Meet the Students

Meet the Students

Here you get to meet the international studnets currently enrolled at various stages on the MRes and PhD journey.  Most have completed their MRes course at Aberdeen and some will reflect on the 12-months spent at the University of Aberdeen studying for the MRes and moving on to pastures new to start their PhD studies.

Dr Beatrice Achan from Uganda (Jan 2013 - Feb 2017):

In January 2013, I travelled from Uganda to start my MRes degree at the University of Aberdeen (UoA) as the pioneer student of the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award International Research merit scholarship for Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology (WTSA - MMFI). I have a strong interest in Medical Mycology so this opportunity was very exciting to me as a clinician and faculty from Makerere University.

 

“I am constantly inspired by the immense support I received from the Aberdeen Fungal Group and in general, the UoA during my MRes – MMFI training. Their noble interest in building capacity for Mycology research in developing countries is evident and I know they want me (and the rest of the WTSA – MMFI students) to succeed."

Teachers were professional, skillful and very passionate about their subjects. The MRes - MMFI program is well suited for fungal research. It is characterised by excellent course work and reports that had to be customized to formats of journal articles. Being a clinician, I am interested in understanding the molecular basis of fungal diseases by conducting basic research. My research projects during the MRes training were designed to include diverse techniques in Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology. While the UoA laboratories had state of the art instrumentation, it is noteworthy that most of the techniques I learnt are transferable for use in resource limited settings including, Uganda.

The MRes training has improved my scientific writing, research skills and I am the first formally trained Medical Mycologist in Uganda!  I will use this knowledge in addition to my current PhD training to acquire a re-entry grant to set up a Mycology research laboratory, and also improve the teaching of Medical Mycology in Makerere University upon completion of the WTSA – MMFI program.

Maria Fernanda Alonso from Uruguay (Sept 2013 - Oct 2017):

Having finished my undergraduate studies in Clinical Biochemistry in 2012, I was interested in doing my postgraduate studies abroad to gain some experience of working in an international research centre. The MRes + PhD scholarship offered by the WTSA MMFI presented the opportunity for me to fulfil this aim.  The subject was particularly attractive to me since fungal research is a field of high public health relevance but underdeveloped in my country.

That’s how I ended up leaving warm Uruguay to travel to cold Aberdeen to start this adventure! The MRes has been a truly rewarding experience. I have met many new colleagues including my fellow MRes students, Beatrice, Lucian, Joy and Alfred, who have been very supportive and with whom I hope to establish long term collaborations in the future.

During this first year at the University of Aberdeen, I had several lectures in both immunology and microbiology and I carried out two research projects. Without doubt, working in the laboratory has been my favourite part of it all.  My two MRes projects were quite different, providing me with experience in a variety of research tools, from live cell imaging to sequencing. My project supervisors, Dr Judith Bain, Professor Lars Erwig and Dr Donna MacCallum were invaluable mentors and equipped me for the next phase of this journey, the PhD.

For my PhD, I have chosen to stay at the University of Aberdeen doing a project focused on studying the interactions of the innate immune system with the fungal pathogen Candida albicans, under the supervision of Professor Lars Erwig. I am particularly attracted to the research questions posed in this project and the experimental tools that will be used to address them.  I believe the training and knowledge gained will help me achieve my ultimate goal of pursuing an academic career in my home country.  In this respect I have two long-term aims: (1) introducing more substantial training on clinical mycology into undergraduate courses; and (2) initiating fundamental research in fungal immunology.

While working in a clinical laboratory in Uruguay, I became aware of the limitations we have for diagnosing and treating fungal infections, which I believe could be at least partially be overcome by generating awareness of their importance. Primary fungal pathogens, such as Histoplasma capsulatum, Paracoccidioides brasiliensis or Sporothrix schenckii, are aetiological agents of invasive endemic infections in my country yet few clinical laboratories have the expertise or the equipment to adequately diagnose them. I believe that expanding the curriculum for Clinical Biochemists to include specialized courses on Clinical Mycology is essential to tackle this problem. Furthermore, given that my passion is to do fundamental immunological research, I am very excited about the idea of starting fungal research in Uruguay where I expect to focus on more regional pathogens, such as Paracoccidioides brasiliensis.  Also, I am eager to take back the novel tools I will learn as part of my PhD to contribute to other research areas on-going in my country.

Lucian Duvenage from South Africa (Sept 2013 - Oct 2017):

I’m originally from South Africa and moving to Aberdeen to study for the MRes was a big change for me.  I was very excited to come to Scotland as it was my first time in the UK and I wanted to see new places and discover the culture for myself.  I made friends with the other MRes students right away.  We were all in a new environment and we formed a close group to support each other.

The MRes course was quite different from my previous MSc because it was more structured and intensive.  The lectures at the start of the course were very good at reinforcing what I had learned in my previous studies but there were also topics that were new to me. My favourite series was the Current Topics in Immunology which gave me an appreciation for the pace of scientific discoveries.  The most challenging parts of the MRes for me were the two research projects, which were both three-months of intensive effort.  Fortunately, I was able to benefit from the support of my project supervisors and the experience of the many PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in the Aberdeen Fungal Group (AFG), and so I was able to overcome any setbacks I encountered.  I gained invaluable knowledge and research skills in fungal biology and immunology, but most valuable for me were the transferable skills of time management and planning that I developed.  I am grateful that we were able to attend the British Society for Medical Mycology (BSMM) conference in Manchester as well as the course offered by the Public Health England Mycology Reference Laboratory in Bristol.  These were the highlights of the year for me and helped to broaden my research interests.

I started my PhD in October at the University of Kent under the supervision of Dr Campbell Gourlay.   The project will also involve a trip back to the Aberdeen Fungal Group to work with Drs Carol Munro and Donna MacCallum.  The project focuses on the study of the mitochondria of the human fungal pathogen Candida albicansCandida albicans like other fungi such as C. neoformans are important pathogens of immunocompromised patients.  Due to the HIV burden in South Africa, these pathogens are becoming an increasing concern in my home country.  There is evidence to suggest that the mitochondria of several fungal species may share similarities so the findings from this PhD could be expanded to other fungal pathogens.  Throughout my PhD I will acquire new skills in molecular and cell biology, which was part of the reason for choosing my project.  I hope that I can use my PhD research not only to better understand these infections but also to convince my colleagues in my home country of the importance of ongoing medical mycology research.   In this regard, I will also draw upon the enthusiasm of my mentors in Aberdeen and Kent.

Joy Icheoku from Nigeria (Sept 2013 - Oct 2017):

I originally trained as a pharmacist, at Nnamdi Azikwe University (NAU), Awka, Nigeria.  Completing the MRes programme at the University of Aberdeen, in the UK’s biggest research team for medical mycology, the Aberdeen Fungal Group (AFG), gave me a wonderful life time research experience.  It was a complete package of high quality research training with intensive and broad taught classes cutting across fungal biology, molecular mycology and immunology, statistics, with skills and employability training and audit.  The professional and academic working relationship I had within the AFG was enriching and forms the basis of my professional network and links for my future career.  The support I received from my fellow MRes colleagues, the AFG staff and students and the wider WTSA MMFI community made the journey smoother despite the temperature in Aberdeen! 

The assessment standard for the MRes was tough and definitely not without its challenges, but it was worth it in the end.  I feel I’m more than ready and confident to take on the PhD phase.  Being one of only a few beneficiaries of this scholarship came with lots of great privileges and including access to some of the best researchers in the field.  I am really proud to be an alumna of the University of Aberdeen!

I started my PhD in October, working under the supervision of Dr Elaine Bignell, University of Manchester and Dr Julian Naglik, King’s College London, on pathogen induced epithelial damage.  Building my career foundation in one of the UK's oldest, highly ranked and multicultural institution has always been my dream, and now it is a reality, thanks to this international scholarship funded by the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award. 

My PhD training is focused on the molecular basis of invasive fungal infection which will give me the required technical and intellectual expertise I need to achieve my long term goals.  On completing my PhD, I hope to return to my home country to tackle one of the major problems which is the lack of awareness and information about the menace of fungal infections and their economic impact.  Importantly, I hope to establish a world class mycological reference laboratory to aid prevention, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of fungal infections.  Long-term, I hope to establish a centre of excellence for medical mycology research, through collaboration with colleagues in the WTSA MMFI Consortium and beyond.  This centre, potentially based at NAU, will foster high quality research relevant to Nigeria and the West African sub-region and will enable the training of home grown experts, starting from masters to PhD level.  The research focus of the centre will include fungal vaccine development, improvements in antifungal drug delivery, and new antifungal drug development from natural products which will benefit from the abundant natural resources in Nigeria.

Alfred Alinafe Kamuyango from Malawi (Sept 2013 - Oct 2017):

 My curiosity for medical mycology originates from my time as a junior Medical Laboratory Technologist at a hospital in Malawi. Here I encountered high incidences of fungal infections in HIV patients and since then, I have been determined to pursue a postgraduate course in medical mycology to help tackle this mostly unrecognized problem. I was particularly thrilled to be offered the WTSA MMFI scholarship to come to the UK to study for an MRes and PhD.  

At Aberdeen University, the MRes course content and the teaching methods were of a high quality and the learning experience was fascinating.  A broad range of important subjects were covered in the first semester.  Despite the diversity of the topics covered, the tutorials and support provided by the lecturers was exceptional and way beyond expectation. The lecturers expressed passion and enthusiasm in their areas of expertise and were always willing to clarify complex areas.  The two research projects conducted in the subsequent two semesters of the course, equipped me with a broad range of cellular and molecular mycology and immunology techniques.  The projects’ supervisors were very supportive and stimulated critical thinking and a high level rational approach

Being a member of the Aberdeen Fungal Group gave me the opportunity to attend the 50th Annual Scientific Meeting of the British Society for Medical Mycology. Here, enormously gifted intellectuals of vast experience in the medical mycology field made awakening presentations and shared rich ideas, on pertinent issues.  The University of Aberdeen as well as the city offers a friendly atmosphere to all students for academic study, additionally, it is welcoming and nurturing to international students, qualifying it to be the superlative place to study. I really enjoyed the course and it is an excellent foundation to the development of my career in academia and research.  I recently started my PhD at the University of Sheffield in Dr Simon Johnston’s research team studying how fungal pathogens initiate and modulate localized immune signaling during an infection. 

Following this PhD training, I hope to gain skills that will enable me to identify scientific problems, ask relevant questions and design methodologies to address those problems. My strong desire is to lead my own project in Malawi, with a focus on developing a profound understanding of host immunity against fungi using multidisciplinary approaches with a goal of improving care and management of HIV/AIDS patients with fungal infections.

Dhara Malavia from India (Sept 2014 - Oct 2018):

 

 

My undergraduate studies in Biochemistry kindled my curiosity to study biochemical interactions between fungal pathogens and their hosts. The MRes + PhD scholarship programme offered by WTSA MMFI served as the perfect opportunity to expand my knowledge and gain expertise in the field of medical mycology.  Hence, in September 2014, I travelled from Mumbai, India to Aberdeen, UK to embark on this exciting new adventure!

 The MRes programme in MMFI was well structured and intensive. The course offered several lectures in molecular biology, microbiology and immunology, which strengthened my knowledge in the fundamental areas of mycology. This was well complemented with extensive training in writing reports and essays that follow journal guidelines. I also undertook two research projects that were very different from each other, allowing me to gain laboratory experience in an array of molecular and cellular biology techniques including various microscopy techniques. Furthermore, the constant support and guidance I received from my supervisors during my MRes projects was inspiring and motivating.

 As a part of the MRes programme, I had an opportunity to participate in a workshop held at Public Health England Mycology Reference Laboratory in Bristol and attend the BSMM conference. These experiences were quite refreshing as I had the opportunity to meet new people working in the field of mycology and thus broaden my research interests.

The WTSA-MMFI MRes programme has been an exciting year. The guidance and support from my supervisors and lecturers has prepared me well to pursue my PhD, which I started in November under the supervision of Dr Duncan Wilson in the Aberdeen Fungal Group.

Angela Lopez from Colombia (Sept 2014 - Oct 2018):

My undergraduate studies in Microbiology and Bionalysis trained me to study and diagnose metabolic diseases and microorganisms of human importance. These studies awakened my interest in pathogenic fungi and molecular biology, which encouraged me to start a Master in Molecular Biology of Fungi in my beautiful and warm Colombia. The main focus of my project was the characterization of genes involved in virulence of pathogenic fungi, specifically in thermally dimorphic fungi, and mainly in Paracoccidioides brasiliensis.

Approaching the end of my Masters, I started to look for PhD courses abroad with the view of expanding my knowledge in molecular biology of fungi. The Wellcome Trust Strategic Award in Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology was to me an excellent option to acheive my goal. In September 2014, I came to Aberdeen to start the MRes in Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology offered by the University of Aberdeen.

The MRes course was exciting and challenging at the same time. The first four months of lectures gave me new knowledge in topics like Bioinformatics and reinforced my knowledge in immunology and molecular biology.  For me, the highlight of the MRes was the two research projects that must be completed as part of the course. My first project focused on pathogen-host interaction and the second one looed at the cellular biology of fungus. The support and guidance of my supervisors Professors Carol Munro and Alistair Brown were essential for the development of the two projects and gave me the confident to start a PhD project.  Additionally, working in the Aberdeen Fungal Group was an amazing experience mainly because everyone works as a network and the researrchers are always available to help with questions and training..

In a tropical country like Colombia, dimorphic fungi are prevalent causing diseases in immunocompromised and immunocompetent individuals.  That’s why, for my PhD project, I choose to work on the mechanisms of hyphae steering in dimorphic fungus Candida albicans with Dr. Alexandra Brand at the University of Aberdeen.  After the three years of the PhD project, I hope to return to Colombia and support the field of fungal research and participate in research projects as an investigator or later as an advisor.

 Dr Prashant Sood from India (Sept 2014 - Oct 2018):

 

What sets apart pioneers? And what makes a creative mind tick? These curiosities motivated me to apply for the WTSA-MMFI scholarship. During my MD in Medical Microbiology I became aware of the heavy burden and neglect surrounding fungal infections, not only in India, but all across the world. Despite their significant morbidity and mortality, reliable diagnostics, robust drugs and vaccines remain a challenge. The incredible opportunity that the Wellcome Trust and the Aberdeen Fungal Group kindly offered me, gave me a chance to learn among the pioneers and contribute to this important field.

The MRes in Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology was a very useful learning experience. Its balanced coursework in mycology, immunology, molecular biology and bioinformatics not only ironed out my concepts but also brought me abreast with the latest advances. The lab projects were intensive and challenging. They taught me how to ask the right questions, design novel experiments, choose the right tools and interpret results intelligently. One-to-one brainstorming with supervisors was a very enriching experience, to observe and learn how an experienced mind thinks.

 Studying at the University of Aberdeen and in the UK in general, has been very heartwarming and enriching. Everyone has been very friendly and helpful, making studies a joyful and constructive experience. Its inspiring to observe how free communication and ideas are nurtured at the University, and how students from different nationalities express, learn and share. Trust and honesty are beautifully interwoven in all interactions. The whole fabric of this society is very inspiring where one cares and respects the other, and allows mutual growth and existence which benefits everyone.

 I am now pursuing my doctoral studies at the University of Aberdeen under the supervision of Professor Alistair Brown, Professor Gordon Brown and Dr Donna MacCallum. My thesis examines the clinically relevant question of what host-pathogen interactions and adaptive mechanisms of Candida albicans influence its transition from an innocuous gut commensal to an invasive pathogen. After completing my PhD I will return to India and take up academic, clinical and research responsibilities at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, India. I intend to utilize the invaluable training I am receiving under the WTSA-MMFI to build a technically superior, self-sustaining system for spawning translational fungal research, disseminating knowledge and skills, improving patient care and fostering collaborations.

 I express my deepest regards and gratitude to everyone at the Wellcome Trust, the Aberdeen Fungal Group and the University of Aberdeen for their kindest generosity in giving me this invaluable opportunity.

Herbert Itabangi from Uganda (Sept 2014 - Oct 2018):

 

 In 2008, I was recruited by MUST as a junior mycologist and teaching assistant in the departments of microbiology and dermatology to contribute towards the spread of knowledge and skills regarding management of fungal infections in the country. Even with this undertaking my career in this field could not take off, given the limited resources at hand, above all the wide knowledge gap at the time.

The turning point of my career was when the WTSA-MMFI offered me the opportunity to come to the UK to pursue an MRes + PhD in Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology. This has been the climax of my career really in terms of learning and exposure so far.

While at Aberdeen during the MRes phase, I can state that the course contents were of high quality. Very scared as I was given my basic knowledge and skills in advanced learning at the time, the level of organization and flow of academic, and practical information was adequate and timely. This even became more interesting when it came to doing my two research projects amongst a very cohesive and supportive faction, the Aberdeen fungal group (AFG). My respective supervisors Dr. Donna MacCallum and Dr. Duncan Wilson were very supportive, experienced and rich in knowledge. Similarly so the lecturers at the various levels of the programme were equally knowledgeable, experienced, professionals, supportive and comforting beyond my expectations. For the very first time (my highlight of the programme) I understood the core principles of immunology, molecular biology and bioinformatics, and their interconnections in revealing the cornerstones of host–pathogen interactions’ etymology. Furthermore this stage played a fundamental role in the gradual evolution of my writing skills and subsequently developed an independent thinking approach towards various situations.

Additionally I had a chance to meet several students from various backgrounds but above all my fellow WTSA classmates Dhara, Angela, Prashant and Daniel were invaluable. Generally this MRes phase will go down in the history of my life as a challenging but a life revealing experience, in fact it’s a shame that I had to wait this long to encounter some these experiences.   

 This opportunity also helped me to become a member of the British Society of Mycology (BSMM) a hugely celebrated society of scientists with reputable experiences in fungal research. In the process, I had an opportunity to attend the 51st annual meeting of BSMM held in Aberdeen. To me this opportunity was more of a welcoming message into the family of fungal research, in addition to the very conducive environments I had encountered in Aberdeen as a city and the University (of course minus the very unpredictable cold weather on a typical Aberdeen day).  I also had the chance to visit the National Public Health Mycology Reference Laboratory in Bristol. This visit gave me a lot of encouragement and affirmation that although we are not at the same level back home, we are on the right trajectory.  I must state with complete honesty that this course has equipped me with the necessary skills required for the start of my PhD phase and perhaps prepared me for an exciting research oriented career a head.

In October 2015, I started my PhD with Dr. Kerstin Voelz and Prof. Robin May at the University of Birmingham where I will be studying interactions of the innate immune system with the infecting propagules during zygomycete infections. Although often labeled rare, zygomycete infections are becoming well established among the aging, diabetics and individuals with traumatic injuries. It’s at this stage that I hope to really internalize and put the acquired MRes knowledge and skills to task so as to derive questions of substance intended at addressing the ever-growing surge of fungal disease challenges across an array of at risk individuals. The project also involves a 6 months trip back to Aberdeen where I will work with Professors Gordon Brown and Carol Munro. My long-term goals however rotate around developing a centre of excellence for fungal diagnostics and research at Mbarara University Teaching Hospital on my return. Given my previous experiences I am fond of patients’ care and would love to continue contributing towards their survival through reputable fungal research and diagnostics. Indeed for the rest of my career journey I will live to forever with sincere and utmost gratitude appreciate the University of Aberdeen and WTSA-MMFI for this grand opportunity.

Daniel Sayon from Cameroon (Sept 2014 - Oct 2018):