Meet Peris Ambala, Molecular Virologist and Mawazo Scholar

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Applying Molecular Genetics to Study Zoonotic Viruses in Kenya 

By Peris Ambala

Mawazo Scholar Peris Ambala authored the following blog post on her research as part of the global DNA Day celebrations. Learn more about DNA Day and the ‘15 for 15’ Celebration here

As a Ph.D. scholar and a young female scientist at the Institute of Primate Research Kenya, I am part of a group of scientists who use molecular genetics tools for virus discovery and diagnosis of pathogenic viruses, bacteria and parasites in different animal species.

In the recent decade, dangerous human pathogenic viruses have emerged in different geographical locations within Africa, with outbreaks occurring almost annually. Majority of these viruses are zoonotic viruses, which means they can be transmitted directly from animals to humans. Bats, non-human primates, and rodents are known to harbor zoonotic viruses, which circulate silently in hosts. These viruses have a high mortality rate of up to 90% in some cases. The Ebola virus, a member of the filovirus family, is an example of a zoonotic virus that made global headlines recently during a deadly outbreak in West Africa, resulting in over 11,000 deaths.

Microbial adaptation, which is the ability of microorganisms such as viruses to endure selective pressures of their environment, as well as the influence of human activities, are two major drivers of the emergence of these zoonotic viruses. As a result, most of these viruses have ribonucleic acid (RNA) genomes with high mutation rates. For my PhD dissertation, I am studying the zoonotic potential of filoviruses circulating in rodents, bats, non-human primates and humans in Laikipia and Turkana counties of Kenya. In these counties, animals live in close proximity to humans. In addition, climate change has led to acute water scarcity in these areas, forcing humans and animals to share the limited watering points available. Furthermore, inhabitants of these areas have been known to feed on bushmeat during prolonged dry seasons. These interactions have thus exposed humans to ongoing life cycles of zoonotic viruses. While this is an area of increasing importance, there is scarce scientific data on filoviruses in Kenya. My research aims to fill some of these knowledge gaps to help improve the prevention and control of these zoonotic viruses in the country. Moreover, further studies of the isolated viruses will be of benefit to drug, vaccine, and diagnostic kit development studies.

Kenya has made significant gains in the field of genomics through the establishment of molecular genetics and molecular biology laboratories in research institutes, health clinics, and food and agricultural units. For example, molecular genetics is used to study population genetics in animals, pathogens and plants in local research institutes, while in clinical setups, molecular genetics is used in the detection of viruses such as HIV and human papilloma viruses (HPV). Universities have also developed courses in molecular biology, which are building critical capacities in this field. However, most learning institutions in Kenya do not have access to molecular genetics laboratories, and there are also very few laboratories that offer gene sequencing services. As a result, many Kenyan researchers are forced to ship their samples to other countries where sequencing is relatively affordable. Expanding the field of genomics in Kenya will require greater investment in laboratory infrastructure, increased training of local scientists in the use of sequencing and bio-informatics tools, and continued exposure of younger generation students to the field through coursework.

 

About the Author

Peris Ambala is a 2nd Year Ph.D. Student at Kenyatta University’s Medical Laboratory Sciences department and a Research Scientist at the Institute of Primate Research in Kenya. She is a member of Mawazo Institute’s inaugural cohort of Ph.D. Scholars, and is passionate about creating a positive impact through her research.

 

 

Effective budgeting for research

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As part of the PhD Scholars programme at Mawazo, we're developing a training curriculum on professional development for researchers.  It covers a range of research skills which are broadly applicable across disciplines, including budgeting, academic writing, navigating the publication process, and public speaking.  The training sessions are only available for participants in the Scholars programme at present, but we are committed to making all of the training materials publicly available after the sessions.

We held our first training last month on effective budgeting and financial management for research.  I developed a set of guidelines for creating budgets which are easy to understand and update, and which can used to track expenses as well.   The guidelines drew on my previous experience managing a large portfolio of research projects and their associated budgets at Innovations for Poverty Action.  I also shared examples from a previous iteration of budgeting for my own PhD research in Ghana.

There are three major principles of budgeting which shaped the guidelines.

  • Explain your cost assumptions clearly.  Funders want to see that you've come up with reasonable cost estimates.  Documenting them clearly helps to establish the credibility of your estimates.
  • Provide lots of detail about your activities and calculations.  A budget doesn't have to simply be a list of costs.  It can also include a description of your research question, a project timeline, and information about how you carried out your calculations.  This helps funders to understand why each expense is necessary for your work.  A budget narrative can be used to provide additional detail as well.
  •   Let Excel do the work for you.  Excel has lots of features that make it easy to automatically update the values in your budget; handle complex calculations; and keep large budgets organised.  Taking advantage of them will make your budget look professional.

The training documents are below.  They are free for anyone to download, modify, and use.

Introducing the 2018 PhD Scholars!

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We're thrilled to introduce our first cohort of Mawazo PhD Scholars!  We received 170 applications for the 10 spots in this programme, demonstrating the high levels of demand for research funding and training amongst Kenyan PhD students.  After a difficult selection process, we chose ten exceptionally talented women.  Keep an eye out for profiles of each Scholar and their work over the coming weeks!

Front row (left to right):

  • Marilyn Ronoh, Mathematics, University of Nairobi
  • Elizabeth Benson, Computer Science, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology
  • Teresiah Nijihia, Agriculture, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology
  • Jacqueline Owigo, Political Science, United States International University
  • Judith Koskey, Environmental Studies, Egerton University

Back row (left to right):

  • Winnie Nyamboki, Economics, University of Nairobi
  • Edinah Song'oro, Biology, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology
  • Peris Ambala, Medicine, Kenyatta University
  • Susan Gichuna, Environmental Studies, University of Nairobi
  • Melisa Achoko Allela, Visual Arts, Technical University of Kenya

Resources on the Mawazo Site

We would like to make Mawazo's site useful to a wide range of researchers, whether or not they get the opportunity to participate in one of our programmes or events.  Here are some of the resources that we've collected.  Do get in touch if you know of anything to add!

Accessing ungated articles.  The prevalence of paywalls in academic publishing makes it difficult for many researchers in low income countries to read the latest journal articles in their field.  We've listed several options for accessing ungated articles.

Writing support.  Most academics would agree that writing concise, insightful descriptions of their research is one of the most challenging parts of their work.  Fortunately, there are a number of resources to help researchers improve their English-language writing skills.

Research methods.  A number of sites offer free online training in the basic principles of social science research.  We've listed several good options, as well as other tools for staying organised and productive as you carry out your research.  We're also looking for online resources for research in STEM fields -- recommendations would be appreciated.

Research funding. Start your funding search with this list of some major international funding organisations in the social sciences and STEM.

Scholarships.  There's a wide range of scholarships available for students who would like to pursue graduate study in Africa and abroad.  We've assembled a list of sites which are frequently updated with useful scholarship opportunities.

 

Mawazo's Core Principles

  Notes from an early brainstorming session

Notes from an early brainstorming session

In November 2016, when the Mawazo Institute was still mostly an idea, I called a friend who ran a scholarship programme in Ghana for advice on launching a new organisation.  He shared many useful suggestions, but one point in particular stood out to me: "The organisational culture you build when you're starting out will affect everything you do later." 

Some of Mawazo's core principles, like those in the photo above, have been clear to us from the very beginning.  We've previously written about the rationale for these ideas.  Other principles have come out during hours of discussion with our team and with a wide range of supportive colleagues, advisors, and friends.  Here are some of the values guiding our work.

Intersectional approaches.  Nearly all academics based in Africa -- male and female -- have access to fewer professional resources than their peers in the North.  We strongly believe that all African scholars deserve more support.  However, we were also struck by the fact that a large majority of university students and professors in Africa are men.  We're taking a step towards leveling the playing field by offering our year-long PhD Scholars programme to women. 

Continuous learning.  Rose and I have been very lucky to learn from the experience of many other organisations which support African scholars.  Conversations with groups like the Association for the Advancement of African Women Economists, the East Africa Social Science Translation Collaborative, the Centre for Higher Education Trust, and the Next Einstein Forum (among many others) have taught us a great deal about the advantages and limitations of existing models of support for African scholars.  We're also planning several surveys about the professional development needs of African women in academia, so we'll hear directly from our peers.  Keep an eye on our blog and newsletter for more information.

Academic freedom.  The rise of development consulting has been a mixed blessing for African academics.  It has offered many researchers an additional source of income at a time when university funding is limited.  However, scholars like Mahmood Mamdani argue that consultancies constrain academic freedom by forcing researchers to answer pre-determined questions, rather than allowing them to decide which questions are important to ask.  At Mawazo, we support all manners of research related to African development.  We encourage our Fellowship applicants to ask questions which provide both intellectual stimulation and practical value.

Welcome to the Mawazo Institute!

Hello, and welcome to Mawazo!  We're excited to have you with us as we start our work supporting the research careers of East African women. 

A bit of background: Mawazo was founded in late 2016 by Rose Mutiso and Rachel Strohm.  We've known each other since our undergraduate days at Dartmouth College, where we got our start in African education activism by creating the Students for Africa association.  In mid-2016, we realized that we were both looking for the next steps in our careers, and shared a passion for supporting African women in academia.  A great deal of brainstorming later, the Mawazo Institute was born.

We're currently preparing to launch our PhD Scholars programme in late 2017.  In the meantime, we'll be sharing news, scholarship opportunities, and other interesting content on our blog.   Subscribe to our newsletter as well for all the latest updates!