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The Malaria Vaccine Eureka Moment? Dr. Titus Orwa onto realizing the universal dream

 

Mathematical Models for Hepatocytic-Erythrocytic Dynamics and Therapeutic Control of Malaria. If you read that again, you might catch an accidental lisp or bite your tongue. But it is not as complicated as this medical-cum-research jargon might lead you to believe, at least that’s what we discovered after a short talk with the brilliant mind that is Dr. Orwa.

Having an unreserved sit-down with Dr. Titus Orwa, researcher extraordinaire and recent #Classof2020 PhD graduate, you can’t help but pick out that he is perfervid about his work. He makes research sound fun and simple, while paying respect to the blood and sweat shed to successfully see a project through.

A believer in transformational education and positive change, he championed the implementation of LaTeX for scientific writing and other programming classes while a Doctoral Fellow at Strathmore Institute of Mathematical Sciences (SIMS).  This, he believes, is a move in the right direction.

An academic expedition

His academic journey began almost 20 years ago, he says amid chuckles. Vividly proud of his roots, he recalls with a daze in his eyes, his younger years pre-tertiary education in Siaya County where he hails from. His passion for mathematics transcended high school, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in Education Science and majoring in Mathematics with a minor in Chemistry. Graduating with a Summa Cum Laude, he deservedly earned a scholarship at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) – South Africa, where he went on to pursue an intensive one-year Master’s Degree in Mathematical Sciences.

“I needed to know how to integrate mathematical models with both Biology and Computer Science. I knew I had a lot of strength in Mathematics, but I was also very interested in building my research base. This was my motivation for pursuing this particular degree,” he says.

His PhD journey had unofficially started. His thirst for knowledge had not been quenched just yet and he felt that he needed to specialize – a requirement for anyone seeking to pursue a research and academia-based PhD. He went for another Master’s degree, this time in Mathematics at Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa.

The PhD Journey

After my second Master’s degree, I went back to AIMS and volunteered to be a tutor to Masters Students, as a way of giving back for the generosity accorded to me during my first Masters Scholarship.

At the start of 2016, I had received quite a number of offers from several institutions, including Stellenbosch, to pursue my PhD with them. I still needed some soul-searching though. While pursuing my Masters in Mathematics at Stellenbosch, I had always been interested in and sampled the works of Professor Livingstone Luboobi, currently Professor of Biomathematics at the Strathmore Institute of Mathematical Sciences.

It was an especially striking fascination given his academic background, experience, and significant contribution to the development of the field of Biomathematics in the region. His research in mathematical epidemiology, particularly infectious diseases such as Malaria, HIV/AIDS, Trypanosomiasis, Ebola, and Rift Valley Fever stood very well with my interests. It was during my tutoring placement in Tanzania that I got wind that he was working at Strathmore University.

I tendered my application to pursue my PhD at the Strathmore Institute of Mathematical Sciences. It was really a no-brainer at this point; Strathmore had proven itself as regional leader in research and academics, I would have the opportunity to work with my icon, and I’d get the chance to come back home to Kenya. I entertained and relished the thought of all these. Like a model peer and mentor, my supervisor at Stellenbosch, Professor Farai Nyabadza was very supportive of my decision to realize my PhD dream elsewhere. In research and academia, maintaining a network of likeminded professionals has its perks.

I joined Strathmore University towards the end of 2016 and successfully presented my PhD proposal to the Strathmore University Office of Graduate Studies (SGS) in early 2017, officially marking the eventful yet fulfilling PhD journey. My supervisors, Prof. Luboobi and Dr. Rachel Waema Mbogo – Dean, Research and Innovation, allowed me the freedom to explore more ideas and to come up with my own models. Following very collaborative engagements and corroborative approaches, we made substantive progress in so little time. Mid-way through my thesis, I also realized that pursuing a PhD is no joke; it calls for total commitment in one’s work. I consequently requested to limit teaching to just six hours and to only take up a lecturing role occasionally. It was a necessary sacrifice.

My research and thesis; Mathematical Models for Hepatocytic-Erythrocytic Dynamics and Therapeutic Control of Malaria was centered on an in-host mathematical model of malaria that describes the dynamics of the malaria parasite in the liver and blood stages and its interactions with the immune cells, hepatocytes and erythrocytes. The end goal for me was to improve therapeutic control of malaria with focus on a malaria vaccine and antimalarial drugs that target the parasites at the pre-erythrocytic stage.

Breaking it down simply: I came up with a mathematical model that would mimic and simulate the behaviour of the parasite up to the point of a human subject exhibiting the malaria symptoms.  After being bitten by an infectious mosquito, the plasmodium parasite, within two weeks, goes through the skin to the liver cells (hepatocytes) where it multiplies. After multiplying considerably, the liver cells burst open releasing the parasites into the blood where they go on to attack the red blood cells (erythrocytes). Until they attack the red blood cells, one does not exhibit the malaria symptoms. The adaptive characteristics of the parasites allow them to thrive in the liver more than in any other organ. My team and I simulated a co-vaccination that would be administered at both the liver and blood stages, at the same time, to increase efficacy to at least 90%. In addition, the vaccination would be used with artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) (use of multiple drugs) for optimal control and results.

I hope to continue partnering with my counterparts in Germany to implement this project. I strongly believe this is the Eureka! moment the world has been waiting for to fight Malaria. With funding and more scholarly support, this will be a dream come true.”

Dissecting a mosquito

The first year of his PhD was mostly tough given that he did not have funding to steer his research. However, in 2018, he was awarded a two-year Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship. He also received a research grant from the National Research Fund (NRF). “My experience in writing funding proposals had paid off.” His research, now guaranteed life, would take full throttle.

“In 2019, for a period of about six months between January and June, I was in an Exchange Service in Germany, under a DAAD grant for research visit. I had the experience of a lifetime, learning from and collaborating with fellow malaria scholars and specialists. Placed in a dedicated Malaria Institute with my own team of PhD and Master’s students, in our own laboratory, we had the opportunity to dissect a mosquito.

My approach with this PhD was the same one I used while pursuing my Masters. The focus wasn’t on writing chapters but on results. I had the end in mind and would solve a problem first from the objective, write a manuscript and send it to a journal, but while waiting for a response from the journal, I would embark on writing the thesis. I knew it would be difficult for anyone to challenge my work then because I had results – a qualified solution.

Did I mention I once got locked inside my workstation past 6.00 p.m. on a Saturday in Strathmore? I had been so engrossed in my work that I lost sense of time. I also cut off a lot of unnecessary travel. This, the commitment, and the supportive environment all around me, is what helped me complete my PhD in a record three years!”

A Macheo passion

Besides teaching, Dr. Orwa is an ardent fan of the Macheo programme under the Community Service Center at Strathmore University. He has developed an academic program that would hopefully improve the learning outcomes in the programme, and so far, it has been working amazingly with the 2019 K.C.S.E results being the best ever recorded. His Saturday’s are mostly spent tutoring, mentoring, going on excursions, and movie dates with all the kids at Macheo. He extends the same spirit when he occasionally goes back to his high school alma mater in Siaya to teach Mathematics.

I live by the words of Robin Chase, “I spend my life building the world I want to live in.”

 

This article was written by Francis Kabutu.

 

If you have a story, kindly email: communications@strathmore.edu

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