Beatrice Nassanga a Tuberculosis vaccine researcher joined MUII-Plus as an intern fresh from High School; before her first degree. “I joined the program in 2009 as an intern. This came at a time when I was not sure of which university to go to.” says Beatrice.
For her internship, she was posted to the Entebbe Mother and Baby Clinic (EMaBs). While there, she was clerking patients, measuring body temp and fortunately for her, she was introduced to research methods, laboratory work and laboratory auditing. This is when she was starting to think about her career path. At the time, she was torn between taking on a medical science career or pursuing a laboratory based career. Her interaction with doctors at the Medical Research Council/Uganda Virus Research Institute & London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (MRC/UVRI & LSHTM) Uganda Research Unit and the laboratory team during her internship, enabled her make a decision that would change her entire life course; she chose to study Biomedical Laboratory Technology at Makerere University. The laboratory team she closely interacted with had studied the same course at University and according to Beatrice, “I had also seen what was in the laboratory and picked interest.”
In 2010, Beatrice started on the pursuit for her first degree in Biomedical Laboratory Technology at Makerere University, completed in 2013 and graduated in 2014. She went on to excel with a second class upper division degree. For her undergraduate research project, she assessed measles immunisation among children between two and five years of age, in the fishing communities along the shores of Lake Victoria Entebbe, Uganda; a project she did with Assoc Prof. Robert Tweyongyere. Assoc Prof. Tweyongyere is the Dean, College of Veterinary Medicine Animal Resources and Biosecurity at Makerere University.
After her first degree, she returned to MUII-Plus for a four-months internship placement within the Immunomodulation and Vaccines Programme. Her hard work during the internship paid off when an opportunity arose and she was considered for employment with the same programme from 2014 – 2016, under the Medical Research Council/Uganda Virus Research Institute & London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (MRC/UVRI & LSHTM) Uganda Research Unit. During that time, Beatrice was involved in a number of projects as a laboratory technologist at the Unit.
Following a successful interview in 2016, MUII-Plus made her an offer to join a distinguished cohort of Master’s fellows. “I won a Master’s fellowship to study Immunology and Clinical Microbiology which was funded by MUII Plus. Herein, I was investigating T cell responses (activation, exhaustion, polyfunctionality and proliferation) in Mycobacterium tuberculosis (MTB) and Non-tuberculous Mycobacteria (NTM) in exposed and unexposed mothers in Uganda. I chose to do this study because I realized that accurate diagnosis of exposure to NTMs and to Latent MTB is still a challenge due to the cross-reactivity of NTM antigens with MTB and M. bovis Bacille Calmette Guerin (BCG) in the conventional Tuberculin Skin Test (TST), thus requiring novel solutions. Lucky for me, these peptides were availed by a team that had already sequenced these NTMs.” she explains. This, she says was the highlight of her Master’s program; to add onto a body of literature the T cell responses to NTMs. That aside, it was from this that she was able to build a bigger PhD project, still using the same peptides.
In 2016, Beatrice got a great opening at the start of her masters that helped her establish ties with a legalized network after she won a travel grant to The Jenner Institute of Oxford University to do more laboratory training for one month. “There I learnt flow cytometry, a technique I was going to employ in my master’s project plus I also learnt how to reason and own my research and think very fast because I was among post-docs and PhD students in the same office, who were able to think about a new vaccine, go to the lab and test it with multi models then test it in humans.” Beatrice said. This placed her in a space where she was greatly challenged. It was more than just relearning the lab techniques but also getting to know how to move forward very fast in science and writing. She has since kept in touch with the team and now her PhD is going to be nested in one of the clinical trials at Medical Research Council/Uganda Virus Research Institute & London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (MRC/UVRI & LSHTM) Uganda Research Unit where they are using a vaccine that has been manufactured by the same team in Oxford.
Following successful completion of her Masters’ degree in 2018, Beatrice applied and won a MUII PhD grant. “My PhD research is focusing on investigating the factors influencing immunogenicity of TB vaccines including BCG and candidate TB vaccine ChAdox-85A – MVA85A. She will be looking at the infectious exposures and also the immunological footprints that the vaccines leave within humans and whether both the infectious exposures and the immunological footprints have an impact on the later vaccines that are given in adulthood. Beatrice has written a full concept submitted to the University and waiting to present it at the Department of Immunology and Molecular Biology – College of Health Sciences Makerere University.
During her work tenure at MRC/UVRI & LSHTM Uganda Research Unit from 2014 -2016, Beatrice participated in the Study on Asthma in Uganda (SONA), that was investigating the hypothesis that chronic parasitic infections reduce asthma risk. During this time, she became a steering committee member of the World Asthma Phenotypes Study. Working at the MRC/UVRI & LSHTM Uganda Research Unit was a stepping-stone in the development of her research career. Beatrice has been able to undertake research ethics courses such as Good Clinical Practice (GCP) and Good Clinical Laboratory Practice (GCLP) and Protecting Human Research Participants (PHRP). Additionally, she has strengthened her ability to analyse data, having attended a series of advanced and intensive courses in Epidemiology and Statistics between 2015 and 2016.
Beatrice has had a chance to positively impact the science community. In 2017, she contributed significantly to the establishment of a curriculum of expert lectures to support Master’s students in the Immunology and Clinical Microbiology (MICM) course at Makerere University. The lectures, featuring professors from the University of Cambridge were sponsored by MUII-Plus. As the students’ coordinator on the Uganda side, she selected topics from the MICM curriculum for which students were interested to engage in seminars and forwarded them to the University of Cambridge team. These seminars currently link the Makerere and Cambridge groups via live video-conferencing. At the end of each seminar, she liaises with the Makerere students to ensure that they provide the Cambridge team with feedback in a timely manner. “Perhaps the most crucial benefit has been that the seminars have made the MICM course even more enjoyable for the students. This is a rewarding opportunity.” She added.
“I am grateful to everyone around me that has been supportive because looking back, I did not know what the future held for me. I hope to pass my skills to those that are where I have come from,” Beatrice says.