Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) offers internship placements to students at different stages in their careers and at both national and international levels. Over 1200 interns have benefited from the program since 2008. UVRI is Uganda government’s leading health research institution mandated to carry out health research on human infections and disease processes and to provide expert advice, enable partnerships and communication and serve as a centre for training and education.
Moses Kizza is the coordinator of the internship programme since 2011 with a passion for capacity building. He supervises students with a major role of ensuring that there is increased demand and popularity of the programme within UVRI and the training Institutions. He is also the Centre Administrator for the Makerere University/UVRI Centre of Excellence in Infection and Immunity, Research and Training (MUII-Plus) and the Secretary to the Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) training Committee.
An internship is a period of work experience offered by an organization for a limited period. Internship programmes play an important role in attracting young people to professional careers in many settings. In Uganda, undergraduate students undertake internships either as a requirement for the award of their degrees or diplomas or out of personal interest with a view for career development and improved employment prospects.
The programme experienced a rapid increase in applications, to over 300 a year from 2011 (Table 1). Factors contributing to this increase could include both improved organisation of the programme at the institute and increased emphasis on the internship as a requirement by many tertiary institutions. The number of places provided has been steady since 2011, at about 100 per year, and this is likely to be the maximum capacity of the Institute. Before 2008, there was no centralized coordination of the internship programme. Only 58 attachments were recorded over the 10 years from 1997 to 2007.
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Note: The low numbers for 2020 were due to COVID-19 pandemic
The interns have been mainly placed in the laboratories (55%), which includes basic science and clinical laboratories etc. Other placements include Counseling and Community work supporting the research clinics and studies. Research Support 45% includes administration, IT, etc.
UVRI is required to provide training by the Uganda Public Service Standing Orders which expect the Institute to work to “enhance employability skills of graduates from training institutions”. UVRI hosts four major international partner research programmes and collaborates with many regional and international partners. It thus offers interns access to a wide range of world-class research, as well as to the experience of research support and related disciplines.
As far as we know, this is the first attempt to develop a formal internship programme, hosting substantial numbers of undergraduate and new graduate interns each year, at a research institute in our region.
The UVRI internship programme demonstrates that research institutions have the potential to play a big role in supporting universities and other tertiary institutions in training graduates. Many tertiary institutions in this region cannot afford to give up-to-date practical training to students and hence teach mainly theory. Internships at a research institute are a very good avenue of equipping undergraduates with relevant practical skills and introducing them to a work environment.
The UVRI case also demonstrates that partnerships between tertiary institutions and other institutions can be very instrumental in producing employable graduates. The institutions providing placements for internship equip interns with the experience which is a requirement for many jobs.
Thirdly the UVRI case demonstrates that internship programmes are a good avenue to attract young people into research or research-related career and play an important role in capacity building, career guidance, and development.
Fourthly a strong administration is needed for a successful internship programme. A strong administration ensures the participation of staff in supporting the interns. It also ensures that relevant policies and procedures are put in place to ensure the smooth running of the programme.
The intern induction and competition at the end of the internship programme which comes with prizes, and the requirement for a report, ensure that interns and their supervisors take the placement seriously and utilize their time well. The competition has helped identify bright and promising students who have been able to progress in their careers.
Ritah followed a 12-month Strategic Internship track at the Bioinformatics and Computational Hub of MUII-Plus under the direct supervision of Dr. Jonathan Kayondo. On completion of the internship, she started her MSc. Bioinformatics studies at Makerere University and is currently doing her MSc. research “Developing a SNP-based Panel for Amplicon Sequencing of Schistosoma mansoni”. Ritah’s research interests are Neglected Pathogens, Genomics, Population genetics and Bioinformatics. Figure 1.
Figure 2: Beatrice Nassanga former intern with MUII
Beatrice Nassanga joined as an intern in 2009 after completing high school. In 12 years, she has been able to complete her undergraduate and MSc studies in Immunology and Clinical Microbiology. She is currently undertaking her Ph.D. studies in tuberculosis immunology and vaccinology. Her dream research is in the discovery and designing of new efficacious tuberculosis vaccines. Figure 2
Figure 3: Ronald Galiwango, MUII-plus former intern, at his PhD defense
Ronald Galiwango’s interest generally lies in using computational approaches to answer epidemiology research questions, with a focus on using mathematical modelling and simulations, machine learning/data science, statistical analysis, contact and social networks in addition to other epidemiological data of individuals and pathogen genomic data (such as Whole Genome Sequences) to understand the transmission of infectious diseases and the interplay between infectious and non-communicable diseases.
The scheme for an extended internship, with a modest stipend, to the prize winners, as part of an initiative to promote biomathematics and bioinformatics in Uganda has also contributed to career progression as well as building capacity in computational biology Figure 3.
Internship for Persons with Disabilities (PWD) as a result of the internship programme
In 2014, unmet need was recognized by MUII-plus. MUII-plus partnered with ADD International to come up with a programme for Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) at UVRI. In 2016 the first call for applications was made and two interns were appointed, one deaf and one blind. To date, we have appointed 11 PWDs and all have provided valuable contributions in their offices.
The disabilities include physical, visual, and hearing impairments. The interns have been supported with a small stipend for 6 months internship, the guide for the visually impaired and sign language interpreters. Infrastructures have been improved for students; bought a jaws software and painted staircases for the low visually impaired.
The internship at UVRI has helped people to secure employment, for example, one as a data management assistant and one as a social worker at CORSU rehabilitation hospital carrying out psychological counseling to patients.