RK: It’s great to have you Natasha. Thank you for putting time aside to be a part of this.
NT: I am truly honoured to be here, thank you for inviting me.
RK: First of all, I am just going to assume that you were born a genius.
NT: Hahaha, thank you. Growing up, I was told there are some things you leave other people to say and this is one of them.
RK: We see it. We might as well let the world know that you are a genius.
NT: I just do what I love and somehow things keep working.
RK: Natasha, I do what I love but I don’t think guys find me as a genius. Hahaha. There was a question which I think gave a really brilliant answer. Someone said, you are too young to be doing a phd, are you too young to be doing a phd?
NT: Actually I don’t think so. I am surrounded by people younger than me here. I think, in the Ugandan context, it’s a bit different. And growing up, I used to think that a PhD was for very old people. But once you understand what a PhD is all about, no matter what age you are, you are good to go for one. It’s not about age.
RK: What do you mean by “understand what a PhD is all about”, what does that mean?
NT: I was searching for that particular answer as well before I got the courage to apply for a PhD. I think you are ready to apply for a PhD once you recognise that you are transitioning from a consumer of knowledge to a creator of knowledge. Usually we begin school from the age of three in nursery school and all that time you are being fed information. Information that other people have found out. The subjects we study; science, social studies, English and math, this is information which already exists. And so you consume the knowledge to know what’s out there. but you get to a point when you know what’s out there and you need to create new knowledge. The knowledge we get in the classroom has to come from somewhere. Someone has to make it. someone has to find it. I reached a point where I was not satisfied with what other people were finding out. I wanted to be part of the people creating new knowledge. I found that in a PhD.
RK: Wow! What’s your area of specialisation? This area where you want to create new knowledge?
NT: I have transitioned a little bit over the years. I began as a biochemist in my undergrad. Along the way I began asking myself questions I could not answer with pure biochemistry. I branched into public health and global health. And right now. I am attempting to combine the two fields. Biochemical sciences and public health and I want to do research at the interface of the two fields. As I was doing my research for my field work, I learnt about his thing called epidemiology where I could continue to pursue disease research investigation but on a larger scale… that within epidemiology, I could do molecular epidemiology where I could bring in my biochemistry expert experience and apply it to public health research. That’s the path I am following right now.
RK: I hope you understand that I am a lay man, so I have to ask, all of this biochemistry, global health, public health, to what end?
NT: Here is a story about how I came to this.
RK: Tell it.
NT: So why do I do molecular epidemiology? I started pursuing biochemistry because I was curious about how living things work inside living organisms. I learnt that I could study components inside the cell and do it in a laboratory. And that fascinated me. As I learnt the theory in my classroom, I took up opportunities to begin hands-on experiences through internships and along the way I landed on a pharmaceutical company at Cambridge Massachusetts and that was my first job after undergrad. I was doing everything I was taught in my biochemistry bachelor’s degree but along the way, I realised that I was contributing to making medicines that may not be able to reach communities which inspired me to do research in the first place which is the Ugandan community.
When you look at some of the cost of some of the drugs that major pharmaceuticals produce, the average person in Kampala will be able to afford such a kind of treatment. At the time, I was making new drugs for cancer. I sat back in the lab and I wondered; if there’s a person in Kampala with cancer that needs this particular drug, how are they going to afford a course of treatment that is about a million dollars. And these questions did not sit easy with me. I could have continued on a pure biochemistry path but I would want my science work to mean something especially for my home community. And not about sharing knowledge for knowledge’s sake. And so, I began asking myself, how can I be involved in scientific research that is more applicable to my home community? Because I realised if I keep on a pure biochemistry path, say do a phd in biochemistry, in order to continue doing research at that level, I may have to stay in the United States or a similar environment yet I do have plans to move back home at a certain point.
So I asked myself, how can I do disease investigation because that’s more applicable to my community. That’s how I came across this field called epidemiology where you study diseases but at a population level. So when I found that I could do that through molecular epidemiology, I was like this is what I am going to do.
RK: Can you try and make my life easier here, in very simple terms, what is molecular epidemiology?
NT: It’s better I begin with epidemiology itself. It is the study of determinants and distribution of diseases in populations.
RK: Like covid?
NT: Yes. A disease that affects a population, you study what causes it and how it is distributed in those people. That is what epidemiology is, the study of epidemics.
There are many things that cause diseases like social factors so we have a branch called social epidemiology. I am particularly interested in the molecular and genetic aspects that attribute to people having diseases and how those particular aspects are spread out in a population. Say, there are certain genes some people have that make them susceptible to having certain diseases.
I am fascinated by the African continent and the African people and so would like to study the molecular and genetic aspects of some diseases among African people because we don’t have a lot of disease research particularly for the African people especially when it comes to developing medicines. When it comes to clinical trials, a lot of people recruited to study these new medicines are outside Africa yet the medicines are going to be distributed in Africa and the rest of the world. There is this discussion that if you don’t study people when you’re going to give them medicines, you are not very sure how effective the medicines are going to be. We know that Africans have the highest genetic diversity in the world and that could explain the way we respond to certain diseases, and I and I want to respond to that through my research.
RK: You keep saying two things repeatedly; one of them is that you are curious and that you are dedicated, that seems to be your drive, is that correct?
NT: Yes, I will say so.
RK: Now, want to take you back, we want to know, are you really Ugandan? Tell me about your school journey and how it started.
NT: Actually, for the record, I was born and raised in Uganda. I only left when I was 17. That was when the first opportunity for academics outside the country first came up. but before that, I did nursery school in Uganda and went to Aga Khan primary school. Then I went to Mt St Mary’s College Namagunga for S1-5.
RK: Where did you go after that? How did you end up in this biochemistry?
NT: One constant in my whole journey, I knew I loved science. I just love to know how things work. So from P1, I was always looking out for science subjects.. in P5,6 & 7, I was very interested in the details of the leaves and human body and all that. Every Time I was in any class, I went for science because it really excited me. As I went higher and the became bigger; biology, chemistry physics, I took them all.
In A level, I did PCB/M combination, it was hefty. I won’t lie. I love science but it was so heavy. I loved science but it was quite a chunk. When I got this opportunity to go for the International Baccalaureate in South Africa for two years. it is more like the equivalent of A level. I got an opportunity to go there on a scholarship. Even when I got there after my S5, I still picked up biology chemistry and math.. that’s where I discovered I preferred biology and chemistry more than physics.
After those two years, I realised that I am to continue with my studies, I just want to focus on biology and chemistry.. and see what’s in there and see whether I could do something for the world. When I joined my university for my undergraduate degree at St. Lawrence University in New York, I picked the biochemistry major from day one. Because of the American system, you have until your second year to declare your major. But I could have declared on the first day of my first year because I knew what I really wanted. And that is what I ended up doing all through.
RK: Just breakdown for us, what is biochemistry?
NT: Biochemistry is the study of the processes that occur in living organisms. For me, what drew me to biochemistry was the cell. Which is the smallest unit of life. Every living organism as cells. Once I saw a picture of a cell on a poster, I began to think about the different organelles in the cell. I wanted to know how this cell works and how that relates to the big organism that sees in front of you whether it’s a human being, tree, or a cat. I wanted to see the relationship between this tiny little thing we cannot see and the big organism that we see.
RK: How does a cell work?
NT: That’s a whole other conversation. I am trying not to get technical here. Biochemistry is learning about how cells communicate with each other. Also inside a cell, how those small components communicate with each other. I think of a cell as a city and there are highways, buildings and warehouses where big things are created and transported from one place to another. And many times the things that are transported are proteins and the body runs of proteins in many different forms. And so one thing that fascinated me about diseases was that communication inside the cell, onces it becomes faulty from one cell to another, you begin developing certain diseases and you find that this communication within the cell from one cell to another occurs by use of chemicals. So these are the biochemical signals within cells and between cells. That’s what my research in the lab was all about.
When I started zeroing in on cancer, I realised that there are certain cell pathways that break down or become faulty and the cell begins to misfire. It gives a wrong signal and that develops into cancer.
RK: Listening to you, one may think that the background you gave, yours was a straight forward journey to where you are now, would you want to share with us how it has all come about? Especially the journey towards your PhD.
NT: Sure. I think my journey has been anything but a straight line. At the beginning I thought it would be a straight line because I was sure of my passion for sciences and biochemistry, that much I did not doubt. But I didn’t appreciate how convoluted a path it was going to be even if I knew what it was that I wanted to do. It’s been a combination of incredible support from the people, the mentors and the systems around me that have helped me to get on to the path I am on now.
Looking back, for some, it may look like I knew what I was doing all the way but I have seen it around social media quite recently, everyone is just trying to figure life out. On the outside it may look like they know what they are doing but everyone is trying to figure out life in the dark trying to see what the best journey will be.
Up to the time of getting into my undergraduate, I kind of had a clear picture of where I was going. I got the scholarship opportunity to go for my IB in South Africa for two years and then go into my undergraduate.
After undergraduate is where the certainty stopped. From then on, you had to figure things out, step by step. Because you are no longer in an academic program where you know a degree takes X amount of time and that was a very big adjustment for me. I was used to having a schedule. I was used to knowing, I begin here and end here. After undergrad everything was n the table. Everyone was on their one own and had to figure out their own way.
That adjustment for me began when I had to begin applying for jobs after undergrad. Then I realised that because I was in a country not my own, I was faced with challenges that some of my classmates didn’t have. Many of those challenges came in the form of immigration huddles. So you have all studied the same degree program, you all have the same degree knowledge but some places are not going to take you because you are not a US citizen. But you are all looking for work experience and furthering your career. And that’s where the playing field becomes different.
That was a big challenge for me and my other international friends. My good friend advised me that because of the disadvantaged position I was in, I had to apply for more time than some of my classmates. I sent out at least 50 applications.
RK: What do you mean by 50 applications of what?
NT: Applying for jobs. That was her advice. Applying to 1 or 10 would not be casting out a wider net. I followed the advice and out of the 50 that I sent, I got about 4 interviews and 2 offers. If I had not applied as widely, I may not have had as good a chance.
RK: What were the immigration huddles you talked about?
NT: all the time I have been in the US, I have been on a student visa to this day. and the rules to a student’s visa are either you are a student or you’re working. And that work has to be related to the degree that you did. You cannot study and work at the same time. Your employer has to sign a couple of papers and has to be registered by the government that they are able to take on international students and they have to prove that the job they are giving you cannot be done by an American because they don’t want YouTube taking away jobs from their people.
Some employers just don’t want to get lost in that paperwork so they choose to go with domestic citizens because it is easier from the HR perspective. Sometimes you go through the interview process but you get dropped at the end because the employer does not want to get into that confusion.
RK: Did you take any of the two offers?
NT: Yes. My goal at the end of the undergrad was to graduate with a job. We graduated around May. I started sending out applications around January because I wanted to come back home for summer and it was not going to be possible to keep up job applications when I am in Uganda. my plan was that by the time I get my degree, I’d have my job offer in hand and indeed I got my offer.
RK: How did that go?
NT: I started the job in August 2018. And there was a fixed term duration of two years for the role. And it was everything I had ever dreamed about. I was working in a biochemistry lab in oncology discovery in the cancer department. And we were specialising in developing new drugs for cancer patients. It allowed me to practice all the theory I had learned in the classroom doing hands-on work. and knowing the work I was contributing, it could possibly make medicine or a tablet that was going to help real human beings who were suffering from cancer. That was immensely gratifying for me. and I really developed my practical skills because I was involved in the entire process from writing literature reviews to planning the experiments and executing them, troubleshooting when things didn’t go right and analysing the results. That’s the process of scientific inquiry which you can apply to any scientific question you are trying to answer.
But I encountered those deliberations I was talking about earlier on. These medicines we were working on we’re taking a lot of energy and expertise to work on but how would people in low resource countries benefit from them? We had immense resources at our disposal. We had the smartest people working on them but then it is disturbing to learn that not many people are going to benefit from them and it often comes down to cost.
When I started having these thoughts about the reach of my research I wanted to apply myself more broadly and make myself more applicable to the Ugandan community. I wanted to meet more professional people, other scientists. I knew what I felt in my heart but I didn’t have a word for it yet.
So I started looking up programmes on the internet where I could be trained in this new field. I was coming to the end of my two year program at the pharmaceutical company I was at and I needed to leave after two years. I began to apply for masters programmes in public health. Even though I wanted to do a PhD at a certain point, I was not confident enough to apply for it at the time being a new field. I thought a masters degree would be good for me.
I got on with the theme of casting a net to catch a bigger sample size. I applied to 15 schools for my masters. I don’t joke around when it comes to applications.
RK: You’re really something else, 15 schools?
NT: It’s really a lot of work. believe in giving everything I am doing my all at that moment.
RK: That’s a good principle.
NT: I got responses from 12 schools including all you most famous. I knew that I was going to get at least accepted in one. After about two months I slowly began to realise that this dream was not going to happen because I could not afford the programme. I had got a full scholarship from my undergrad and somehow I thought that I could make a case for some financial assistance. But for two months, none of the institutions where I lobbied for help was able to come through. Between my savings and my parents’ assistance, we could not make out the difference. I am the first born of 4 and I would like my siblings to have a chance. I cannot be a resource hog in the family. With that in mind, I just realised that that was not going to happen.
And that was incredibly disappointing. It’s like having all these doors open in front of you and then one by one they shut in your face. I found that more painful than getting outright rejections.
I was in the US and remembered the rules of my visa. Either you are in school as a student or you are working. Since I was not a student, I had to find the next job. I began to reapply for jobs. this was towards the end of 2020. The former president of the US, Donald Trump was talking heavily about immigrants taking jobs for the citizens. On the surface, it looked light but beneath, it was serious. His words were having real consequences for people like me who were looking for jobs because many employers and recruiters began to shy away from people on visas to take on as employees.
I was going into interviews and being dropped at the last stage. Employers don’t want to get involved in that work huddle. And also I had limited training according to my visa. In the science world, when they train you, they want you to work for at least 2-3 years so that they can get their money’s worth.
RK: True, they want their return on investment.
NT: Yes. I had a couple of months left on my visa. All those things came together and then the pandemic hit in 2020 and I was alone in my room in Boston, Massachusetts stuck in my room and I was worried. It was a depressing time.
RK; Did you have food?
NT: I had food when I had the job. I now had to reapply to the schools because I couldn’t work in the US beyond my work authorization point even if I got a job at that point. All these things were happening at the same time. I happened to share it with a colleague of mine. I was so desperate at that time. she told of someone from a certain company. The company was The Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute and all the jobs advertised required a PhD. I only had a bachelors at the time. so I couldn’t apply for any of them. she asked me for my resume and said I am not making any promises but let me just put it there. At that point I had nothing to lose.
It turned out that the leadership at the Gates MRI as it’s called, were so moved that I had accomplished so much with just a bachelor’s degree. The leadership with the administration on whether it would be okay taking me on and it was fine. They created a position for me for an internship. I had also shared with them my struggles with immigration so that they knew what they were getting themselves into. and they consulted with their lawyers who agreed to take me on for just a certain number of months. But it came at the time when I heavily needed assistance. My savings were low. I had to think about applying for school again and things started to get together.
RK: Tell me about the food.
NT: I was at the Gates MRI for 6 months. And during that time, things went so well. I learnt from the work I was doing. They also do drug discovery but centering on low and middle income countries. Their type of research was a different flavour from the previous job but I learnt so much from there.
During that I reapplied for PhD programs again. I also put aside some savings because I would have 5 months after the Gates MRI job and I would not have a job. Having had a whole year without a job when I have a year left on my visa, I could tell that having a few months left would even be harder.
So I tried to save as much money that could help me in the five months before I could join another academic program. I was hoping that I would get into a PhD program.
RK: You didn’t say how you got into the masters program, how did you go about it?
NT: I didn’t go. I couldn’t afford it.
RK: So you went straight to apply for PhD?
NT: Yes. In the US, in the sciences you are allowed to apply for a PhD when you only have a bachelor’s degree because they train you from that level. But for filed like public health, they often require a masters in public health (MPH). I had attempted to go in for the MPH but I could not afford it. so I decided that I was not going to let money be the hindrance that was going to stop me from pursuing an education. I had come from a field where you could go straight to PhD, so I decided to take it. I sent in the applications. I had to either re-apply or come back home. and I didn’t have a plan for coming back home yet.
Growing up, my mother always said the worst thing that can ever happen is when they say no. But you will never know if you don’t try. All I could afford to do was to try and that is all I did.
RK: I have another philosophy on that; if you don’t ask, the answer is always a no. But if you ask, there are three possible answers; no, yes or maybe.
NT. Exactly. I operate on the same principle. So I sent out 10 PhD applications and I got two calls for the interviews because a PhD is like a job. In the end, I got an offer from Yale University.
RT: I want to be sure I have picked all the lessons from your story so far.
3. Putting in the time for what you want
5. Creating the opportunity to learn by doing.
Would I be right?
NT: Yes, you have hit the nail on the head
RT: Tell me about the food.
NT: There was this 5 month period when I didn’t have a job. I had really tried cutting out on my expenses. I was coming from a period of two years of having a job. I was sustaining myself. I was paying my rent, looking after myself and then all of that went away because I didn’t have a job. Even with the extreme saving, I found that I could not cover my basics as much as I wanted to. And that was a very difficult adjustment for me. from being independent to a place where I couldn’t take care of myself. I had my friends who stepped in powerfully for me this time. they paid rent for the 6 months I could not make it myself. Boston is not the cheapest place to live. I am eternally grateful to all those people who stepped in for me. My parents tried their best to contribute to food and groceries. But I reached a point where I needed more than they could provide for me given the exchange rate of the currencies. I began looking around Boston and Cambridge for services where I could get food assistance because I was having trouble getting food. I found this women centre where I reached out as a volunteer. They provide services for homeless women in the Cambridge area because I didn’t have a job, I had all this time to myself. They would give food, clothing and hygiene products for women who needed them. for free.
At the end of the volunteering shift, the volunteers were allowed to take the excess food left behind so it wouldn’t spoil. The head of the volunteering team realised that I was taking home a little bit more than the average volunteer. So she asked me, “Is everything okay, Natasha?” so I opened up to her with everything I was facing. She was so kind to me and she said,, if that is the case, come in at the beginning of the shift and pick food from the refrigerated truck that comes to deliver food at the beginning of the day. This was food that came in from supermarkets. Supermarkets always want to have fresh food on their shelves. So when it gets to a point where the food is still looking edible but no longer as fresh as it could be, they give it to centres like the one I was volunteering at. The challenge is that you cannot keep that food for long.
That was like me shopping for food from the truck. I reached a point where I had more food than I needed. But because I had to use it quickly, I had to expand my cooking recipes or options. That was the experience. I was depending on this type of food for about two months. It was quite a humbling experience for me. I was coming from a position of being able to take care of myself to being taken care of. I do not wish to go back to that place. I am very grateful for the people that came through for me.
RK: Then you get the place for your PhD?
NT: Yes. Amidst all that, I was submitting applications for my PhD programme. And at the beginning of 2021, the responses began to come back. This time round the success rate was lower but I got some interviews coming through. Yale called and after the interviews, they extended an offer for me to do a PhD in Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases.
RK: How did you get the money?
NT: I made sure that I submitted all my PhD applications before I left my six months job because I knew I would not be able to use my savings to contribute towards these applications. PhD applications can cost you up to USD 1,000 and this is without a guarantee that you will get the job.
RT: And then you got the admission…
NT: Yes. I got accepted. I still had to weather the 5 months in Boston but I had the offer in hand. But I knew come August, I was going to move to Yale. That brought me a lot of calm. I spent most of my days that summer sitting in the public park eating popcorn because that is all I could afford. I could enjoy the sun in peace.
RK: Wow! Is that the summer of this year?
RK: You’re such a strong girl!
NT: Thank you. They say he who has a why will overcome almost any how. When you know why you’re doing what you are doing, you will get through any obstacle. That’s what got me through. I know why I am doing what I am doing. I have a mission.
RK: And you believe that truly?
NT: From the bottom of my heart.
RK: You’ve got this passion and obsession for the science subjects, what would tell girls with a passion for sciences?
NT: I encourage fellow girls to pursue STEM subjects because as I progressed in my career I began to realize that there are not as many women in the positions I am entering. Even women of colour. I have been through school with very smart people. I know I am not the smartest. But because I saw many of the smart people, I asked myself, why do we have such a low representation at this level of research? I know there are smart people who occupy them. I ask myself why?
As I progress and learn myself, I take time to encourage younger students to pursue a similar path as me. One of the reasons I am doing a PhD is to show young girls that it can be done. I got an incredible example from my mother. She has a PhD as well. and seeing her balance her personal life and her career, it showed me that it can be done. And sometimes what it needs is to see someone do it and then you can know that it can be done. And I am hoping to be that kind of model for younger girls in Uganda.
RK: You have two cheerleaders. One of them is Ham Serunjogi and there’s Benezeri Chibita. When Benezeri listened to Ham, he said I should have you here.
NT: I am grateful. They say it is important to have people who will mention your name in a room of opportunity. and I am forever grateful to have those people in life.
RK: I have got a daughter who I love dearly. She is the centre of my world. What would you say to a father like me about his daughter whose doors need to be opened to pursue her dreams.
NT: For a start, I’d say, give her a chance. My father’s influence and trajectory in my life is very significant as well. My parents are both in the public health space but they never forced us to do any particular thing as children. they let you go and figure out what you were interested in and what your talent is and they supported you. For example, my sister is into the humanities. They didn’t box any of the children in any particular path. So I would say, give her a chance to explore.
And please give equal opportunities to your children. you do not know what genius you have. you can never know what they are good at. they will only find out through exploration and experimentation. Playing with different things, going for different activities and that’s when you will find out, encourage them.
I know in Uganda , we have certain more than others. Like my grandmother knows only four professions: doctor, lawyer, banker and engineer.
We tend to encourage some paths and invalidate others. But you don’t know who you are dealing with and so I would say, give the girls a chance. And if they want to take a path that is not very conventional, seek out people who succeeded in that path as mentors or peer mentors. At a certain point you are going to learn more from other people than yourself. We cannot speak enough about having mentors. Encourage them in the path they have chosen.
Comrade Otoa: it is rare to find someone driven by passion and purpose. Kudos to you Natasha. How do we get more girls into STEM?
NT: This is something I think about a lot. In my journey I am grateful to my teachers. We underestimate how much teachers can influence trajectory. One of the reasons I enjoy science so much was because I was fortunate enough to have teachers who were equally passionate about what they were teaching. That passion affected me and I began running with it. We need to be careful with the way we treat teachers. They are the ones that introduce these concepts to children however abstract they seem. Having a teacher who is relatable is very key otherwise you begin to lose students very early on. Some people fear science because they think it is very complicated. But I guess, every complicated concept has a way of being broken down. We need to be careful with the teachers we have in the classrooms because that is where the passion is picked from.
The other thing is hands-on learning especially for sciences. You may read about something.. you may think about something but if you cannot see how atoms bond together, how DNA is structured, how wires are connected to make electricity flow. There will always be something missing. When we are looking at innovation among young people to drive the economy, it all comes down to can you translate that theory in your head into a tangible product in your hand. We need to equally emphasize hands-on learning. It is my dream to set up an initiative like that in Uganda where you give students an opportunity to try out things hands-on. All the knowledge I have came from Uganda. I do not doubt the expertise we have in theoretical instruction but we lack in practice.
Michael Niyitegeka: What would you tell a science teacher if you met them?
NT: I do recognise there are challenges in the Ugandan system. It’s not lost on me that we have significant hurdles overcome in our system. Teachers need to remember that their words have power regardless of the school you are in. Everyone in the capacity of a teacher has influence over the young minds. They are very impressionable. They are young. You need to remember that your words have power. You could be making or breaking a dream in every statement you make. They say if you can make the situation better even for one person, then you have made a difference.
It is going to take a collective effort from me and like minded people, an army, for us to improve how our children learn.
RK: Natasha, talk to my 18 year old daughter in a minute who is trying to figure out where she goes after high school.
NT: First of all, take time to know yourself. There are going to be more than enough people in the world who will tell you what to do. And when I say this, I don’t mean be big-headed or refuse advice from people. but it is important for young people, especially women, to take time to know yourself. For example, I chose to live by myself for a couple of years because I didn’t want to be moving from my fathers house into my husband’s house. I needed time to figure out who I was, how I operated, how I handled money, what drove me, what I wanted to do with my life. Sometimes you need space for that. Whether you need literal space or a day to think about your life, go wherever you want to go without people dictating where you should go. Once you figure out why, then you are unstoppable.
RK: Natasha, thank you very much.
NT: Thank you for having me.
RK: Looking from where I stand, I see a lot of greatness ahead of you.
NT: I am very touched. I am doing my best.
RK: Go ahead and claim your greatness.
NT: I am going to do my best.
RK: Thank you for making our lives better.