A research career is a journey and you have to be adaptable as possible
Dr. Steve Wandiga, PhD, is a TCC Africa 2013 trainee and is an Assistant Principal Research Scientist at the Kenya Medical Research Institute, based at the Center for Global Health Research in Kisumu. He has been working with KEMRI since 2004 to date. He is also the Managing Editor of the East Africa Science Journal ,one of the two journals for the East African Health Research Commission, which, is part of the East African Community.
TCC Africa: Tell us more about your research
It is important to appreciate that everyone goes through a journey. I started my research journey with an interest in HIV/AIDs, then moved my focus on to TB research though now I’m branching out and looking at the interaction of infectious and non-communicable diseases, more so now that we’ve gotten to appreciate how COVID-19 outcomes have been poor. This has especially been among people with underlying causes of diseases, which traditionally we have been poor at screening because of the health seeking behavior that keeps varying from person to person. I think women have better health seeking behavior than men and so we get to see those disparities. At the moment I’m studying on characterization of patients who have mild and severe COVID-19 as well as screening patients who are visiting one of our two volume facilities here in Kisumu for both infectious and non-communicable diseases.
TCC Africa: Tell us your journey from when you took part in our trainings in 2013 to date. What did you learn from that and how did it guide you in your research career?
The training came at an opportune moment. Many are times as people get into research; one is expected to write but no guidance or mentorship is given on what needs to be written or what needs to go out and you get to appreciate that researchers often write in response to different things. For example, in an abstract for a conference, the words are often limited and when writing grant proposals, it is usually very precise, 10 pages including the budget.
When TCC Africa made that call, it was the first one for us here in Kisumu so it was like seeing the light at the end of a very dark tunnel and we came to Nairobi and you really assembled a stellar group of facilitators to support us.
I would like to say that the training was a rollercoaster for me in terms of writing the PhD. At the time, I was already registered for my PhD in Germany and was towards the end of it. I graduated in 2015 and TCC was able to give us some tips on how to tell a story, identify the punchlines and at the end of your experience with the PhD identify what really stands out. Then when it comes to proposal writing, you come up with recommendation of how the way forward looks like. But you and I know that you have to articulate your writing in a manner that should take a swipe at the panel that is going to be reviewing what you have written to see how it compares with others since it’s a competition and you cannot be in a competition while still being taught how to write. I really appreciate TCC Africa for enabling me to go into that graduation with those skills as they helped me defend and effectively communicate my PhD project. I have also cascaded those skills to my colleagues. You know, that lab teams tend to be very bench oriented. So, I had to tell them we needed to showcase what happens within our lab because it is a backup to the National TB Reference Lab and thereafter, we have been the ones who come out with the most number of abstracts from our Kisumu Centre. This year, one of the team members published and I was the senior author and this just shows you the incremental steps and you’re able to see the yield and return on investment from time to time.
TCC Africa: That is really good to hear. We are glad that through this whole process there are success stories. What are some of the obstacles that you faced as you were going through your career and felt that communication was key in overcoming these challenges?
Of course, there are obstacles. One of them would be that at times there is redundancy in terms of what is communicated. There’s also the element where you’re expecting feedback but it’s not coming when there are timelines to be met. So, at times it calls one to just bite the bullet and you stand with what you have been able to assemble and show up with it and get to realize that you are still moving on. I realized that not everyone has a heart to help and this is inherent in some workplaces. These environments tend to be toxic. Through these experiences you are able to distinguish who you are going to collaborate with or peers who you can sharpen each other minds. What I’ve realized is that you need to have people around you who you can always run to and those who will avail their time to be there for you.
TCC Africa: Could you tell us your current position at KEMRI?
I am currently an Assistant Principal Research Scientist. It’s important to note that I had been previously working on a contractual term which was renewable annually ,but, last year KEMRI created a position for my current role and I was one of the applicants that showed up to be interviewed. Starting January this year, I’m now on permanent and pensionable terms which is exciting because it means that you are no longer sitting at the edge of a contract that is lapsing. That cushioning is very appropriate timing for me in terms of even being able to reach out for more collaborations in the future. Of course, there is room for becoming principal research scientists and much more.
TCC Africa: You mentioned that you are an editor of a journal. Could you give us more information on the journal and what you do for this journal?
The East Africa Science Journal is one of the two journals for the East African Health Research Commission, which, is part of the East African Community(EAC). The EAC heads of state, ensured that they are implementing the mandate and spirit of the community thought of a platform where scientists within the region would showcase their work as well as assist in dissemination in the region. The beauty about these journals is that they are open access. The sister journal to East Africa Science is East African Health Research journal. The one that I oversee as the managing editor is East African Science. This journal focuses on innovations, basic science, climate change and its impacts in the environment .We have so far published two volumes which have been well received.
TCC Africa: What do you think is the future of your research career in line with the training that you’ve gone through and what are your hopes ?
As researchers, from the training as I remember, we kept referring to the phrase you either publish or perish. It is not in my plan to lose the knowledge that I received from the training at TCC Africa. The idea is to keep getting better and the only way to make it better is to still be the frontline of research. What I am doing now is realigning myself, moving from the single diseases I’m also looking at the interaction between infectious and non-communicable diseases. We are now focused on non-communicable diseases being more of a burden by around 2030 and 2050 by Africa is going to be taking over the burden of non-communicable diseases and so as a researcher within this continent, I would want to be one of those on the front line, in terms of coming up with research that is going on in terms of looking at how the epidemiology is changing, and what outputs we are going to have in terms of publications, abstracts for conferences, some training that would be required at least to disseminate what we are seeing so that we are better prepared. Suppose there is another pandemic in the next 20 years, how does it sit with the knowledge we have, because COVID-19 disrupted everyone. What are the lessons learnt from the current pandemic so that we better prepare ourselves? We need to publish as well as increase the networks that we need to be involved with so that we not only showcase our research but also have an opportunity to pool our data. So, there’s a lot of work to do, and of course, to keep writing grants and proposals for funding. Because those things are intertwined. We definitely want to ensure that we are keeping on churning in ideas that can be funded, and also being responsible in terms of being accountable as far as publications are concerned.
TCC Africa: Thank you so much for your time. This has been an eye opener, it’s good to know, what you have achieved over the years, the challenges you’ve managed to overcome along the way, how you’ve supported other researchers and also, most importantly, on you becoming also managing editor of one of the East Africa Science.