Nurturing young researchers in Kilifi

KEMRI-Wellcome is a high-tech research programme based in Kilifi County, in rural Kenya.  Alongside research like sequencing DNA or intensive analysis of population data, the programme actively engages the community.


The School Engagement Program was started by Alun Davies, who was responding to local leader’s requests for input into local schools, to scientists wanting to have a way of contributing to local education, and to nurture an interest in science and in scientific careers among Secondary school students in the County.  “Kilifi, just like anywhere else in the world, has a lot of untapped talent. We felt that we could draw from KEMRI’s research staff and laboratories, to give opportunities for local students, to nurture their talent and their interest in science. Maybe one day a student from Kilifi will become the future scientist who develops the cures for HIV and Ebola.” he states. Alun’s project which was funded by the Wellcome Trust included a School Leavers’ Attachment Scheme.


In 2011, Jacob Kazungu had just completed his Secondary education at Sokoke Secondary school in Ganze, Kilifi County, and was one of the 9 students that year who qualified for the school leaver’s attachment through a competitive process that looks at the Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education examination results and a writing assignment.  He spent three months working alongside researchers in KEMRI-Wellcome’s laboratories, the hospital wards, and the IT department and seeing the work with the community.


Kazungu remembers his first day at the Programme.  “It was the first time I use a computer. I created my first email address account and FACEBOOK. I also learnt that research was not all about lab work”.  It was also his first opportunity to interact with “real research and real researchers”.  He had wanted a challenging time and knew he had found his calling after the three months in the program.  “Before joining the KEMRI-Wellcome Programme, I always thought of becoming a doctor, a teacher or an engineer solely because they were the career options I knew about and at least I had heard about or seen”.


After his attachment, Kazungu went on to study Environmental Science (Environmental health and biology) at Katarina University. When Kazungu was in his fourth year he started looking out for opportunities.  KEMRI-Wellcome runs internship schemes for Kenyan graduates with science degrees, and Kazungu decided to apply to this scheme.  The scheme is led by Dr Sam Kinyanjui as part of a scientific training programme, who obtained funding for the scheme from Wellcome and UK overseas aid (DFID).  The scheme provides support for researchers to develop through PhD studentships through to post-doctoral training, and Sam recognized that internships to attract future PhD students would be a key part of the scheme.


His internship attachment was supervised by Dr Ifedayo Adetifa (Dayo) an epidemiologist working on vaccine effectiveness monitoring.  Dayo wanted Kazungu to look at survey data on vaccine delivery from 13 African countries that are part of a network KEMRI-Wellcome participates in.  The number crunching took a lot of hours and late nights.  Kazungu recalls “It took me over four months to write the paper, considering this was my first paper, there were lots of reviews from my supervisor to work on, and just learning how to write.”   The manuscript has been submitted to Wellcome Open Research and is undergoing peer review.


In his findings he noted the need to strengthen the health care system in the West African region especially in the routine child immunisation delivery systems due to the low numbers of fully vaccinated children. That despite the large numbers of children initially vaccinated there was high level of dropouts which would require country’s to adopt interventions to achieve the global immunisation targets


Kazungu has completed his internship, and is now working in science after his appointment as a research assistant in the KEMRI-Wellcome Nairobi office on health economics, with Dr Edwine Barasa who speaks highly of him “Kazungu has joined the health economics research unit as an assistant research officer. His work focuses on assessing the levels, equity, and determinants of health insurance coverage. I see him develop into a health economist with a strong quantitative bias, which is will be a valuable addition to the unit”


Since 2008 the KEMRI| Wellcome has seen over 210 fresh graduates from the University go through the Internship Scheme, 40% of whom were women. The scheme, has since evolved into a Post Graduate Diploma conferred by Pwani University has seen over 70% of the interns/Post Graduate Diploma fellows being retained in a Science related field with a majority having grown to Postdoctoral positions while others are pursuing their PhDs.


Dr Mary De Silva from Wellcome said: “It’s fantastic to see the KEMRI-Wellcome programme supporting the development of young people who are interested in science, right through from school to University and further. Building the next generation of research leaders in Africa is absolutely essential to tackling the health challenges across the continent. We wish Jacob and all the other students well in their future careers and hope that science and research continues to inspire them.”


So what next? Jacob intends to do a Master course and will look to establish himself as a career scientist.  He credits Alun Davies, Sam Kinyanjui, and Ifedayo Adetifa and others with providing him an opportunity he hadn’t expected.  In turn they all credit Kazungu for the passion and hard work which led him to seize the opportunities with both hands.