Malaria Research in Uganda

Hello everyone!

I am writing from Mbarara, Uganda, where I am working on a malaria research project with colleagues at the Mbarara University of Science and Technology. Our project aims to study patterns of antimalarial drug resistance through the utilization of Taqman Array Cards. In other words, we are extracting parasite DNA from infected malaria patients, and we are testing the DNA for various gene loci that confer drug resistance.

I arrived to Mbarara on June 4, so I have been here for a little over five weeks. I have about three weeks left here, and I cannot believe how fast the time has gone! Mbarara is a bustling small city, filled with hilly dirt roads, countless motorcycles, and exceptionally friendly people. I have learned my way around the town, discovering delicious restaurants and exploring the central market. I am staying at a guesthouse that is about a twenty-minute walk from the research center. There are eight other American college students at the guesthouse. I have gotten to know them all very well, and in our free time, we have explored Mbarara and other parts of Uganda together. Other visitors at the guesthouse come and go, but I have gotten to know a handful of physicians, medical students, and researchers. Everyone at the guesthouse has been friendly and welcoming, and I have valued my conversations with many of these individuals.

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View from the porch of my guesthouse in Mbarara.

My research team here in Uganda is comprised of two other peers, Emmanuel and Stephen. Emmanuel is an undergraduate student at City College in New York City; we work together to do the bulk of the lab work. Stephen is a graduate student at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, and he also assists with some of the work. Kennedy is the lab manager here at Epicentre Research Center, and he serves as our faculty mentor on site. Other faculty mentors include Dr. Christopher Moore and Dr. Jennifer Guler at UVA, who head the project. Both professors help troubleshoot any issues via email. Dr. Moore was able to travel with us to Uganda in early June, helping Emmanuel and I get settled in the lab and introducing us to many different people.

On a typical day, Emmanuel and I head to the lab around 8:40, walking together through the university campus until we reach Epicentre Research Center at 9 AM. The lab is located between Mbarara University campus and the local hospital. We spend our days at the lab extracting DNA, running patient samples, and learning from other colleagues. Epicentre is a well-stocked lab, and the other researchers here have been extremely kind.  Kennedy has served as a great resource to us, helping to problem solve issues that arise and ensuring we have all the necessary supplies.

My time in Mbarara has exposed me to many similarities between lab research here and in America. Despite the similarities, I have also grown as an independent researcher, adjusting protocols to compensate for differences in materials and equipment. Adapting to unfamiliar resources has taught me how to communicate well despite cultural barriers. The importance of strong collaboration has become quickly apparent; my relationships with Ugandan colleagues are vital to produce quality work, as we both learn from each other through daily interactions. This experience is teaching me how to work professionally with a diverse group in a novel environment.

Emmanuel and I have been fortunate to spend some of our free time in the hospital, learning from internal medicine physicians about illnesses like malaria, parasites, and tuberculosis. While the hospital here is very different from western hospitals, this exposure has taught me a lot about the local healthcare system. On weekends, I have been fortunate to see more of Uganda! One weekend, I traveled with a group to Fort Portal, where we explored caves and hiked the beautiful Ugandan countryside. I was also able to go on a safari in Queen Elizabeth National Park, where we saw lions, hippos, and elephants.

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Crater lake in Fort Portal, Uganda.

As I think about the rest of my time here, I am looking forward to seeing the results of our project after two months of hard work. I can already tell that some of the relationships I have made with colleagues and peers in Uganda will continue to last into the coming years. I am excited for my remaining three weeks here in Mbarara, and I can’t wait to continue to explore other parts of Uganda on the weekends! I am so grateful to have this opportunity to learn firsthand about conducting research in a foreign setting, and I am hopeful that our project will have strong public health implications in terms of local treatment. More to come in the next few weeks!

-Gillean Kelly


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