I still intend to volunteer at Pollution lab and my process of learning is ongoing, but a reflection of a remarkable year feels due.

Read, write, Pipet.


My entry into pollution lab was through identifying literature relevant to respiratory research and making literature-review recommendations for the research team. Through this, I was able to learn more about the work that pollution lab does and how it snugly fits into our society’s efforts to tackle the increasing global respiratory health concerns. In slight detail, I was also able to learn about the immunological aspects of the respiratory system. This research has since gone a long way in providing context to my “classroom-concepts”, and providing motivation for me as I try to narrow down my research interests and progress towards graduate studies.


Learning at pollution lab has been full of opportunities to diversify my professional skill set. Maintaining and updating the COERD website  https://pollutionlab.com/  initially came as a challenge; besides the very basic introduction I had to Microsoft FrontPage a few years ago, my understanding of website design has always been limited. Using the WordPress platform on the COERD website has by no means made me an expert but it has expanded my professional creativity and versatility. Having to research and learn new techniques in the process of editing and improving the website has added a skill set I look forward to transferring into customizing WordPress applications  (like this blog!), and any information technology I might have to work with in the future. Through constant mentor-ship, my role has allowed me to translate my ideas and those of the team onto the website through information adverts and other features.

In addition, I have been exposed to advertising for scientific studies. In advertising for the DE3 study, I have designed and distributed posters. I intend to be more involved by reaching out through other advertisement platforms in the future. As advertisement is a dynamic process, I also hope to compare the platforms for effectiveness as I envisage that I might have to be involved in it at some level throughout my career.


It was not until May 2016 that I had the requisite availability to train effectively at the COERD laboratory in the Jack Bell Research Center at the Vancouver General Hospital. Shadowing in the lab has given life to many immunology concepts I studied in my courses. Learning about the lab work behind the current studies at COERD has given me insight into this cardinal piece to scientific research. Pollution lab has been an opportunity for me to acquire (relatively) early training in many laboratory-relevant techniques. To a greater degree, I have trained in serological testing. Through the aspergillus serological test, I was able to learn about clinical testing right from sample processing to handling information.

The Team.

Despite the keen discipline and diligence that pervades the work environment in and out of the lab, the COERD team is rife with warmth and community. I have found it easy to socialize and interact with everyone. There is also an impressive system to foster socialization through the weekly socials and occasional events. Needless to say, this environment has augmented my training and work here.

As I proceed with my career developed, I look forward to another fruitful year at the UBC pollution lab.


Jumpstart 2015: The vantage point

Vantage point.

I am often asked about my favourite experience at UBC; by now I have figured that it is no coincidence that my mind flashes back to the August in the summer of 2015. Not only do I remember it as a very rejuvenating experience, I recall it to be high up on my list of the most “efficient” periods of my UBC life. August is the time when the first groups of new students arrive at UBC through the jumpstart orientations program. Having failed to make it in time for my own jumpstart in my first year, I was strongly motivated to support other new international students in ways that I was not lucky enough to experience. This is an opportunity that was proffered to me when I was chosen to be an orientations leader (O.L) for the 2015 Jumpstart orientations program.


With my learning community at Kitsilano.

My roles were centered on co-facilitating orientation for new international students through academic, social and holistic immersion programs. Under the supervision of senior Jumpstart staff, I was part of a closely knit team of over fifty orientations leaders in Totem Park (and over 100 in all residences). My experiences could have easily been limited to the (“job”) roles described above – not to say that they were not cardinal – but there were so many unforeseen pieces of being an orientation leader. There was something exhilarating about being in a position to contribute to the lives of other students here at UBC. I always knew I wanted to find a vantage point to be a positive part of other people’s stories and the jumpstart program turned out to be perfect for this. The connections that I made with the faculty fellows and first year students within my learning community also supported me to grow in leadership and interpersonal relations. Despite following a model for professional relationships, some of these students have turned out to be friends that I have kept in touch with even beyond the two week period.


-With Cindy Shan, my partner O.L.

Closer to my heart however were the experiences I had with other orientation leaders. Having spent a slightly longer time training and meeting daily with this highly motivated group of individuals, I developed very supportive social and professional relationships with many of my colleagues. Since Jumpstart was my first involvement in student development, I was conscious of the fact that I would need support along the way. The sense of community that the team cultivated transcended the support I expected and augmented the energy and impact that I had during the program (and that the program had on me). In many ways, I stepped out of my comfort zone and I still recognize this as a turning point in several aspects of my character and ways of relating to other people. The program required a lot of time and energy, yet also gave a lot of exuberance in return so it was possible to keep


With my O.L squad.

going on from early mornings to late nights. This was to lead to the “Jumpstart hangover” after the three weeks but it was worth every bit of the effort that was put into it. In this same spirit, I developed a good partnership with my Learning community partner (orientation leader) and together we took a step beyond our assigned times to ensure that our learning community created bonds that would last beyond. To this day, I am glad to see students from my learning community that keep in touch and support each other even beyond their first year. It is this “seed” of cohesion that drew me into this role of building community – and spawns the feelings of accomplishment that I attach to my experiences.



With learning community at Beaty Biodiversity museum

My August experience was perhaps a salient personal reflection of efficiency because I was involved in a few other capacities around campus. In this spate of progress, I was accepted into my first role in research at the Chan Yeung Center for Occupational and Environmental respiratory Disease, and also co-organized the 2015 clubs orientation for the Science Undergraduate Society (as the 2015-2016 Clubs Commissioner). I would like to think that I was fairly successful in all the capacities I was involved in at the time. Being part of a warm community in Jumpstart, a driven collaborative network in the Science Undergraduate Society and fundamental scientific (clinical) research merges into one salient memory that has been irrevocably etched in my mind.

I have taken the few past months to reflect on these fast-paced but momentous three weeks of my life. As much I recognize many things that I could have done better (and/or that the program could have done better), I believe these were an amazingly well put 3 weeks that epitomize the highlights of my life at UBC.