DR MARGARET OKOMO-ADHIAMBO: The flu virus hunter

Saturday March 31 2012

By TABITHA MWANGI

Dr Margaret Okomo-Adhiambo’s interest in science was spurred most by her chemistry teacher at Moi Nairobi Girls High School, Mr Agola.

“He made science come alive for me. I remember performing unauthorised experiments in the chemistry lab, often with unpredictable consequences,” she said.

She was among the top three students who completed their degree in veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi in 1992.

As a result, she was offered two jobs: One at the now defunct Kenya Trypanosomiasis Research Institute (Ketri) and the other at the University of Nairobi.

“This created a huge dilemma for me but since the latest date for reporting to the university was six months behind the Ketri offer, I decided to accept the Ketri position first.

"However, I did not find the research there challenging enough so I resigned after a few of months and took up the university position,” Dr Okomo-Adhiambo said.

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After her master’s training, Dr Okomo-Adhiambo continued teaching at the university while working at International Livestock Research Institute as an animal genetics consultant.

Around the same time, she married and soon had her first child. In 1999, with the help of her mentors at ILRI, she wrote a grant proposal that enabled her to earn a PhD scholarship to the Wageningen Agricultural University in the Netherlands.

Unfortunately, her father died two months later and she had to return home for the funeral, and thereafter proceeded back to the Netherlands for her studies.

However, just one week later, she received news of her sister’s death in a car accident.

“I took the earliest flight back home. I was grief-stricken and feeling weighed down with guilt that I was not there when my two loved ones died.

"After my sister’s funeral, I did not return to the Netherlands and attempted to start the research project that was part of my PhD at ILRI, but I was not able to stay focused on the work.

"A year later, an opportunity presented itself to pursue a PhD in the US. It was the fresh beginning that I needed. It helped in the healing process and enabled me to cope with my loss,” Dr Okomo-Adhiambo said.

In 2001, she started her PhD studies in cellular and molecular biology at the University of Nevada, Reno in the US.

Her research was focused on Toxoplasma, a parasite which infects 10 to 30 per cent of the global population.

Often, infection with Toxoplasma is benign. However, in immuno-compromised persons, for example people with HIV, the parasite invades the brain leading to behavioural and personality disorders, often with fatal consequences.

A pregnant woman can pass the parasite to her unborn child through the placenta, with 15 per cent of the cases resulting in blindness and mental retardation, in the newborn.

As her career grew, so did her family. “At the time I was pursuing my PhD, I had two children but I was lucky to have very reliable childcare.

My husband was also undertaking graduate studies.

When I was nearing the end of my studies, my mother stayed with us until I graduated in December 2004. Her presence greatly contributed to the timely completion of my PhD programme,” Dr Okomo-Adhiambo said.

She is now a senior research scientist at the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, focusing on influenza.

She studies genetic mutations in the influenza virus that confer resistance to current antiviral drugs.

Each year, a new influenza vaccine is produced as the virus mutates very rapidly producing new strains that can be deadly especially in individuals vulnerable to the infection.

Influenza spreads around the world in seasonal epidemics resulting in 250,000 to 500,000 deaths worldwide every year with occasional pandemics that can result in millions of deaths.

Dr Okomo-Adhiambo has no regrets about living and working abroad.

“I do not believe that all the good brains can be drained out of Africa, since a very high number of brilliant and highly educated professionals still live and work on the continent, compared with the few who are abroad.

"I have considered coming home though, but the largest hindrance is lack of funding for research.

"I know from colleagues back home that scientists in Kenya lack access to sufficient funding for their research, which makes it difficult for them to be creative and innovative.

"Government support is required. Those of us abroad are still able to collaborate and make positive contributions back home due to advances in information and communication technologies," Dr Okomo-Adhiambo said.

To Dr Okomo-Adhiambo, science is a thoroughly rewarding career.

“I would say to women who would like to be scientists that they should seek mentors who have excelled in their field of interest. Such a person will steer your career in the right direction.”