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DR. ROBERT OPIRO: My THRiVE-2 Career Development Award Story – benefits to career and professional growth thus far!

Dr. Robert Opiro (L) tagging an animal from which blood sample has already been drawn

KAMPALA – In July 2018, I received a THRiVE-2 Career Development Award (CDA) for a research project entitled “Trypanosome infection prevalence in the tsetse fly Glossina fuscipes fuscipes and livestock reservoirs in a vector genetic transition zone in northern Uganda.”

This idea emanated directly from work I did as part of my PhD thesis entitled “Genetic structure of the tsetse fly Glossina fuscipes fuscipes in northern Uganda.” One striking output from my thesis was the identification of a vector genetic transition zone where tsetse vectors, of different genetic lineages, mix and interbreed freely. Given that this zone appears to coincide with an area that currently buffers the two forms of sleeping sickness diseases in northern Uganda, we thought it would be interesting to unravel the epidemiology of the diseases in this area. This was the genesis of my CDA project, a project that originates from my own work.

The benefits of this award have been enormous at both at a personal and professional level. This was literally my first independent research grant won, apart from the few study scholarships and conference travel grants that I have received. Therefore, for the first time, I had the enviable task of leading a research team. I was mandated with making strategic and other decisions for the success of a project, something that had until now been an exclusive preserve of my supervisors! From the field technicians to the research assistants, casual workers and the communities we worked in, everybody was looking up to me for guidance. This was truly a humbling experience and I thank THRiVE-2 for this priceless opportunity.

Another salient benefit of this award has been my renewed drive and zeal to actively apply for research grant opportunities. I have applied for the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (RSTMH) Small Grants Programme; the Innovations in Eliminating Neglected Tropical Diseases under the Global Grand Challenges of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the MRC/DFID African Research Leader Scheme and most recently, the Small Grants Program of the African research Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases (ARNTD). Although I have had mixed success with all these applications, some of the reviews from unsuccessful proposals have been helpful in shaping my ideas for future grants opportunities.

Dr. Opiro carrying out laboratory analyses of samples

Dr. Opiro carrying out laboratory analyses of samples

In February 2021, I became a recipient of the 2021 African Researchers’ Small Grants Program of the Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Disease (COR-NTD) and the African Research Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases (ARNTD) Cohort V. In winning this award, the experience from the THRiVE-2 CDA award was invaluable because it added a grant portfolio to my name. The THRiVE-2 CDA award has emboldened me to actively look for and apply for research grants. Those for which I am unsuccessful, the feedback has been useful to warrant more attempts at new submissions or resubmissions.

On the professional front, I have had a number of achievements for which this award has played a significant part. In May 2021, I was promoted to the position of Senior Lecturer at the Department of Biology in Gulu University. Before a promotion, one has to demonstrate meritorious achievement relative to their academic level and opportunities.  One such achievement, depending on the level of promotion one seeks, is evidence of independent research through winning grants. This award therefore helped me move to the next level in rank. Though not directly related to the grant, I was also appointed as the Acting Head of Department of Biology in November 2019 to date. However, I am now awaiting appointment as substantive Head of the Department due to the fact that I am now a Senior Lecturer, a promotion for which the THRiVE-2 CDA played a significant role.

Elsewhere, during this grant period, I got placement as Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the NIH funded project on Molecular Aspects of Tsetse and Trypanosome Transmission project, a collaboration between Gulu University and Yale University researchers. Through this grant too, I was able to support the research of one MSc student from our Master of Science in Applied Tropical Entomology and Parasitology programme. Mr. Alele Moses was able to collect data and write and submit his dissertation using resources from the project, and this to me, was so satisfying and a matter of great pride!

Lastly, this award opened for me doors to various research collaborations I need to develop my career. For example, I am collaborating with researchers from the University of Salford in the United Kingdom and the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), Nairobi Kenya.  As an academician, career development chiefly depends on research and publication performance. Normally, things thicken for us at the beginning of this rather arduous journey, with collaborations (both national and international) being key for young academics to break new grounds and develop high impact outcomes. To this end, THRiVE-2 is performing admirably in developing collaborative activities among academics – an increasingly important component of research and professional growth.

In summary, I can undoubtedly say that I have made a lot of strides in my career journey, thanks to the THRiVE-2 CDA and my mentors like Prof. Elizabeth Opiyo and Assoc. Prof. Richard Echodu of Gulu University. May this grant scheme continue so as to help build and uplift research capacity on the African continent.

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