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.


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


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.




Breakfast with the president

Today April 4th…

Today is an amazing day, a day of gratitude and reflection. Today, I stop for a moment to take a look at the road unwound behind me. Two years ago, I joined this amazing university as a first year student. I was introduced to the concept of constant engagement in leadership by the MasterCard Foundation leadership development activities. Then, I could neither see how to start my journey of leadership, nor how to transcend my previous personal capabilities in this foreign system.

With the MCF team at Sage Bistro

With the MCF team at Sage Bistro

Today, I stand among a group of leaders recognized by the President and Vice chancellor of UBC, Martha Piper. Nominated to attend by Jolanta Lekich and Yuko Lee (a science international student advisor), I am greeted with a sumptuous breakfast at Sage Bistro and an important message of encouragement from reputable UBC staff. In a way, this is the kind of revitalization I need occasionally on this journey. It has been easy to lose track of the impact I have had in my communities, right from my first involvement in my house council in Kwakiutl house down to the Science Undergraduate Society where I have been a clubs commissioner for the past academic year.  These are simply the bounds (chronologically) of the examples of roles I have taken on. In this moment of reflection, I realize that contrary to my pre-current beliefs, leadership has become an integral part of my life and ceased to be a set of tasks that I am must do.



Today, I am not short of things to be grateful for. I am grateful to God, for the cascade of opportunities that unravel ceaselessly. I am grateful to the MasterCard foundation scholarship, to UBC, and more specifically, to the people who stand behind these reputable organizations. There have been people who have believed in me along the way. The people who have nominated me, the people I have worked with and the people who have supported me in my duties. Tomorrow, I look forward to being here again as a student ambassador with campus tours. As I take home a written form of inspiration signed by Martha Piper, I pause at the door of Sage Bistro and glance back. I am not one to pass an opportunity to be grateful for good food.


A venture on the outside.

Date: January -April 2015


My first contribution to the community outside the university was a largely unforeseen professional venture; it was a task in which I had neither prior exposure nor interest. During my second term, I actively participated in the English language tutoring service at Love your Neighbour (LYN) community center as a volunteer. Under supervision, I was tasked to prepare English language studying materials for students mostly at high school level. This was with out a few challenges: it was a weekly commitment, and I had to avail study materials to all tutors on time – a crucial role in the program.

The supportive community went a long way in inspiring my continued contribution to the role – the establishment had a well established system to augment the volunteers in their respective roles. Soon, it became an activity I looked forward to, every week. I had always had interest in writing and the English language, and hence having an outlet for my passions through supporting the education of other students with in the community opened up a new personal interest for me. I was utterly surprised.

There was a lot to reap in terms of skills and experience. I acquired interpersonal skills, from both working with the other volunteers, and the students. In time, I became more proficient in communicating with learners. Since much of my duties were focused on paper work, I acquired documentation and organizational skills which I believe could be particularly useful in any office setting.  Given the close nature of the members of the community center, I often had contact with other members out of the tutor program. I soon got to learn about their contributions to communities world wide, including parts of Africa. I was particularly fascinated about the organization’s ability to successfully operate overseas projects because I believe this information could be crucial for me in my efforts to contribute to communities around the world, and at home, in Uganda.

Though skeptical in the beginning, this activity turned out to be one of my pivotal experiences during my first year at UBC. I have learnt and intend to diversify my skill set and involvements in the future because,as it turns out, career development is not linear. Overall,being involved with an international organization aimed at creating change for the underprivileged will forever be an experience that I am proud to have been a part of.

January 25th: The multicultural day.

With Amaitum Eddie(left) at the multicultural day.

On behalf of Uganda,with Amaitum Eddie(left), at the multicultural day.

Perhaps one of the unique features of this involvement was the community’s response to people of different cultural background. Most of the staff were always interested in learning about experiences of people from different parts of the world, which I found very exhilarating because I had an opportunity to share stories of my heritage and nation. This was a platform to paint a picture of a country and continent so often misconceived. I also got the chance to learn about other cultures.


More importantly, I was invited to organize a cultural representation for my country, Uganda, on the multicultural day event held on 25th January. This was the first time the event was being held and people from different cultures were tasked to design posters, art, and food sample for guests. With the aid of the Ugandan colleague, I designed the poster for Uganda, prepared food samples and gave guests insights into Ugandan culture and society.

Representing Uganda in Vancouver.

Representing Uganda in Vancouver.

There was a lot to learn from the various cultures and generally, how to live as a global citizen in a world with such a large diversity of cultures. Personally, I had always had the belief that “every person from a different culture is a window into a uniquely different way of life”, and as such, had always held interactions within multicultural societies in high regard. This mostly explains why this will always be a memorable contribution for me.

It is from this experience that I derived the reflection: “Being an ambassador even for the smallest cause goes a long way in building a momentous image.”


Impact: a trails of dreams.

Impact then…

Initially, as I applied for the MasterCard foundation scholarship, the two major ways I foresaw myself making a contribution to my home community using this newfound opportunity was by developing the “HYDRA 256 artificially intelligent purification dam” robotic concept that I had invented in 2013, and developing my creative writing skills to better poise myself as an article writer to promote public policies and health awareness. In relation to the latter, I hoped to improve on my proficiency in writing prose fiction, which I had been passionate about for most of my early life, and through this, I’d share ideas for community development in a more creative sense. My inspiration for the aforementioned robotics project came from witnessing the deprivation of clean water that most of Northern Uganda (region of my ancestral origin) suffered. I noted that the region had resources, and was potentially productive, but had seasonal droughts, and floods: conditions that could be alleviated by methods of purifying and utilizing excess water in wet seasons for use in the dryer seasons, meanwhile also supplying “clean” solar/wind electricity that could thrive in the sunny climate of the region.

I intended to use the support of robotics clubs at UBC to get professional assessment, insight and advice on the feasibility and development of the robotics concept. As for my creative writing, that was something I was considering having as a minor, with the hope that that would be sufficient. However, in coming to UBC, I soon discovered some unforeseen considerations. In my inquiries about the robotics clubs here, I learned that there were no clubs with objectives to develop free-lance projects for any purpose. To the best of my knowledge now, there is no way to develop this project through a club, and the only possible way is through the faculty of engineering. I always knew that the project assessment, development and implementation required the intervention engineering professionals, but I never had any personal interests in pursuing a degree in engineering, so I had to put the idea on hold. Any support, however to revitalize the idea, is much appreciated.

Impact now…

Consequently, my interests have reverted to a passion I have had for as long as I have been in education: to make a contribution to the health sector of my country. Much of my inspiration came from witnessing the life and work of my mother, who has been a nurse for as long as I have known. Spending a lot of time at the hospital, and contributing subtly to her work exposed me to the perils of health sector in Uganda. I resolved that as much as I could not contribute directly to public health policies (as a bigger, and perhaps, more political picture), I could use voluntary and professional service to extend medical treatment to hospitals. Also hopefully, I could inspire other health professionals to do the same. The most plausible way to achieve this has always been through attending medical school, and pursuing a career as a medical doctor.

Coming to UBC has in two ways modified this objective: medical school has become by far more far-fetched now than it has ever been, but however, I have been introduced to other disciplines that could possibly also serve to create revolutionary change to the health sector. This is the primary explanation for my inspiration to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and Immunology. I intend to use this profession to contribute to medical and public health research in my country: focussing on vaccine and drug development, and epidemiological techniques. This would be through participating/ creating research projects at facilities like the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), and more subtly, vaccination programs in hospitals country-wide. These are sectors that have suffered lack of funds and technology in Uganda, yet could change health care forever. I also intend to use my exposure to facilities and organizations out of the continent to garner support for these sectors.


This is an objective best served by graduate school standing but working with what I currently have, I will strive to attain an honours undergraduate degree while at UBC. Though this might mean that I cannot have creative writing as a minor without risking an overload, I believe it will better serve my revised objectives. To further explore this idea, I currently consider two approaches; acquiring mentorship from professionals within this discipline and taking on laboratory/research positions to build my practical experience. I have so far sought mentorship and participated in the Undergraduate Research Experience REX program, and made an application off campus for a role in a clinic. I intend to scout for and apply for such similar opportunities, and any help in this endeavour is much appreciated.


Most of the questions I currently have about my objectives include, but not limited to the following: Is there a way to pursue a robotics project without being a student in the faculty of engineering? Could I have any assistance in scouting for laboratory/research opportunities considering my limited experience thus far? Do I have any hope for mentorship, or links to organizations with in the Microbiology/immunology industry?


Multidisciplinary Undergraduate research conference 2015

Date : November 2014 – 21st March 2015 

The first undergraduate research experience.

A few months after my application for mentor-ship under the Undergraduate Research Opportunities (URO), a REX program, I was selected by Jennifer Guthrie, a PhD student in the faculty of health sciences and also a researcher at British Columbia Center for disease Research (BCCDC). The objective of the research experience was to conduct and present research under professional supervision, in order to develop and refine research skills.

I was tasked to conduct literature research on Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) techniques, contact tracing and surveillance, and how all these could be integrated to improve public health in Canada. I worked with two other mentees, with my individual focus being contact tracing, surveillance, and the implications of our review-type presentation on the public health system here in Canada.

Prior to my involvement in this research, I had conducted literature reviews for two of my courses for the first term and thus had some experience on research. However, doing research on techniques and content I had never been exposed to back in Africa, so much that I could present this information at a conference with a strong state of knowledge, was an initial challenge. In all honesty, I was afraid of cases where I had to answer questions on the details of the process of whole genome sequencing. Having a good mentor went along way in alleviating these feelings of inadequacy. With continued support and guidance from Jennifer Guthrie through out research and poster design, I was able to compile all my research and inculcate it into a poster that I would co-present with two other students from the faculty of science. Being able to do this well was tremendously inspiring – I was involved in research in something I had personal interest in, and my research could contribute, or at least serve to reinforce a greater cause.

The conference.

This experience was as much about the process of research as it was about poster design and presentation. A week Prior to the conference, I co-presented the research to Dr. Jennifer Gardy at the BCCDC, Dr. Gardy’s feedback was instrumental to polishing our work since she is one of the most prominent figures in public health in British Columbia. On 21st March 2015, we presented the poster to guests at the Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Conference (MURC).

With Julio Lailano and  Jennifer Guthrie at the MURC

With Julio Lailano and Jennifer Guthrie at the MURC.

This experience has been particularly rewarding in terms of my career development. Working with a professional researcher enabled me develop better research methodology, review skills, critical thinking, poster design and professional presentation. More importantly, this gave me insight into the public health sector here in Canada; the disease control techniques, grant applications, shortcomings and potential areas of improvement for more effective disease control. Overall, I found this experience very rewarding.

The knowledge accrued thereby is vital to my development as an aspiring research scientist and hopefully, medical doctor in the future. The methodology of the research process is a set of skills I intend to use through out my career and the details on public health techniques I learnt could go a long way to improve disease control in my own community in Africa.