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DR. JOEL L. BARGUL: My experience towards becoming an independent researcher

Dr. Joel Bargul carrying out tests in the lab at icipe

Dr. Joel Bargul carrying out tests in the lab at icipe

About me: I am a senior lecturer at the Department of Biochemistry of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) and senior research fellow of Molecular Biology, Bioinformatics and Biostatistics at the Nairobi-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe). I wield a Bachelors and Master of Science in Biochemistry from JKUAT and a doctorate of Science (Magna cum laude) in Molecular Parasitology and Infection Biology from the University of Wuerzburg, Germany.

My work mainly employs approaches in molecular biology, bioinformatics, and microscopy to understand arthropod disease vectors and pathogen transmission mechanisms to guide disease control.

A rewarding postdoc fellowship

After obtaining my doctorate in 2015, I applied and won a highly competitive THRiVE-2 postdoctoral fellowship in 2016 to study camel trypanosomiasis and the role of keds in disease transmission. For the first time, I got a chance to formulate an original hypothesis, develop and refine the research idea into a full research proposal or protocol, and hypothesis testing through experimental studies. My work was hosted and mainly based at icipe in Nairobi.

Under the fellowship, I was privileged to be mentored by two highly experienced research scientists- Prof. Mark Carrington from the Department of Biochemistry at University of Cambridge, UK, and Dr. Daniel Masiga, head of Animal Health Theme at icipe. Both wiled over 20 years of research experience in the field of African trypanosomiasis and have contributed immensely to my success in my postdoc studies. Additionally, THRiVE organized regular capacity building programmes for its fellows and in these I acquired skills in research leadership, grants-writing, supervisor/supervisee relationships, among others.

As a mechanism to closely monitor fellows’ research progress, THRiVE required six monthly progress reports and organized Annual General Meetings (AGMs) where fellows presented their research. The secretariat also pushed for more Community and Public Engagement (CPE) activities to be done by the fellows which I was hesitant to adopt at the beginning of my study. By then, I had limited understanding on the role of CPE, how design CPE activities and how to mentor high school students. In fact, the latter wasn’t part of my original proposal – or so I thought.

Summary of research project:

Under my postdoctoral fellowship, I set out to understand the role of livestock keds in transmission of veterinary and zoonotic diseases in arid regions of northern Kenya. Livestock is a key resource that supports rural livelihoods by providing food security. In Kenya, there are over three million camels and most are found in the vast arid and semi-arid eco-zones.

Dromedary camels (one-humped camels) are kept for milk, meat, hides, transport, and income. Additionally, they are a highly treasured commodity that are central to the community’s cultural life and are becoming the preferred livestock due to their resilience to survive in harsh climates such as prolonged droughts. However, their productivity is being by pests and diseases, resulting in huge agricultural losses.

Dromedary camels drinking salty water from a water trough placed infront of a shallow well in Northern Kenya

Animal trypanosomiasis, for example, is a major constraint on the productivity of pastoralists in Africa south of the Sahara. The definitive host is the tsetse fly, Glossina. However, despite tsetse flies being absent in the arid and semi-arid lands of northern Kenya, our preliminary work showed that trypanosomiasis was rampant in camels and in keds collected from them. Although mechanical transmission of animal trypanosomiasis is well studied in various biting flies, little is known about the role of camel biting keds (also known as camel flies/ louse flies/ genus Hippobosca) in transmission of pathogens during blood-feeding process. Other than ticks, camel keds are the predominant blood-feeding ectoparasitic pests that infest all camel herds all year round.

This proposal aimed at determining the contribution of camel keds in transmission of camel trypanosomiasis and other pathogens. The key findings of this study will provide information on the circulating zoonotic disease pathogens and thus contribute to disease surveillance and control of these diseases. Additionally, the findings will determine whether there should be a large-scale control programme for keds in northern Kenya.

Camel keds on the underbelly of a camel

Field studies & key findings

My study site was in Laisamis, Marsabit County, a region in northern Kenya where all

camel herds are infested by keds throughout the year. Keds and blood were collected from tagged animals. The trypanosomes and other selected hemopathogens present on/in the keds and in the blood were identified using species-diagnostic PCR reactions followed by amplicon sequencing for molecular identification. Laboratory colony of keds established at icipe and the freshly collected live flies were used in animal feeding experiments, i.e. mice and rabbits, to study their ability to transmit pathogens.

I found pathogens, namely Anaplasma and Ehrlichia spp., and trypanosomes, T. vivax and T. evansi (occurring outside the range of tsetse flies), present in camels and keds collected from them. Therefore, I propose the potential use of keds in xeno-surveillance of camel diseases to substitute the invasive and painful approach of bleeding camels to obtain blood samples for pathogen screening.

Furthermore, the study demonstrated vector competence of camel keds in transmitting the camel pathogen, ‘Candidatus Anaplasma camelii’, from naturally infected camels to laboratory mice and rabbits. Other than the camel-specific keds, Hippobosca camelina, we identified two other species of livestock keds in northern Kenya. These are: Hippobosca longipennis found only on dogs and Hippobosca variegata which infests dogs, cattle, goats, sheep, and donkeys but not co-herded camels.

Our preliminary studies detecting selected pathogens in these different species of livestock keds by pathogen-specific gene amplification and sequencing shows that they carry wide range of microbes including trypanosomes, Ehrlichia, Anaplasma, Bartonella schoenbuchensis (zoonotic), Clostridium perfringens (zoonotic), Brucella (zoonotic), and Theileria species.

Since keds occasionally feed on humans, they may transmit zoonotic pathogens.

Community and Public Engagement (CPE):

During the field visits in Laisamis, the research team observed that most households retained one or two children of school-going age at home to help in livestock care at the expense of their education. Thus, we aimed to determine the influence of socio-cultural factors on access to education by children. Focus group discussions with the students of Laisamis Secondary School (LSS) were conducted to determine the influence of socio-cultural factors on education, class performance, and progression to higher levels of education. We also engaged high school students of LSS in camel health research to gain practical exposure on the application of various technologies and to motivate them to improve on their class performance.

Laisamis Secondary School students after engaging with Dr. Joel Bargul in focused group discussions on gender equity in formal education and gender roles in leadership.

Focus group discussions with students of LSS resulted in identification of nine socio-cultural factors that contribute to school dropouts among girls. These are: early marriage; early pregnancies; lack of school fees; poor performance in exams; lack of interest in education; unsupportive parents who do not value the education of the girl child; cultural pressure to be circumcised before joining school; negative influence from friends who do not go to school and the lack of basic needs (clothes and food). On the other hand, seven socio-cultural factors that cause school dropouts among boys in LSS were identified as follows; drugs and substance abuse; lack of school fees; poor performance in exams; lack of interest in education; attending to livestock herding duties at home; expulsion due to disciplinary cases and negative influence from friends who do not go to school. The students also identified six socio-cultural factors that limit the access to education. They are: early marriage; large family size with many children; the need to attend to livestock at home; low education levels of parents; gender preference between girls and boys and unplanned pregnancies.

Key achievements:

Over the last four years (2016-2020), I have demonstrated research leadership first, by developing an original idea or hypothesis that camel keds could transmit diseases followed by rigorous experimental studies to test this. This generated new knowledge on vector competence of keds to transmit anaplasmosis, which forms basis for establishment of ked control programmes for improved health. This study continues to generate new discoveries that motivate further studies.

Additionally, during my postdoctoral research fellowship, I attracted eight additional research grants, either as a PI or Co-I, amounting to USD 303,039 to study camel health and engage stakeholders and high school students in our research. I have established at least five research collaborations both nationally and internationally, and co-supervised MSc and PhD students. My project has trained two MSc students (as primary supervisor) and four undergraduate research interns. I have acquired skills in CPE and since 2017, I have published 25 journal articles. I wrote two blog articles on camel health and keds, both were published by Cambridge-Africa and also authored three THRiVE newsletter articles.

During the study, we trained six field assistants and engaged with more than 600 livestock farmers. We organized and implemented three scientific data dissemination and training workshops in Marsabit, northern Kenya (October 2020–March 2021). Together with icipe colleagues, we trained 60 stakeholders and delivered oral presentations followed by field sampling exposure to over 200 students of Laisamis Secondary School. I wrote manuals and translated key study findings into local languages. Our findings, on socio-cultural factors impacting negatively on school enrollment rates and progression to higher levels of education, were presented to the Ministry of Education, Marsabit County, to guide policy change. I was appointed by this Ministry as member of the Board of Management of LSS to offer leadership and guidance so as to advance the school’s goals.

Additionally, I was voted first place winner by the International Livestock Research Institute CapDev Grand Challenge 2020 following the 3-minutes research-pitching contest. I was also recognized by icipe for being among top five postdoctoral fellows for publishing 17 peer-reviewed journal articles during 2020 – 2021. I attended over 20 international scientific conferences and in 2019, I was invited by the African Association of Insect Scientists (AAIS) to deliver a keynote speech on my work during a conference in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire.

Impact of the study and way forward

The key obstacle facing public health in northern Kenya is lack of reliable data on circulating zoonotic diseases in co-herded livestock (i.e. camels, sheep, goats, donkeys, cattle, and dogs) occupying various ecologies and, importantly, how these diseases are spread, for instance by insect vectors.

Detection of trypanosomes, Anaplasma spp, and Bartonella spp in camel keds and camels is of great public health and veterinary concern. Information from my study can guide formulation of disease control programs by animal and public health stakeholders. Additionally, it can lead to less invasive xenodiagnostic approaches to identify pathogens circulating in camel herds.

Further research is crucial to provide a detailed understanding on the contribution of livestock keds in disease transmission, particularly zoonotic. However, one of the key challenges that I face is adequate funding to enable continuity of the studies.

Acknowledgements:

I acknowledge the financial support primarily received from THRiVE-2 and additional funding from other donors. Additionally, I am grateful to icipe and JKUAT for research and institutional support offered; livestock farmers; field assistants; enumerators, and all the community members who supported this study; Laisamis secondary school (students and teachers, school’s principal), mentors and supervisors and all interns and postgraduate students who participated in this successful study.

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Dr. Joel L. Bargul, THRiVE-2 Postdoc fellow

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