The immune system plays a significant role in understanding infectious diseases. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, immunology only continues to grow in relevance, yet there is significantly less research in Africa compared to the west.
Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarship (QECS) scholar, Steven, from Malawi, is trying to address this gap.
‘It becomes difficult when you have a disease that is more prevalent here than it is in the west, because that essentially means that there will not be as many people interested in doing research on it, understanding the core disease process, and also trying to figure out how to cure it’, Steven explains.
Steven is currently supporting the global fight against COVID-19 and tuberculosis at Malawi Liverpool Welcome Trust, after completing his masters at IBMBB, University of Colombo.
From a young age, Steven always knew he wanted to be a scientist. Steven credits his father for igniting his love of science. His father was a crop-scientist and he would give Steven books with experiments in them that he would conduct at home.
My father exposed me to science quite a lot. As a child, I was quite curious about everything really, particularly trying to figure out how everything works. I'm always trying to figure out how I could make something better
This curiosity and drive for improvement inspired Steven to understand the role of the immune system in infectious diseases like tuberculosis and COVID-19. Steven’s work looks at how to enhance the immune system so that it can work together with drugs to help clear the infection quicker.
‘As I grew up, I started to notice health problems in this part of the world, and I thought, that’s a problem that I should help in solving, and I actually found that quite interesting as well', Steven explains.
Medical school was a defining moment for Steven. Being in the clinics daily, Steven became increasingly aware that beyond the prevalence of infectious diseases, there was a lack of solutions too.
‘My time at medical school also helped me to understand the gap in our existing approaches. With most of the conditions, we have we have treatments for them, but we can do a lot better than what we currently do. We can understand the disease better than we do right now, and I think that's one thing that motivated me following my medical education to go into research and, in particular, to go into immunology’, Steven recalls.
It’s an interesting time for immunology research. With the pandemic necessitating lockdowns and campus closures, lab-based research has been difficult this year. Despite the disruption, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of immunology research.
Obtaining the scholarship actually provided me the skills to be able to join this fight against COVID-19. It’s special to be in a position where we can contribute to finding a solution. I’m very grateful for having this opportunity to contribute to the fight against COVID-19.
Steven explains that the immune response in COVID-19 is responsible for quite a lot of the damage that happens to the lungs. His current work involves trying to understand how the immune response contributes to the damage in the lungs, and how the immune response is different in different types of people. His work looks at why the disease is worse in some people, and not in others. Eventually, they hope to figure out how to improve the immune system in those people who have severe disease.
Steven’s current work is a continuation of his research at university, which entailed working on how to manipulate the immune system against tuberculosis. From developing the project plans, conducting the actual lab and clinical work, to writing the reports and disseminating the results, Steven is involved in all key areas of the research process.
Looking forward, Steven hopes to obtain a PhD and become an independent researcher. Over the last two or three years, he’s become more invested in the field of immunology and tuberculosis. In the future, Steven would like to collaborate with researchers from different fields.
A Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholarship is a unique opportunity to study for a two-years Master’s degree in low or middle-income country of the Commonwealth.
Aimed at students who are committed to creating change in their communities, the scholarships are a life-changing opportunity to experience a new country and culture, to broaden horizons, and to build a global network that will last a lifetime.
Through cultural exchange and academic collaboration, Queen Elizabeth Commonwealth Scholars help bring about positive change and find solutions to the shared challenges we face – both in their home countries and those that host them. As an active part of the Commonwealth network, scholars will help shape its future.
There are two application cycles to cover the academic years which start at different times across the globe, with some taking place July - October and others between January - February.