As an Immunology Masters student eager to delve into the world of biomedical research and public health, I recently started my yearlong work placement at the MRC/UVRI & LSHTM Uganda Research Unit. Having Schistosomiasis as the main focus of my research, I was invited to come along on a 12-day field trip to the shores of Lake Albert for a Uganda Schistosomiasis Multi-disciplinary Research Center (U-SMRC) study to gain a deeper understanding of the current situation surrounding Schistosomiasis in rural Uganda, and to experience a vital step in biomedical research studies – recruitment and sampling of participants.
The heart of any scientific study lies in its participants, making participant recruitment a vital part of the process, including identifying suitable candidates, obtaining informed consent, and ensuring their commitment to the study. The participants for the study were recruited in the villages surrounding the Buhuka Health Center III where were based, and they were then brought to the health center for assessment and subsequent sampling of blood, urine and stool. I had the privilege to shadow and work alongside experienced researchers as they engaged with the local communities, assessed whether the participants were deemed suitable to partake in the study, and processed the samples in the laboratory for diagnostics and storing for subsequent in-depth analysis back at the institute.
I took great interest in the laboratory diagnostics department and spent several days working alongside the lab team to test the samples for diseases such as HIV, Hepatitis B, and malaria, and to prepare them for analysis back at the research unit. I deeply appreciated the team’s willingness and time they invested to guide me through the processes, for instance through performing quality controls on the malaria diagnoses I conducted.
Furthermore, I had the opportunity to work with the team responsible for the processing of the participants’ stool samples. This involved testing the samples for parasitic infections, processing them to enable miracidia hatching, and the storage of the miracidia for subsequent DNA analysis. The prevalence of Schistosomiasis within the participant samples was very high, to the point where it became unusual if someone was not currently infected with the parasite.
It was good to get a view on Schistosomiasis both on a public health level as well as through the microscope. Before this trip, I was aware of the persistence of Schistosomiasis as a significant health concern in (rural) Uganda. However, to witness the harsh realities of the high prevalence of this parasite infection amongst other infectious diseases such as HIV, on a firsthand basis, brought home the gravity of the situation in a way that no story or book ever could. The experiences underscored the challenges faced by the local community on a daily basis, such as an inaccessibility to clean water and a lack of suitable interventions, thus highlighting the urgency and importance of the ongoing research and intervention efforts.
Throughout the field trip, I had the privilege of helping and working alongside a team of dedicated scientists and doctors who generously shared their knowledge and expertise. Their dedication to the research was strongly present in all aspects of their work, which in some cases lasted until late at night. This together with their strong passion for biomedical research and a big heart for the local communities, served as great inspiration for my future career aspirations. It therefore goes without saying that this field trip with a team of the Uganda Virus Research Institute(UVRI) has been an invaluable experience that has deepened my understanding of a vital part of good scientific research and has given me a good insight into the current challenges and severity thereof, that rural Uganda faces when it comes to Schistosomiasis.
Other than the enriching research experiences during the field trip, I had the privilege of encountering some remarkable wildlife and witnessing amazing views of the region. Almost every morning, a sunbird stopped by my window to grace my day, and in the evening the fireflies would come and light up the greenery next to where we stayed.
As our accommodation was a half hour drive further up from the valley where the health clinic is, every morning we would drive down from the hills into the East African Rift Valley. The drive was one of my favourite parts as from the top of the hill, you got a view from the entire valley with its villages nestled along the shore of Lake Albert, the vast expanse of the lake itself, and even the faraway hills of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on the other side. All this together made for a breath-taking view, one I will certainly not forget for a long time to come.
I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to have learned from experts in the field. The experience has not only reaffirmed my commitment to a career in medical research and public health, but it has also shown me the beauty of the Ugandan countryside with its spectacular views and wildlife. I look forward to applying the knowledge and insights gained during this field trip to try and make a meaningful difference in global health, like the U-SMRC team currently is doing.
Written by: Joas Sterk