Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)
People warned me about the lab facilities in Kenya. Everyone expressed some variation of “You know it’s not the same as in the US, right?” And every time I looked at them like they were crazy, but not because I was surprised. I am not some naive, sheltered PhD student who thinks everyone gets an LSR-II and precast gels. Nor am I a lab snob- at least I try not to be. I have worked in low budget labs, low access labs, unsanitary labs, you name it. I have also worked in a lab abroad before so I’m not exactly a noob. Whatever my situation was, I made it work.
So you don’t think I’m full of shit, here’s a brief example. A few summers ago I worked in a lab in China- a land of duality with old and new co-existing everywhere you look. The lab was no different. We had a NanoDrop but were still developing Western Blots on film in a dark room (which smelled like a rotting vivarium fyi). It was a weird place to do science. At one point, the air conditioning broke in the main lab room and, because of nonsense bureaucracy, it didn’t get fixed for a couple of weeks. Beijing in the summer is easily 90 degrees Fahrenheit and humid. If I wore my gloves for more than 20 minutes, sweat would start to pool in the fingertips causing my fingers to prune. Super cute, I know. We had to do all our experiments on ice just in case. But we did it and we got beautiful data for the grad student we were assisting! Long story short, science doesn’t care about your comfort.
So when people warned me about Kenya, I looked at them like they were crazy because duh. Literally duh. Of course it’s not the same. I would never expect to have the same luxuries that I have at Emory, but it’s not like that would ever deter me from the experience. Regardless, I heeded the warning and steeled myself up for terrible lab conditions. Now that I have spent three weeks here I can safely say that everyone is a Big. Fat. Baby. The TB lab at KEMRI is SO NICE. Now maybe my opinion is biased because I was expecting a shit hole, but really the facilities are pretty awesome.
Like this is the avenue you drive down to get to the lab (after driving through two guard posts mind you). Not a bad place to spend 3 weeks.
My first day in the lab, I got three separate tours. Everyone wanted to make sure I could orient myself and show me what kinds of projects they had going on at the site. Each one of my tour guides kept saying things like “I know it’s not much” and “It’s not like at Yerkes/Emory/The US.” And I was just staring at them blankly because in a lot of ways it is EXACTLY like the US. They have all the standard immunology stuff- hoods, incubators, centrifuges, autoclave, ELISA readers. There were even a few crazy, high tech pieces of equipment that I did not recognize. I really didn’t understand everybody’s sheepishness.
I later discovered that the building the TB lab is in is in fact one of the nicer ones on campus. On day two I shadowed one of the scientists doing helminth diagnostics. We went to a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) room in another building and it was pretty dated. But then again, so are the methods used to diagnose NTDs so I wasn’t that surprised. The only things you need for helminth diagnostics are stains, slides and a simple light microscope. Plus NTD diagnostics usually involve poo so who wants to waste a fancy clean room on that. The point is that it doesn’t really matter how nice the facility is as long as you can do your work. Does the campus here have all the hoity-toity cores that we have at Emory? No, of course not. I’m not even sure there is a vivarium. But for standard immunology and microbiology assays, they are pretty set.
I feel like it is important to disseminate this information so that other scientists think to partner with KEMRI or even come here to do their own work. I certainly didn’t have a good grasp on the lab facilities prior to working here and I cannot be the only one. Plus back home people have this misconception that if a lab isn’t state of the art, that the science conducted is sub-par. But fancy equipment isn’t as important as good scientific questions and experimental design. Eight color flow cytometry can answer A LOT of questions if you design your panel well and have the right samples. And boy does KEMRI have all the right samples for scientists like me.
As stated in my last post, it is beyond weird that we just take these samples and run back to the US to study them. Why do we do that? Or I guess the better question is why don’t we study them here? Why not conduct science in a place where the results actually matter? Why not bridge the gap between the patient population and the bench work? I fully admit that I’m being a huge hypocrite in saying this because in fact I could not do my 13-color flow assay here, but there are a lot of things I CAN do for my project. During this trip I ran 18 ELISA plates to quantify antibodies against the worm I study. There was a moment when I was prepping plasma for a plate and a new sample came in from a study participant pertinent to my assay. The lab techs aliquoted off some plasma for me right then and there and continued on with their day. Easy as that. No freezing. No waiting for enough samples to batch in a shipment. Furthermore, while the results of this assay will be a blip in a paper when I graduate, they matter tremendously to the scientists and community here. I briefly presented my results regarding discordant diagnostic results during seminar last week and it stirred up quite a discussion between the various teams here.
I get that there are challenges in conducting certain experiments here, especially since there are issues with the supply chain and government corruption (more on that later). I concede that not everything can be done on site, but there is always a happy medium. My boss has done a great job at finding that medium. While she has a majority of samples shipped back to the states, she leaves what she can here in Kisumu for the Kenyan scientists to conduct their own experiments. She makes a point to leave at least two vials of cells from every participant here, even if there are only two to begin with. She also works with the students here to help them develop and execute masters and PhD thesis projects. This way some of the work and expertise always stays local.
This is so important because it builds capacity at places like KEMRI. By physically basing science here, it empowers local scientists here to take agency over their work. It trains these scientists in new techniques which can then be passed on to the next generation further building the scientific community. Increasing capacity in turn entices more people to base their studies here, bringing in money, supplies and expertise from around the world. And so the cycle repeats.
We shouldn’t treat KEMRI like it’s a post office. It’s not. It’s a fully functional scientific campus. And more importantly it is full of people ready and willing to work towards the same goal we (presumably) all have- to improve human health and eradicate nonsense like TB.