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Meet six women creating the future of malaria genomics

As the public health value of genomic data becomes clearer, more partners have begun setting up in-country sequencing operations. These six women are leading the way in The Gambia, Ghana, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Blog 10 Feb 2023
Mosquito Parasite

To celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in STEM, we’re sharing the stories of six women leading malaria genomic surveillance projects around the world. Each is at a different stage in their career and they came to malaria research in different ways. Together, they are changing the way we track malaria by creating sequencing hubs in their countries.

“Genomic surveillance has the potential to accelerate the elimination of malaria, but only if led by local scientists and public health professionals” says Dr Shavanthi Rajatileka, In-Country Operations Lead in the Genomic Surveillance Unit at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. “Working with our partners to stand up their own sequencing capacity shifts the centre of gravity of malaria genomics to endemic regions, which is essential for both timely public health impact and long-term sustainability.

The Gambia: Dr. Eniyou Oriero

Ghana: Kukua Bandoh & Joyce Mwongeli Ngoi

Indonesia: Angela Rumaseb & Pinkan Kariodimedjo

Vietnam: Dr. Nhien Nguyen Thanh Thuy


The Gambia

Dr. Eniyou Oriero

Follow your heart: do what you’re happy doing and take advantage of opportunities around you.

Originally from Nigeria, Eniyou began her research career in biochemistry. After completing her year of national service, she worked at an agricultural research institute looking at crop genetics and soil bacteria. This spurred her interest in molecular biology, but she yearned to use her science skills to contribute more directly to public health.

So when an opportunity came up to move to The Gambia and join the malaria group at the MRC Unit The Gambia at LSHTM, she made the leap.

Eniyou started in The Gambia in 2007, and a lot has changed since then. “I came as a junior scientist almost 16 years ago and now I’m one of the senior postdocs within the Unit. Personally, I’ve grown a lot,” she says. “I’m passionate about mentoring and trying to help young scientists, especially women. It can be really challenging for females to remain in science.”

Eniyou runs a journal club, where researchers learn to analyse and pick apart the latest studies and reports. She also holds an adjunct lecturer position at a University in Nigeria, where she mentors young scientists and shows that there are more careers in science than just medicine, engineering, and pharmacy.

Eniyou leads a discussion at her journal club.
Eniyou leads a discussion at her journal club.

“I feel that if people understand the science, they will be more passionate towards it, rather than just doing the job and getting paid at the end of the month,” she says.

Eniyou is responsible for the implementation for the Gambian hub of the NIHR-funded Genomic Surveillance of Malaria in West Africa project, and is thrilled that after some issues with logistics and procurement, the pipelines are now operational and will see their first full runs this year.

“I am particularly excited and I feel very fortunate to be involved in the entire spectrum of the malaria genomic surveillance study in The Gambia,” says Eniyou. “My role ranges from engaging with stakeholders, to training and supporting the health facility staff on sample and data collection protocols, all the way through to optimising the implementation of the complex assay, analysing data, and feeding results back to the stakeholders.”


Ghana

Kukua Bandoh (née Amu Thompson)

Passion will move you out of your comfort zone. It will push you towards where you really should be.

From a young age, Kukua Bandoh knew she wanted to improve the lives of children. At first, she thought the best way to do this was to pursue a career as a “children’s doctor,” but over the course of her education, she realised that her real passion was research. And with her current role helping to run the Next Generation Sequencing lab at the University of Ghana’s West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP), she can see the benefits of science.

“I had this burning desire to do research,” says Kukua. “I wanted to do research into diseases, because I felt that’s where the solution to everything was.”

So Kukua trained in biochemistry in Ghana before pursuing a second degree in biomedical science at the University of Chester in the UK. When she returned to Ghana, she began working in a biomedical lab attached to a hospital that served rural populations, performing lab-based tests and diagnostics. This is where she saw the devastating impact malaria was having.

“[Parents] would come in with their children so anaemic. And the parasite counts were always so high,” she says. “I would look through the microscope and the field would be fully filled with parasites. You could tell this was in the later stages of malaria infection.”

While she loved her job, she still felt the pull of research. “Because of my passion for the children, my zeal, I always felt that there was more that could be done,” says Kukua.

So when she heard about WACCBIP and the research being done at there, she plucked up her courage and marched straight into the office of its director, Prof. Gordon Awandare. With her CV in hand, she asked how she could get involved. “I was very shaky and scared, because I didn’t know if what I was doing was the right thing,” she says. “I just told him that I’m a young lady who really loves research, and I want to be in the research field but I don’t know where to start.”

After an initial month-long internship in the lab, Kukua was hired as a Next Generation Sequencing Technologist in late 2021. She has since learned a wide variety of techniques, from sample extraction to library preparation and sequencing, and is a core part of the team implementing amplicon sequencing for malaria genomic surveillance.

Joyce Mwongeli Ngoi

Some things need a lot of time and a lot of effort. Take your time and don’t lose your focus.

Joyce Mwongeli Ngoi knows how to keep her eyes on the prize. Whether it’s logistical challenges, issues with bureaucracy, training students, or a global pandemic, Joyce maintains a positive attitude and delivers world-class results.

She was recruited to join the University of Ghana in 2018, after six years training and working at KEMRI-Wellcome Trust. Her first job was to set up the University’s first Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) lab both at WACCBIP and at Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research, and within a few years the lab was operational but still had relatively limited capacity.

So when the pandemic hit in 2020, the NGS capability of the University of Ghana — that Joyce had been instrumental in standing up — was ready. “We have contributed a lot, especially towards the COVID pandemic by providing data to guide and inform the public health response,” says Joyce. “We’ve been doing a lot of surveillance to track the spread of the virus, understand the transmission dynamics, and monitor how the virus is changing in our population.”

While they had already been setting up capacity for malaria genomic surveillance before the pandemic, COVID changed things in Joyce’s lab. “We grew,” she says. “Especially with COVID, there were a lot of activities and the work was becoming too much to just be centralised in one lab. So we expanded.”

Joyce handed over responsibility for the Noguchi lab and focused on building up a world-class NGS facility at the West African Center for Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP). This time, she had the opportunity to expand and build a proper lab to serve the needs of the University, its students, and the wider global scientific and health communities.

In a matter of a few years, that dream has become a reality. “Now we have a lab that has the capacity to do a wide range of applications, includingwhole genome sequencing, exome sequencing, RNA sequencing, and targeted sequencing,” says Joyce. “Our lab now can run a whole sequencing workflow without having to depend on other labs for any part of it.”

As the manager of this new NGS lab, Joyce leads a team of technicians and students who deliver high-quality sequencing data for a range of diseases. It’s this lab that will be a West African hub for malaria genomic surveillance.

“One of my keen interests has been to develop capacity, especially in Africa or, so that we don’t always have to look to the west for things that we can easily do here,” says Joyce. “That keeps me motivated. It’s what drives me.”


Indonesia

Angela Rumaseb

Passion can be contagious. I just want to share that passion with my work colleagues.

Angela Rumaseb may be early in her career, but that’s not stopping her from building on a solid foundation of research skills to improve global health. Originally from West Papua, Angela moved to Darwin, Australia as a teenager. She pursued a Bachelors of Science degree at Charles Darwin University before starting a research assistant role at Menzies School Of Health Research. While she’s lived in Darwin for more than a decade, she maintains a close connection with her friends and family in Indonesia.

“Being able to come from a community and have research go back into that community is really important to me,” says Angela. “I feel like I’m contributing back to the community where I’m from and at the same time to the global research community through all the work we do with Sanger and our other international collaborators.”

For years, Angela has been central to the team implementing malaria genomic surveillance in Indonesia as a research assistant at Menzies. “Establishing assays in-country is a little bit tricky,” says Angela. “You encounter all these challenges that are very country-specific.”

While she couldn’t travel during the pandemic, Angela relied on constant virtual contact through WhatsApp, Zoom and email to help her Indonesian colleagues get the amplicon workflow up and running. Once a lab renovation completes later this year, she expects genomic surveillance of malaria to really kick off.

Angela (middle) compares samples with her colleagues Agatha Mia Puspitasari (left) and Willy Augustine (right).
Angela (middle) compares samples with her colleagues Agatha Mia Puspitasari (left) and Willy Augustine (right). Credit: Shavanthi Rajatileka/Wellcome Sanger Institute

Also this year, with the encouragement of her supervisor Dr. Sarah Auburn, she has decided to pursue a PhD. “I wanted to dive in,” says Angela. “I think research is a very interesting field. Everybody is so passionate, and I have met a lot of lovely people. So I decided yes, I want to do my PhD.”

Building on her skills and the relationships she’s established around the world, Angela’s primary project will be developing assays that can determine the source of P. vivax infections in Indonesia.

“Molecular biology is very interesting,” says Angela. “It’s unseen, but it’s so real. Little mutations and changes in a sequence could change up a lot of things!”

Pinkan Kariodimedjo

If there is a challenge that comes to you, think ‘what would I do if I wasn’t afraid?’

As an early-career researcher at a fledgling research organisation who started her first job right before the pandemic, Pinkan Kariodimedjo is no stranger to change. Her positive attitude and the tight-knit community of fellow researchers in Indonesia keeps her looking to a brighter future. “In research we have to be agile,” she says. “We have to be adaptive, and keep our spirits up when things don’t go our way.”

After four years as a research assistant at the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology and now at Exeins Health Initiative, Pinkan was recently awarded a scholarship for a master’s degree. She hopes to use this opportunity to broaden her knowledge in vaccine development, immunology, and genomic medicine.

“There were a lot of people that were involved in amplicon sequencing in Indonesia,” she says. Along with two colleagues at Eijkman and guidance from Sanger’s In-Country Operations team, she learned the complex protocol and got the lab up and running.

As the third female researcher to take on amplicon sequencing for malaria genomic surveillance, Pinkan Kariodimedjo sees herself as part of a sisterhood. She explains that the project began with Agatha Mia Purpitasari leading the implementation before she left to pursue a master’s in the UK. Then Nadia Fadila took it over. Now Nadia is pursuing her master’s in Australia and passed the project on to Pinkan, who herself will soon go on to train further.

“The amplicon sequencing was passed on through a lineage of women,” says Pinkan. “There’s a close bond of sisterhood between us which made the hard amplicon sequencing workload much lighter.”

Pinkan sees plenty of women in STEM who she takes inspiration from. Her experience, which she recognises may run counter to experiences in other countries, is that research in Indonesia is very welcoming to women. She sees women represented at all levels of the research system, from lab assistants to professors. “I have role models who I can relate to. I’m close to them,” she says. “They have responsibilities at home, and they still do exceptional scientific work. No matter what gender you are, you can be socially impactful and still be present at home.”

Reflecting on the challenges she’s overcome and the future ahead, she says, “We have to start bravely. Even if we end up failing, we already did the right thing, which is to be brave.”


Vietnam

Dr. Nhien Nguyen Thanh Thuy

Everyone has their own personality, so they should develop to be their best, and not like any other person.

Dr. Nhien Nguyen Thanh Thuy is a brilliant and self-assured researcher who is more than willing to break the mould. When asked if she has any role models, her first instinct is to say the names of researchers who have influenced her. And, looking at her list of collaborators through the years, it’s clear that there would be no shortage of amazing researchers to pick. While she admits to taking good points from the people she’s worked with, now she simply thinks that her role model would be “a better version of me.”

Shortly after completing her PhD in Life Sciences in Kyoto, Japan, Nhien returned to Vietnam to join OUCRU (the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit). Eager to move away from basic research, Nhien found she excelled at managing clinical trials and applied research where she could see a direct impact on patient outcomes. And her previous training in molecular microbiology techniques proved invaluable.

It wasn’t long before she began to take a leadership role in the malaria lab. “When I first joined OUCRU, the malaria lab was quite small,” says Nhien. “We just performed basic microscopy for patients and very simple tests following WHO recommendations.” Now the lab has expanded to include diagnostic research, amplicon sequencing, and field activities for local Vietnamese cases as well as malaria from Cambodia and Laos. As a key component of the GenRe-Mekong project, Nhien’s work directly influences malaria control policy in the region.

Now Nhien is the Vice Head of the Malaria Research Group and she is passionate about making an impact through research and training. “If you work in the malaria field, you’ll know that malaria tends not to be as common in the cities,” says Nhien. “You need to go to the provinces, where malaria is endemic, and meet with the partners who work there. So we provide training for local NMCP labs and also for collaborators, not only within Vietnam, but also for our other partners in the region.”