Read this interview with Bartholomew Ondigo Nyangahu, Ph.D., APTI postdoctoral fellow in the NIAID Laboratory of Malaria Immunology and Vaccinology. Dr. Nyangahu details his experience as part of the inaugural cohort of the APTI program, a partnership between the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
What is the APTI program and why were you interested in participating?
The APTI program is a partnership of the African Academy of Sciences, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), and NIH. The objective of the APTI program is to train early-career African fellows and enhance their research skills to help solve Africa’s challenges in global health and development. During the training period, the fellows are expected to build bridges and develop long-lasting connections with partner organizations with the goal of expanding their scholarly networks.
The fellowship will provide me invaluable experience including: the enhancement of my scientific research skills, improvement of my communication proficiency, and the opportunity to publish. Secondly, I will have the ability to meet and connect with NIH investigators, mentors, and fellows who are highly influential in my career development. In addition, I will forge friendships to gain a broader understanding of other cultures and the financial and logistical resources needed for a professional experience in an international setting. I want to express my appreciation to Fogarty International Center for walking with me to this point.
Can you tell us about your research background?
My first postdoctoral training at the Kenya Medical Research Institute focused on immune responses to human schistosomiasis under the mentorship of Dr. Daniel G. Colley of the University of Georgia, Athens. My Ph.D. research project, under the mentorship of Dr. Chandy C. John of Indiana University, Indianapolis, focused on antibody responses to multiple P. falciparum antigens. In addition, I am a member of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) and the Kenyan Society of Immunology (KSI).
Why did you choose NIAID and what do you find unique about NIAID?
My long-term career goal is to be an independent investigator and part of a team researching infectious diseases. My research interests and passion have revolved around translational research focusing on human tropical diseases. This research interest melds with NIAID and will ultimately improve my scientific collaborative engagement. A unique feature of NIAID is the diverse variety of global diseases being researched coupled with a wide variety of career paths. There are many exciting opportunities for those interested in working in different human diseases to improve health and to collaborate.
How is your work here relevant to your work in your home country?
I am researching malaria in pregnancy here at NIAID. The disease is a major public health problem in my home country, Kenya, with about 10,700 deaths each year. A widely accepted and effective control measure is to design and develop a pregnancy malaria-based vaccine. Part of my research project will investigate CD4+ T cell responses to the leading placental malaria vaccine candidate (VAR2CSA) and relating the immune responses to pregnancy outcomes. The other part of my work will involve relating innate immune responses with pregnancy outcomes, specifically studying the role of M1 and M2 macrophages in the pathogenesis of placental malaria. The knowledge gained from these projects will be useful in developing new interventions that will eventually be tested in field sites. This will have direct health benefits to those living in Kenya and other regions where malaria contributes to maternal and infant mortality.
What is your initial impression of the research environment at NIAID?
NIAID is a family from diverse borders, countries, and different continents who share a common goal of improving human health. Secondly, the environment is highly collaborative with scientific interactions that are more permeable and fluid in their arrangement. For instance, I’m working with colleagues at the Laboratory of Malaria Immunology and Vaccinology (LMIV) and the NIAID Research Technologies Branch (RTB). RTB provides convenient access to a wide range of confocal and conventional fluorescence microscopes and image analysis resources for users of all levels of experience. In addition, IT, administrative professionals, and the NIAID training office have continued to support my smooth adjustment to a new working environment. Thirdly, NIAID provides freedom and autonomy to think unrestricted scientifically towards a shared goal. Lastly, the impressive research environment here has taken time, with thoughtful leadership and financial stability, to gain international recognition.
What are your plans once you return to your home country and how is this experience important to your work?
Firstly, I will continue to write up manuscripts of my work done during the fellowship at NIH. This will provide a sound evidence base for interventions to help improve the control of malaria in pregnancy. Secondly, I will continue to engage with colleagues and partners working on research on tropical infectious diseases. Thirdly, I will apply for a K43 career development award in collaboration with my NIH mentor to help integrate my research training in malaria infection during pregnancy. Most importantly, I plan to give back to society and mentor students at the Egerton University and Kenya Medical Research Institute while I continue to collaborate with NIAID and deepen this relationship.
I am proud to be working in NIAID/LMIV with a team of ambitious staff to continue to deliver excellent results. I look forward to learning from the wealth of experience here and I am thankful for the support and friendship to date that continues to play an integral role in my research work. I am so grateful to Dr. Michal Fried, chief investigator, LMIV, who agreed to mentor me and for thinking of my well-being and career development. I will always remember her unwavering support and encouragement.