Following the recent announcement of the 2021 awardees of the first ever African Center for Translational Genomics (ACTG) scholarship, we got to sit down with three of the four honored recipients – Abimbola Onyia, Christopher Kintu, and Chisom Soremekun.
Abimbola is a Nigerian and mother of two who has always been fascinated by books. Luckily, she had a teacher mom to help nurture her academic interests.
Even though she showed great interest in studying medicine, she got admitted to read Biochemistry at Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago-Iwoye, where she found fulfillment in her new path.
Once her first degree was concluded, she proceeded to enroll for a Master’s degree in Biochemistry at Covenant University, Nigeria, where she graduated as the best student in her program that year.
Christopher, is a Ugandan who received government sponsorship to study Biochemistry for his first degree at Makerere University. During his study, he developed a special interest in Molecular Genetics and Immunology, before deciding to pursue a Master’s degree in Immunology and Clinical Microbiology from the same university.
His Msc thesis, titled ‘Characterizing anti-CD4 binding site Broadly Neutralizing antibodies,’ helped him greatly appreciate the role of genes in response to infection. His conviction stems from the realization that only a few individuals can produce potent broadly neutralizing antibodies to HIV as a result of their germline DNA makeup. Most intriguing, is that this principle can be applied to other infections including Non-communicable diseases like diabetes and coronary heart disease.
Our third recipient, Chisom, grew up in the eastern region of Nigeria in a family of nine. Being the second to the last child, she had ambitious siblings to look up to. She eventually followed her elder sister’s footsteps to study at the University of Ibadan and was admitted to the Department of Biochemistry, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree.
Presently, Chisom is enrolled in the Bioinformatics and Genomics Ph.D. program at the Africa Center of Excellence, Makerere University, Uganda, where she investigates the genetic determinants of type-2 diabetes in the African population.
Rapid Fire Questions
We are excited to share a recap of our Q&A session with Abimbola, Christopher and Chisom.
1. What drew you to your chosen specialization and what continues to sustain you on this path?
Christopher: “There is an upward trend of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Africa majorly attributed to changing lifestyles and increasing urbanization. A case in point: Chronic Kidney disease (CKD). Over 50 million people are affected by CKD on the continent. This exerts a huge burden on health systems that are already struggling to manage existing infectious diseases.
I aim to contribute to knowledge evidenced by the genetics of people of African ancestry. By using genetics, we can help in the prevention of chronic infections through early detection and also inform pharmacokinetics based on individual genetics.”
Abimbola: “My interest in genomics research was fueled by a research workshop organized by Covenant University in 2013 during my Master’s program. In this workshop, a renowned American Professor, Dr. Ogi Okwumabua, introduced us to techniques utilized in genomics research. This workshop was a real eye-opener for me, as most of my previous research projects had been centered on plants. This inspired me to pursue a career path in cancer genomics.
Through the course of this project, I have been privileged to collaborate with my mentor on various projects he has worked on, and I have realized the need to understand the tumor biology of various cancers on the African region.”
Chisom: “I was fascinated by the story of Nicholas Volker, the first patient to be treated via the application of whole-exome sequencing in personalized medicine in 2010. For my master’s degree seminar, I presented this interesting topic to enlighten the audience on the obscure possibility of genomic medicine and exome sequencing which could aid the treatment of genetically susceptible individuals.
After my program, I worked as a research assistant on several projects at the University College Hospital Ibadan, Nigeria. This position brought me face-to-face with patients losing their lives to diseases, which would have been prevented with the application of genomic and personalized medicine. This sad experience motivated me to join the team of researchers that would make genomic medicine a reality in Nigeria and Africa.”
2. Who inspires you?
Abimbola: “My biggest inspiration has been my mentor, Professor Solomon Rotimi. I admire what he has been able to achieve in such a short time. He is one researcher who has stood on the forefront of genomics research in Nigeria and I admire that a lot. He is also someone I look up to and aspire to walk in his stead.”
Chisom had a host of mentors, namely, Professors Oyeronke Odunola, Oyekanmi Nash, and Segun Fatumo. Coincidentally, she and Christopher had the same supervisor, Dr. Segun Fatumo, who happened to be their greatest influence.
Chisom: “In my career I have been inspired by many great mentors, but the greatest inspiration in my life is my supervisor Dr. Segun Fatumo – the visionary leader of The African Computational Genomics (TACG) Research group.
He was once a Lagos street hawker, and has risen against all odds to be among Africans making a substantial impact in genomics. His focus and determination have taught me that any goal or dream can be achieved if only I can put in the required effort.”
Christopher shared Chisom’s sentiment, saying: “I gain my inspiration from my PhD mentor, Professor Segun Fatumo. He has hugely impacted genomics research on the continent and is helping African scientists gain capacity to conduct genetics-based research on the continent. A biography published in his book ‘Diamonds on the streets’ speaks directly to me and a lot of scientists out there.”
3. What does being awarded the ACTG scholarship mean to you?
Christopher: “The ACTG scholarship will help me streamline my PhD financial needs. The extra funds will also be used to disseminate my research work at international meetings and conferences.
As a scientist in the early phases of his career, being awarded the inaugural ACTG scholarship places me at a greater advantage of securing other grants in the future. It adds the ability to compete for and obtain funding at international levels to my track record.”
Abimbola: “Being awarded this scholarship is a very significant step towards achieving my goal of being a genomic scientist. This also came as a breakthrough for me being a self-funded student.”
Chisom: “Being among the pioneer awardees of ACTG scholarship is a unique opportunity that I will forever appreciate. This will give me a great platform to achieve my dream of contributing my quota towards precision medicine in Africa.
Working closely with genomics scientists in the NCD-GHS consortium and 54gene will grant me the opportunity to learn from experts with equal passion to make precision medicine a reality in Africa. Also, this scholarship will provide required financial resources, thereby enabling me to focus on my research with no financial pressure throughout my PhD program.”
4. How do you hope to impact the African and global genomics research space?
Abimbola: “The advancement of precision care will only be a reality when more research is directed towards indigenous populations in Nigeria and Africa at large. There is a need to generate more data on indigenous populations. This will go a long way towards developing targeted therapies for the African population.”
Christopher: “Currently, most of the data we need to answer genetics-related questions on the continent is from European cohorts. Given the known differences in genetic architecture between ancestry differences in Linkage Disequilibrium (LD) and allele frequencies, there is need to focus more on developing capacity for more inclusion.
My PhD work aims to develop a tool for prediction of Chronic Kidney disease using African ancestry datasets. This will hopefully perform better than those developed based on European ancestries.”
Chisom: “My current research focuses on identifying unique genetic determinants of type-2 diabetes in individuals of African ancestry. Utilizing the rich genomic datasets across Africa and 54gene will help in the identification of these variants and genes. This may enable the development of better prevention and treatment strategies for these diseases in Africa.
Working closely with genomic experts in the NCD-GHS consortium and 54gene, I hope to impact the African and global genomics research space by the development and application of genome-based strategies for the early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of disease.”
5. In my view, the advancement of precision medicine in Africa will be achievable when…
Abimbola: “More research is directed towards indigenous populations in Nigeria and Africa at large. There is a need to generate more data on indigenous populations. This will go a long way towards developing targeted therapies for the African population.”
Christopher: “A. We build more capacity among African scholars to analyze their own data. Bioinformatics skills are still in their infancy on the continent, and addressing this gap will accelerate implementation of findings in real clinical settings on the continent.
B. We advocate to institutions to build computational infrastructure and non-computational systems to facilitate capacity building in bioinformatics. Each region on the continent has already established institutions, but the field of genetics needs to be strengthened within them. This can be achieved through mutual collaborations with already established institutions.”
Chisom: “The advancement of precision medicine in Africa will be achievable when a great number of Africans are included in global genomic studies.
54gene has ignited hope for precision medicine in Africa. The company has not only launched its own genetics sequencing and microarray lab in Nigeria, but also carries out whole-genome sequencing and whole-exome sequencing. A lot of data is being generated and this will greatly inform the treatment of patients and facilitate the inclusion of the African population in research.”
About the ACTG
The African Center for Translational Genomics (ACTG) is an initiative established by 54gene for the advancement of genomic research, knowledge and resources within the African continent.
The ACTG is aimed at growing resources within the continent to enhance Africa’s competitive advantage globally as it relates to genomics and disease.
It will also facilitate genomics research by ensuring collaborators under the initiative are provided access to cutting edge technologies that will boost research productivity. Insights generated from these research activities will answer pertinent questions about drivers of disease that are prevalent in Africa.
To learn more, click here.