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Time for action – an interview to mark Black History Month 2022

Credit: image adapted from original by pikisuperstar on Freepik

During Black History Month 2022, the University of Oxford has recognised and shared the outstanding contributions people of African and Caribbean descent have made throughout history. Here, we focus on three researchers from the INEOS Oxford Institute (IOI) for Antimicrobial Research to learn more about them and their ongoing contributions to the IOI.

October is Black History Month (BHM) in the United Kingdom, an annual observance “to celebrate Black history, heritage and culture”. Throughout the month, the University of Oxford has supported a programme that brings together talks, events, resources and initiatives for the general public, staff, students and alumni, exploring the invaluable contributions made by people of African and Caribbean descent both globally and in Oxford, including at the University. As part of this initiative, we talked to three IOI researchers, Dr Chioma Achi, Dr Victor Aniebok and Chinenye Akpulu, to learn more about their work, interests, experiences, and how they are marking BHM 2022.

From left to right: Dr Chioma Achi, Dr Victor Aniebok and Chinenye Akpulu

Thank you all for joining us to celebrate BHM. For those who don’t know you, can you start by saying a bit about who you are and what is your role at the IOI?

Chioma Achi (CAc): My name is Chioma Achi and I am a Postdoctoral Researcher in Microbiology and Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). I got my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria and later on a Masters degree in Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology from the University of Westminster, London. I recently completed my PhD at the University of Cambridge studying AMR in Salmonella before joining the IOI.

Victor Aniebok (VA): My name is Victor Aniebok, I am from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in the United States, and I am a Postdoctoral Researcher and a synthetic chemist in the IOI. I began my chemistry career at Stanford University where I worked under Vijay Pande doing computational chemistry. Following my undergraduate studies, I did my PhD in the total synthesis of natural products under John MacMillan at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC). I recently moved to the UK and am excited to be here at Oxford and working for the IOI.

Chinenye Akpulu (CAk): My name is Chinenye Akpulu, and I am from the South-Eastern part of Nigeria. I am a DPhil student within the Oxford Interdisciplinary Bioscience DTP (2021 cohort), doing my research at the IOI. Before joining the IOI, I studied for my Master’s degree in Biotechnology at the University of Glasgow and was a research assistant with the BARNARDS project in Nigeria.

The IOI is focused on research on antimicrobials and AMR. Can you tell us a bit more about the main projects you are working on, how they are linked to these themes, and what excites you the most about your work?

CAc: I am working on several projects that fall under the IOI’s studies assessing the global burden on AMR, which include studies on neonatal sepsis (BARNARDS study), adults and paediatrics bloodstream infections (BALANCE study) and flies and AMR study (AVIAR study). Currently, I am mainly involved with the AVIAR pilot study, which aims to investigate the carriage of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by flies within hospital settings. This project, based on a previous study that found that arthropods such as ants, spiders, flies, and cockroaches are carriers for multidrug-resistant bacteria, will now give us a more comprehensive picture of the role of flies in distributing AMR genes within hospital environments. The behaviour and ubiquitous nature of flies makes it easy for them to carry pathogens like drug-resistant bacteria from unsanitary environments into many areas like hospitals, where they could further complicate the condition of patients by serving as vectors transmitting AMR. In addition, flies can be useful for surveillance to track AMR, including in healthcare settings. We already know that despite efforts to lower the burden of AMR, it still remains a huge public health threat globally, with the highest burden in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). However, the outcome from this study will guide a subsequent intervention study based on additional infection prevention and control measures in hospital settings aimed at reducing infections caused by resistant bacteria carried by flies. This intervention study will, for example, aim to put barrier methods in place to stop flies from getting into hospital wards. It is my hope that our current work will add to our knowledge on the burden and drivers of AMR, and that the following intervention study will inform useful steps to reduce AMR in hospital settings, and thus its impact on patients.

VA: As a chemist, my work falls under the IOI’s projects related to drug discovery and development. My main focus is on the synthesis of Metallo-b-Lactamase Inhibitors (MBLIs), which are compounds used to restore the activity of b-Lactam antibiotics. One way in which bacteria become resistant to antibiotics is by using proteins that can break down those antibiotics so that they no longer work. Metallo-b-Lactamases (MBLs) break down b-Lactams and nullify their antibiotic efficacy. Our work revolves around finding compounds that block these bacterial proteins so they can no longer destroy the antibiotics. In particular, I am synthesizing pyrrole carboxylates that can bind to MBLs and inhibit their ability to break down b-Lactams. This work is crucial and interesting because we’re targeting the enzymes that confer AMR and creating molecules that will hopefully enable us to continue to use antibiotics to which resistance has emerged, thereby having a positive impact on global human health.

CAk: My DPhil project is on studying the factors influencing development of the microbiome and resistome in newborn babies. The gut microbiome is the community of microorganisms living inside the human gut, while the resistome is defined as the collection of genes or genetic material that confers AMR in the microbiome. Previous research, including data from the BARNARDS study that Chioma mentioned, has revealed that the infant's gut has a high abundance of antimicrobial resistant genes (ARGs) compared to adults, even when the infant has not been exposed to antibiotics directly. The high prevalence of ARGs carriage in infants raises questions about their origin, yet robust data that would enable the in-depth understanding of the interaction between the microbiome/resistome and the external factors influencing this carriage is lacking, especially in LMICs. So my project is looking at both the origin of ARGs in the neonatal gut microbiome and the factors associated with bacterial AMR acquisition, persistence, or loss during early life. I am concentrating on two sites in the northern part of Nigeria (Abuja and Kano) while another DPhil student will mirror the project in two sites in Pakistan (Lahore and Islamabad). We hope then to undertake a comparative analysis between the two DPhil projects and the wider BARNARDS IOI network. The project will further current knowledge of the role of AMR in growth development and infection and will impact positively in the preventive and therapeutic infection interventions for infants in LMICs.

Institutions and Universities should move beyond words into action

How did you start your career as a researcher? What got you interested in science more generally, and more specifically in AMR?

CAc: I developed an interest in research during my undergraduate days where we were assigned to work on various lab-based projects as part of the requirements to qualify as Veterinarians. At the time, I worked on trypanosomiasis in small ruminants. Trypanosomiasis is also known as sleeping sickness and is known to be transmitted by Tsetse flies. Sleeping sickness in humans is responsible for considerable morbidity and mortality, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where small ruminants acquire natural infections, which also leads to important economic losses. It was encouraging that through this piece of research that aimed to find out the species of trypanosomiasis in small ruminants within my locality, veterinarians could administer the right therapy from knowing what the ruminants carried, and farmers could take better steps to reduce losses. This gave me a feeling of satisfaction knowing that my research actually counts. Through this work, my interest in research grew, and so did my confidence in knowing that I could be making an impact from my small lab space. Following my undergraduate project, I got another opportunity to work in an area of virology, developing neutralisation assays for Bundibugyo Ebolavirus during my MSc. You can already see that my interest in research is tilted towards solving real-world problems, one of which is AMR. The devastating effect of AMR, especially in low-resource settings is no longer news. Being Nigerian, I witnessed first-hand how infections that wouldn't respond to available treatment claimed the lives of many. One of such problematic infections in the setting where I come from is Salmonellosis, a common disease that affects the intestinal tract caused by the bacterium Salmonella. And it was in a bid to contribute to solving the problem at hand that I studied AMR in Salmonella from a One Health perspective for my PhD. Since then, my passion for AMR research has continued to grow even though I undertook various other side projects in between my Msc and PhD, and so it is no surprise that I am now part of an institute that is dedicated to AMR.

VA: Throughout my career, I was fortunate to be a part of many science clubs and organizations, and had incredible mentors who guided me to the right people and places to further develop as a scholar and scientist. I was fortunate to be able to attend a math and science high school in Oklahoma City where I was able to take a multitude of STEM courses and ultimately specialize in Chemistry. This was my foundation for my undergraduate work in repurposing approved drugs to treat neglected tropical diseases such as Trypanosomiasis and Leishmaniasis. My interest in AMR began towards the end of my PhD as I was able to do more Structure Activity Relationship (SAR) oriented synthesis with an emphasis on bioactivity and human health, and that has guided me here to Oxford and the IOI.

CAk: To be honest, after my master’s degree in biotechnology I swore that I would never do a PhD, but you know the saying ‘never say never’. My journey to becoming a researcher in AMR actually started by chance back home in Nigeria in 2016 when I worked as a research assistant within the then first phase of the BARNARDS study. I was inspired by the translational nature of the project as it was designed not to be all about the basic science but also the impact and implementation of findings to the communities. An example of this impact is evident in Kano, Nigeria when BARNARDS recommended and provided the antibiotic combination of Amoxycillin and Clavulanate for initial management of sepsis at the site, in place of Ampicillin and Cloxacilin, and made available access to blood culture for proper diagnosis of sepsis in neonates. These implementations were associated with a drastic reduction in neonatal mortality rate in this site, from 30% to 17% within months. Another event that got me interested in research and in doing a DPhil was listening to Dr. Edward Portal (a then PhD student at the University of Cardiff but now a Post-doc within IOI) present his work on a patented media for culturing Legionella spp., which again highlighted the practical use of the projects developed within the group.

What does BHM mean to you? Why do you think it is important to celebrate BHM, and what do you think Universities (and research institutes) should do to mark it?

CAc: To me, BHM is an opportunity to celebrate the work and contributions of people of African and Caribbean descent. An opportunity to listen to the incredible efforts of many of these unsung heroes and to reflect on their heritage and how this has helped to shape society. Often times, people from ethnic minority groups are lost in the crowd, sometimes they don't even feel seen or heard. BHM thankfully, offers that opportunity for them to tell their stories or for institutions or organisations to highlight the contributions that Black people make to society. I think Institutions and Universities should move beyond words into action. For instance, beyond ticking the box on diversity and inclusion activities or an annual celebration of BHM, they should think deeply about the challenges or factors that prevent people of ethnic minority from getting into some institutions or universities, one of which is inadequate representation. If, for example, I don’t see people like myself in a particular position or organisation, I will definitely be reluctant to get into that space. Several questions will race through my mind, like the policies of the organisation, how they treat people who are considered different, if they offer them similar opportunities as others, if there is any subtle systematic racism that exists within the organisation that prevents people from ethnic minorities from staying and thriving, and if there are well thought out plans to do better. Still on representation, steps should be taken to widen access into universities and research institutions, in order to tackle existing barriers from the root.

VA: For me, BHM is the celebration of intellectual and cultural contributions brought forth by Black people. I think Universities should have themed spotlights and lectures that highlight the important contributions of those who came before. From George Washington Carver (who had over 100 patents pertaining to the peanut), Katherine Johnson (who was a brilliant mathematician for NASA during the moon launch), and the multitude of amazing scientists and inventors in between, the fingerprints of the Black diaspora are all over the world. These achievements should be lauded and looked upon for inspiration as we are truly standing on the shoulders of giants.

CAk: To me, Black History cannot be limited to just a month. However, BHM is a good reminder of Black peoples’ positive impact and contributions that we have given to the world. It is a literal evidence and documentation of what Black people can accomplish regardless of their difficult circumstances. This year’s theme, “Time for Change: Action Not Words”, clearly elaborates on the struggles of Black people who on one hand experience discrimination but on the other hand are also expected to fix the problem themselves. I believe that the University of Oxford is making an effort to educate its staff and student on equity and diversity, but more could be done by encouraging people to join in. Everyone can participate in BHM by championing and celebrating diversity in the workplace, and embracing its theme through demonstrating inclusivity and challenging bad behaviours.

Everyone can participate in BHM by championing and celebrating diversity in the workplace, and embracing its theme through demonstrating inclusivity and challenging bad behaviours

Do you think there’s been recent movement towards increased diversity in academia? If so, do you feel it has made a difference, particularly for Black students and scientists?

CAc: I do believe that there's been a recent movement to increase diversity in academia. Universities are working hard on this, but there is still much to be done. We are not quite there yet, but hopefully with the right intentions and commitment, we will continue to improve.

VA: I think there has been a push for diversity within academia. Throughout high school and university, I did not know a single Black professor in Chemistry. Despite that disparity, there have been fellowships and social programs to increase those numbers. Social progression is rarely rapid and requires communal effort and commitment to be effective. I truly believe that diversity in the academic landscape is better now than it was 20 years ago, and it will be better still 20 years from now.

CAk: Although I am an early career researcher, within the few years I have been in research I have seen conscious efforts to celebrate Black researchers and scientists for their contributions to science. It shouldn’t have to take an ‘effort’ to recognise a persons’ work or contribution, but I believe the needle is gradually moving and we will eventually get to where we ought to be.

Reflecting on your experience as a Black researcher, what are the main lessons learned? Do you have any advice you would share with Black students interested in pursuing a career in STEM?

CAc: Luckily, I am part of a very diverse research group that is very conscious and intentional about inclusion and giving everyone an opportunity, irrespective of race. That said, Black Scientists undoubtedly struggle with a lot of realities, one of which is constantly trying to prove their worth. My message to aspiring Black Scientists in STEM is to go for what they believe in without giving too much attention to what people may think of their race. There is a lot of space in the world for everyone to thrive and fulfil their potential, so don't be limited by the colour of your skin. There are also a huge number Black Scientists who are making significant contributions in science, so let their works inspire you and if in doubt, reach out to people who can encourage you. Also know that most people, irrespective of skin colour suffer from impostor syndrome, but it is how we handle it that matters. The only limiting factor is your mind, but know that if you can think it, then you can do it!

VA: The main thing that I have learned is that there are resources available for Black students in STEM. However, access to that information and proper guidance is severely lacking, so I find that formal mentorship programs (with more senior researchers) can be very beneficial for young and aspiring students, particularly in STEM. So my main advice for Black students interested in pursuing a career in STEM would be to actively search for good mentors and find other available resources. It may seem bleak at times but, speaking from experience, people truly want to give back and pay it forward.

CAk: As a Black early career researcher, I am learning the importance of consistency, as sometimes all that is needed is to show up. This can also give you a chance to be heard, and it is important to ensure that you communicate your thoughts clearly and effectively.

My main advice for Black students interested in pursuing a career in STEM would be to actively search for good mentors

Going back to AMR, and on a hypothetical scenario: if you could snap a finger and change just one thing in the AMR space, what would that be?

CAc: For me, that would be changing the way antibiotics are used in most resource-poor settings, i.e. using antibiotics empirically and as a quick fix for all diseases.

VA: I think that investing in improved diagnostics, including point of care testing, would pay large dividends. On-site diagnosis and treatment can mitigate the suffering of many and improve the quality of life of many more.

CAk: Without thinking twice, it will be steadfastness in antimicrobial stewardship and strict regulation of antimicrobial usage in LMIC, particularly where antibiotics can be bought over the counter.

Before I let you go, can I ask what you like to do when you're not in the lab? Can you maybe tell us a random thing about yourself that you think will surprise anyone reading this?

CAc: I probably don't have a lot of fun things going on that could surprise anyone reading this, but one thing I really like to do outside the lab is photography.

VA: I like to read manga/light novels and watch anime in my free time. A fast fact about me that I think surprises people quite a bit is that I am the youngest of 10 children. There was never a dull moment growing up!

CAk: I love hiking and the creativity in cake decoration. I also like to think that I can dance to Afrobeats, but that is left for spectators to judge.