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Developing global expertise in medical mycology and fungal immunology

10 Dec, 2014
Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar meets MRes students in Aberdeen

Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar meets MRes students in Aberdeen

As part of the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award for Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology (WTSA MMFI), ten international students are awarded scholarships to complete a Masters of Research (MRes) at the University of Aberdeen, followed by a three-year PhD at any UK institution with expertise in this field. These scholarships are awarded to exceptional students from low- and middle-income countries and form part of a wider research and training programme funded by the WTSA MMFI, a £5.1 million award granted to the University of Aberdeen. The objective of this scholarship scheme is to increase capacity and expertise in medical mycology in areas of the world with high endemic burdens of disease. Dr Karen McCardle from the University of Aberdeen caught up with some of the students who recently graduated with an MRes in Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology…

mmfi logoThe Aberdeen Fungal Group (AFG) leads the WTSA MMFI and is supported by a pan-UK consortium of scientists from 13 major medical mycology centres. It is the biggest fungal research group in Britain and one of the largest in the world. The group now boasts ten principal investigators (research group leaders) supported by around seventy researchers, with expertise in fungal biology, immunology and clinical mycology.

The WTSA MMFI consortium has four major goals: (i) to train a new generation of medical mycologists in areas of the world with high endemic burdens of fungal diseases; (ii) to build clinical academic capacity in the UK; (iii) to foster and promote cross-disciplinary research across the UK; and (iv) to increase public understanding of the clinical importance of fungal infections.

Last year, we were joined by Maria Alonso, Lucian Duvenage, Joy Icheoku and Alfred Kamuyango, who are each the lucky recipients of a scholarships for the international programme. I asked the students to share their reflections on the 12 months spent at the University of Aberdeen studying for the MRes, starting their PhD studies and their hopes for the future.

Map showing diversity of the Aberdeen Fungal Group

Map showing diversity of the Aberdeen Fungal Group

Maria Fernanda Alonso

Maria Alonso_grad 2014Having finished my undergraduate studies in Clinical Biochemistry in 2012, I was interested in doing my postgraduate studies abroad to gain some experience of working in an international research centre. The MRes + PhD scholarship offered by the WTSA MMFI presented the opportunity for me to fulfil this aim. The subject was particularly attractive to me since fungal research is a field of high public health relevance but underdeveloped in my country.

That’s how I ended up leaving warm Uruguay to travel to cold Aberdeen to start this adventure! The MRes has been a truly rewarding experience. I have met many new colleagues including my fellow MRes students, Beatrice, Lucian, Joy and Alfred, who have been very supportive and with whom I hope to establish long term collaborations in the future.

During this first year at the University of Aberdeen, I had several lectures in both immunology and microbiology and I carried out two research projects. Without doubt, working in the laboratory has been my favourite part of it all. My two MRes projects were quite different, providing me with experience in a variety of research tools, from live cell imaging to sequencing. My project supervisors, Dr Judith Bain, Professor Lars Erwig and
Dr Donna MacCallum were invaluable mentors and equipped me for the next phase of this journey, the PhD.

For my PhD, I have chosen to stay at the University of Aberdeen doing a project focused on studying the interactions of the innate immune system with the fungal pathogen Candida albicans, under the supervision of Professor Lars Erwig. I am particularly attracted to the research questions posed in this project and the experimental tools that will be used to address them. I believe the training and knowledge gained will help me achieve my ultimate goal of pursuing an academic career in my home country. In this respect I have two long-term aims: (1) introducing more substantial training on clinical mycology into undergraduate courses; and (2) initiating fundamental research in fungal immunology.

While working in a clinical laboratory in Uruguay, I became aware of the limitations we have for diagnosing and treating fungal infections, which I believe could be at least partially be overcome by generating awareness of their importance. Primary fungal pathogens, such as Histoplasma capsulatum, Paracoccidioides brasiliensis or Sporothrix schenckii, are aetiological agents of invasive endemic infections in my country, yet few clinical laboratories have the expertise or the equipment to adequately diagnose them.

I believe that expanding the curriculum for clinical biochemists to include specialised courses on clinical mycology is essential to tackle this problem. Furthermore, given that my passion is to do fundamental immunological research, I am very excited about the idea of starting fungal research in Uruguay where I expect to focus on more regional pathogens, such as Paracoccidioides brasiliensis. I am eager to take back the novel tools I will learn as part of my PhD to contribute to other research areas in my country.

I am now two months into my PhD and so far the training received during my Master’s has proved very important. I am happy to be able to stay in Aberdeen since I have enjoyed being part of the Aberdeen Fungal Group. I am sure I will come across very rewarding as well as rough times, and it is great to know I can count on a great network of people to get me through it. I am very grateful for this opportunity and I am excited about everything that remains to come!

Joy Icheoku

Joy Icheoku_grad 2014I originally trained as a pharmacist, at Nnamdi Azikwe University (NAU), Awka, Nigeria. Completing the MRes programme at the University of Aberdeen, in the UK’s biggest research team for medical mycology, the Aberdeen Fungal Group (AFG), gave me a wonderful life-time research experience. It was a complete package of high quality research training with intensive and broad taught classes cutting across fungal biology, molecular mycology and immunology, statistics, with skills and employability training and audit. The professional and academic working relationship I had within the AFG was enriching and forms the basis of my professional network and links for my future career. The support I received from my fellow MRes colleagues, the AFG staff and students and the wider WTSA MMFI community made the journey smoother despite the temperature in Aberdeen!

The assessment standard for the MRes was tough and definitely not without its challenges, but it was worth it in the end. I feel I’m more than ready and confident to take on the PhD phase. Being one of only a few beneficiaries of this scholarship came with lots of great privileges and including access to some of the best researchers in the field. I am really proud to be an alumna of the University of Aberdeen!

I started my PhD in October, working under the supervision of Dr Elaine Bignell, University of Manchester and Dr Julian Naglik, King’s College London, on pathogen induced epithelial damage. Building my career foundation in one of the UK’s oldest, highly ranked and multicultural institution has always been my dream, and now it is a reality, thanks to this international scholarship funded by the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award.

My PhD training is focused on the molecular basis of invasive fungal infection, which will give me the required technical and intellectual expertise I need to achieve my long-term goals. On completing my PhD, I hope to return to Nigeria to tackle one of the major problems – the lack of awareness and information about the menace of fungal infections and their economic impact.

Importantly, I hope to establish a world-class mycological reference laboratory to aid prevention, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of fungal infections. Long-term, I hope to establish a centre of excellence for medical mycology research, through collaboration with colleagues in the WTSA MMFI Consortium and beyond. This centre, potentially based at NAU, will foster high quality research relevant to Nigeria and the West African sub-region and will enable the training of home grown experts, starting from masters to PhD level. The research focus of the centre will include fungal vaccine development, improvements in anti-fungal drug delivery, and new anti-fungal drug development from natural products which will benefit from the abundant natural resources in Nigeria.

Lucian Duvenage

Lucian Duvenage_grad 2014I’m originally from South Africa and moving to Aberdeen to study for the MRes was a big change for me. I was very excited to come to Scotland as it was my first time in the UK and I wanted to see new places and discover the culture for myself. I made friends with the other MRes students right away. We were all in a new environment and we formed a close group to support each other.

The MRes course was quite different from my previous MSc because it was more structured and intensive. The lectures at the start of the course were very good at reinforcing what I had learned in my previous studies but there were also topics that were new to me. My favourite series was the Current Topics in Immunology, which gave me an appreciation for the pace of scientific discoveries. The most challenging parts of the MRes were the two research projects, which were both three-months of intensive effort. Fortunately, I was able to benefit from the support of my project supervisors and the experience of the many PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in the Aberdeen Fungal Group (AFG), and so I was able to overcome any setbacks I encountered.

I gained invaluable knowledge and research skills in fungal biology and immunology, but most valuable for me were the transferable skills of time management and planning that I developed. I am grateful that we were able to attend the British Society for Medical Mycology conference in Manchester as well as the course offered by the Public Health England Mycology Reference Laboratory in Bristol. These were the highlights of the year for me and helped to broaden my research interests.

I started my PhD in October at the University of Kent under the supervision of Dr Campbell Gourlay. The project will involve a trip back to the Aberdeen Fungal Group to work with Drs Carol Munro and Donna MacCallum. The project focuses on the study of the mitochondria of the human fungal pathogen Candida albicans. Candida albicans, like other fungi such as C. neoformans, can cause problems for immunocompromised patients. Due to the HIV burden in South Africa, these pathogens are becoming an increasing concern in my home country.

There is evidence to suggest that the mitochondria of several fungal species may share similarities, so the findings from this PhD could be expanded to other fungal pathogens. Throughout my PhD I will acquire new skills in molecular and cell biology, which was part of the reason for choosing my project. I hope that I can use my PhD research not only to better understand these infections but also to convince my colleagues in South Africa of the importance of on-going medical mycology research. In this regard, I will also draw upon the enthusiasm of my mentors in Aberdeen and Kent.

Alfred Alinafed Kamuyango

Alfred Kamuyango_grad 2014My curiosity for medical mycology originates from my time as a junior medical laboratory technologist at a hospital in Malawi. Here I encountered high incidences of fungal infections in HIV patients and since then, I have been determined to pursue a postgraduate course in medical mycology to help tackle this mostly unrecognised problem. I was particularly thrilled to be offered the WTSA MMFI scholarship to come to the UK to study for an MRes and PhD.

At Aberdeen University, the MRes course content and the teaching methods were of a high quality and the learning experience was fascinating. A broad range of important subjects were covered in the first semester. Despite the diversity of the topics covered, the tutorials and support provided by the lecturers was exceptional and way beyond expectation. The lecturers expressed passion and enthusiasm in their areas of expertise and were always willing to clarify complex areas. The two research projects conducted in the subsequent two semesters of the course, equipped me with a broad range of cellular and molecular mycology and immunology techniques. The projects’ supervisors were very supportive and stimulated critical thinking and a high level rational approach

Being a member of the Aberdeen Fungal Group gave me the opportunity to attend the 50th Annual Scientific Meeting of the British Society for Medical Mycology. Here, enormously gifted intellectuals of vast experience in the medical mycology field made awakening presentations and shared rich ideas, on pertinent issues.

The University of Aberdeen as well as the city offers a friendly atmosphere to all students for academic study, additionally, it is welcoming and nurturing to international students, qualifying it to be the superb place to study. I really enjoyed the course and it is an excellent foundation to the development of my career in academia and research.

I recently started my PhD at the University of Sheffield in Dr Simon Johnston’s research team studying how fungal pathogens initiate and modulate localised immune signalling during an infection.

Following this PhD training, I hope to gain skills that will enable me to identify scientific problems, ask relevant questions and design methodologies to address those problems. My strong desire is to lead my own project in Malawi, with a focus on developing a profound understanding of host immunity against fungi using multidisciplinary approaches with a goal of improving care and management of HIV/AIDS patients with fungal infections.

You can find out more about the Aberdeen Fungal Group on their website and about the Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology Consortium where the students carried out their MRes studies.

Image credit: Aspergilluse SEM –  David Gregory&Debbie Marshall, Wellcome Images

One Comment leave one →
  1. Stephen-Seny-Gulumba permalink
    11 Dec, 2014 10:43 am

    This is wonderful! Here in the poor, slowly developing countries, we eagerly await the return of you scientists back home, to help us in our fight for better health through quality scientific research!! Congratulations! A big hand to your teachers and universities! thanks to Welcome Trust! Praise to God Almighty!!!!

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