Meet the Researcher: Dr. Kefas Mugittu, Tanzania

Meet the Researcher: Dr. Kefas Mugittu, Tanzania


Dr. Kefas Mugittu, Head of the Bagamoyo Branch of the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania, sat down with ASLM to talk about his current work and the trajectory of his career, from veterinary doctor to malaria and TB researcher.

Tell us the about the Ifakara Health Institute (IHI). What is the history of the Institute?

In 1949, Dr. Rudolf Geigy visited Ifakara. He returned in 1956 to establish the Swiss Tropical Institute Field Laboratory, and forty years later, it was registered as an independent trust, changing its name to Ifakara Health Research and Development Centre. In 2008, the name was simplified to IHI and the centre added training to its list of core activities. In addition to its main office in Ifakara, IHI is comprised of six sites: Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo, Rufiji, Kigoma, Mtwara and Dodoma. It currently has 1200 employees, and continues to expand. The Bagamoyo branch, which I oversee, has more than 180 staff.

Can you tell us a little about your background? What made you want to become a scientist?

My background is quite complex and mixed up. I trained to be a veterinary doctor, graduated from the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), Tanzania in 1995, and then practiced veterinary medicine for one year. I was living in Arusha in northern Tanzania when I stopped working as a veterinary surgeon. I had an itch to do much bigger things. I wanted to do something more challenging and in Africa there are many public health challenges. But as a vet, how was I to get involved? I wanted to venture into something new and fast-developing.

I first heard of molecular biology during my final years of training, but my interest in this subject didn’t develop until I was practicing veterinary medicine. In 1996, I received a scholarship with the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD) to pursue a Master of Veterinary Medicine at SUA. Once my course work was complete, I went to the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) Laboratories in Nairobi, Kenya, where I was exposed to the use of molecular biology in research. Inspired, I returned to SUA in Tanzania to continue my work. I was mentored by Prof. Paul Gwakisa, the first person to introduce molecular biology research to Tanzania. This allowed my entry into the field, and in 1999, I joined IHI as a biomedical researcher. Eager to continue learning, I worked toward a PhD in molecular microbiology with a focus on drug- resistant malaria and, in 2006, I successfully completed the degree. I then pursued postdoctoral research in epidemiology of TB resistance at the Novartis Institute of Tropical Diseases in Singapore, from 2008-2010.

Describe your role as Head of the Bagamoyo branch of IHI.

My main role is to oversee the strategic development of the branch, ensuring that our work is informed by the objectives and mission of IHI. As the branch has different disciplines and groups, my role is multifaceted: I strive to provide leader- ship across various programs; coordinate activities to avoid duplications; ensure that our activities are complementary to the activities of other IHI sites; and promote a work environment in which staff members can be creative and productive.

I spend considerable time searching for research ideas, writing proposals, identifying financial resources, and maximizing the efficient use of these and other resources allocated to the branch by the head office. Finally, I work to forge and maintain harmonious relations with other organizations within the Bagamoyo District where we carry out our activities.

How have funding opportunities been over the past few years? Has it been easy to obtain funding? Have you noticed any trends or changes in funding?

Our research project portfolio is funded by a number of donors. IHI also receives a small amount of government funding. Nonetheless, attracting research funds, in general, has not been so easy. Submission of grant proposals and securing funding is very competitive and will continue to become even more challenging as the number of funding opportunities is not at pace with the number of organizations seeking support. There is also currently a debate among donors on whether they should continue providing aid to Africa, making the future uncertain.

Securing funding ideally involves identifying research that interests both the donors and IHI, but because of a lack of resources, research in Africa is donor-driven. In IHI’s strategic plan for the next five years, we are considering commercially viable research and believe this is the way forward. It is high time African institutions start considering this type of research as a sustainability strategy. I find this particularly exciting since I have an interest in biotech commercialization. Last year I took part in a UNESCO assignment that commissioned IHI to undertake a rapid assessment of the potential areas for the application of biotechnology on commercial bases in Tanzania. The engagement in and development of commercially viable research at various institutions has not been coordinated well. These institutions need to be encouraged and supported to pursue this field of research more seriously.

How do you view accreditation? Is it important to funding?

Accreditation demonstrates that our data is credible, consistent, and reliable and that we are able to reproduce results. All of these factors are crucial to attracting donors and grants. Because accreditation is a measure of quality, labs have to strive to earn it. As our branch is engaged with an international donor and we want to generate credible data, we are working hard to pursue accreditation.

Have you already earned accreditation?

Unfortunately, our labs in Ifakara and Bagamoyo are not accredited, but we are intending to work with South African Development Community Accreditation Services (SADCAS) to pursue ISO accreditation. Though it is a lot of work and quite expensive, we believe this is an important step to take. Of the IHI labs, the Bagamoyo site will probably be the first to earn accreditation because that is where the quality assurance is rigorously per- formed and labs are regularly audited.

What is the most exciting project with which you are currently involved?

We have a number of great projects in Bagamoyo. It’s a multi- disciplinary site where we perform research on both malaria and TB. We have a very interesting, ongoing malaria vaccine trial project, and we recently established an early clinical trial facility where we conducted research on the bioavailability of coartem and the first P. falciparum sporozoite challenge in an African population. Our work on TB includes the development and evaluation of new diagnostics for childhood TB; the assessment of safety and efficacy of high dose reifampicin to short TB treatment; phase IIA trials to assess safety and immunogenicity of a new TB vaccine (H1/IC31); and the development of our laboratory as a centre of excellence in pathogen and host molecular genotyping.

What advice would you have for ASLM members interested in a career in research?

I have loved biology since secondary school and knew it was something I wanted to focus on for my career. Once you enter university, you must identify your passion, the area that most interests you. Being a veterinary student, for me this was protozoology. As you go up the ladder, you have the chance to fine-tune your interests and aims. You must be focused and decide on your goals. I knew I was interested in molecular biology and was drawn to studying malaria and TB. You may decide, as I did, to earn a PhD and strive to become an established researcher. Lastly, it’s important to continue educating your- self. Currently, I am studying biotech commercialization; a topic that I believe will be of increasing importance for researchers in Africa. Through reading, you can identify information gaps, which will allow you to determine interesting research topics and remain on the cutting edge of your field.