Nigerian malaria researcher joined the Milwaukee laboratory for a cultural exchange beyond the bench

Nigerian malaria researcher joined the Milwaukee laboratory for a cultural exchange beyond the bench

Nearly two years ago, a malaria researcher named Dr. Abel Olusola “Sola” Idowu left Lagos, Nigeria and emerged into the frosty, winter air of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee, a quintessential Midwestern American city, may not be associated in many people’s minds with global health, but this Fulbright Scholar knew better: this journey was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Sola had pursued a Fulbright Visiting Researcher scholarship to continue his PhD research, which focused on how Plasmodium falciparum develop resistance to antimalarial drugs and the public health implications of such resistance. Not only would he be exposed to new ideas and techniques, but it was also “an opportunity for cultural exchange that would promote understanding among people of different nations,” Sola recalls. He chose Milwaukee for the opportunity to access the research facilities and learn from the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) and City of Milwaukee Health Department Laboratory (MHDL), which he knew would help expand his technical capabilities and enhance the quality of his research.

My research at MHDL enabled me to learn new skills, especially in molecular techniques, and to appreciate processes in a public health laboratory with the kind assistance of the wonderful staff of the laboratory,” Sola said. “The state-of-the-art facilities at MHDL and the UWM College of Health Sciences were an eye opener for me. Overall, it was a rewarding experience that enabled me to accomplish my doctoral research objectives.” It also helped him build a network with other researchers, as his research collaborations extended beyond Milwaukee to the Malaria Branch of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and the Wadsworth Center, the New York State Department of Health’s laboratory.

As he had foreseen, though, his research findings weren’t the only lessons he took away from his time in the US: Sola formed new relationships, both professional and personal, and experienced firsts such as surviving a Wisconsin winter, eating new American cuisine, volunteering at a local food pantry and Habitat for Humanity, and visiting historic sites in New York, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Chicago.

I returned to my country with fond memories of my time in the US and look forward to (the) future opportunity to visit again,” Sola said.

Building a Culture That Grows More than Pathogens

Supporting research and experiences like Sola’s is part of MHDL’s larger, ongoing efforts to develop a strong laboratory workforce—both locally and globally—and cultivate a culture that encourages staff to work beyond the laboratory bench.

Over the last five years, MHDL has hosted internships and research rotations for over 60 local students, and, in addition to countless student tours, the laboratory’s leadership and staff routinely participate in career fairs, academic and community outreach events. MHDL has also hosted several international professional and student groups, including Nigerian public health professionals participating in the US State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, students from Kashiwa High School in Japan, and public health laboratory professionals from India and the Botswana Ministry of Health. The lab also hosted another University of Lagos PhD student, Dr. Nwamaka Igbokwe, who researched E. coli and antimicrobial susceptibility testing in drinking water at UW-Milwaukee and MHDL in 2012.

Laboratory Director Dr. Sanjib Bhattacharyya leads his staff by example through his involvement in global lab efforts, particularly around infectious diseases. Bhattacharyya, a current member of APHL’s Global Health Committee and the Milwaukee Global Health Consortium (MGHC) Advisory Committee, has served as CDC’s Influenza real-time PCR trainer, provided coaching and mentoring to public health laboratory professionals, Ministry of Health in Lesotho and Uganda, participated in APHL’s National Center for Public Health Lab Leadership coaching program. He has also represented APHL at the World Summit on Antivirals in Kunming, China, lectured on Influenza in India and gastrointestinal pathogen testing in Monaco. Closer to home, Bhattacharyya, an adjunct faculty at UWM, is engaged in dialogs with Zilber School of Public Health to develop public health laboratory leadership and management curriculum to integrate with school’s global health programs.

MHDL leadership and passionate laboratory staff work together to engage their local and global community to build strong public health laboratories and protect public health.

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