From The Gambia to Oxford
19 May 2019
Post Doctoral Researcher Caitlin Naylor discusses her experiences living and working at MRC Unit The Gambia at LSHTM.
When people find out I’ve moved to Oxford from The Gambia, I’m often asked what it was like living there. I usually smile and laughingly say “hot!”, and leave it at that. It was of course far more than just hot, but how do you describe a way of living and working so completely different in just a few words during a polite inquiry? I moved to Keneba, one of the field stations of MRC Unit The Gambia at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in January 2015. I’d just completed my PhD at the University of Virginia and was ready for a change.
My scientific passion has always steered me toward tropical diseases and global health issues, though with a distinctly molecular biology bent. I strongly felt that if I was going to be working on these problems I should be on location, a conviction strengthened by the few weeks I was able to work with collaborators at the ICDDRB in Dhaka, Bangladesh during my doctoral work. It’s very easy to simply receive vials of sample and proceed with one’s experiments, perhaps lightly whinging at the quantity or quality provided, and forgetting that those samples come from real people. MRCG provided a wonderful opportunity to live and work in a unique scientific environment surrounded by the people we studied.
MRCG at LSHTM is comprised of research stations in 3 main sites: 1) Fajara: the large main campus on the coast, 2) Keneba: a field station in a rural village halfway up the country, and 3) Basse: a field station in a town on the Gambia river in the far east of the country. I lived and worked in Keneba, under the Nutrition Theme of MRCG led by Dr Andrew Prentice. I was involved in several projects, but my primary research area was researching the effect of leptin signalling disruption via genetic SNPs or nutritional deficiency on neutrophil function. Keneba has a number of remarkable features that make the unique science undertaken there possible, including a biobank of over 10,000 DNA samples from the surrounding villages, and a medical clinic and nutritional supplement centre on-site. The projects conducted in Keneba are diverse, including studies on brain function, growth faltering, epigenetic methylation patterns, iron and anaemia, malaria, and bone development.
The scientific possibilities offered by MRCG were, and continue to be, inspiring. My particular project required identification of children that either carried a specific SNP in their leptin receptor, or had a specific nutritional status. A blood sample was taken, which then needed to be analysed within an hour without any agitation of the sample as I was performing neutrophil function tests. Only with the experienced team and facilities at Keneba could this have worked. Undertaking science in an environment like Keneba does come with challenges though. It was the norm for reagents to take 3 months to arrive, and waits of 6 months or even longer were not uncommon. Equipment breakdown was also a lurking terror, the logistics of coordinating maintenance and repairs across hundreds of kilometres of indifferent roads daunting and time-consuming. Living and working in Keneba is also just that – you lived where you worked, and worked where you lived. My 10 second commute to lab and office (while very useful for late experiments) did not offer much in the form of a work-life balance, and it was easy to lose yourself in what we called the Keneba bubble. However, this very closeness also fostered an amazing community within the field station. Those working there were diverse, with Gambians, East Africans, Europeans, and even the odd American represented. We all shared a passion for the research undertaken and it was impossible to not find close friends among people who were all drawn to such an unusual spot.
As such, the actual business of living in Keneba was a lot of fun. Some things took some getting used to – having to drive 3 hours to the coastal region to buy food required serious meal planning/creativity when you’re left with cous cous, half a tomato, and an egg. Laundry also presented unexpected excitement. Everything was washed in a bucket by hand, then ironed to a crispy freshness. This ironing was a crucial step due to mango flies: mango flies lay their eggs normally in damp sand, but will also happily lay them on your damp laundry. When they come into contact with your skin, they hatch and burrow, then alien-like burst out as a maggot to carry on their appalling life cycle. There were also the annual emails every rainy season from the health and safety department entreating us to watch where we step as the high grass provides excellent cover for snakes. It kept you on your toes.
Life was not all side-stepping snakes though. Impromptu evening gatherings were the norm, with gin and tonics a favourite sun-downer – after all, a G&T a day keeps the malaria away! Mango season was a highlight of the year; mangos the size of melons ripened to exquisite sweetness on the trees outside our houses, and when we’d eaten all of those more could be found sold along the highway, a dozen for a pound. The bintang bolang, a tributary of the Gambia river, ran very close to Keneba, and we frequently made swimming and camping trips. After a couple hours of swimming (no crocodiles in sight) we’d end the day with a campfire and some julbrew, then listen to the hyenas and baboons bark at each other in the distance (at least we told ourselves it was in the distance), gazing at the milky way.
In October I travelled down the red dirt road from Keneba for the last time, bound for Oxford. My research group’s work on iron, anaemia, and malaria involved a collaboration with Hal Drakesmith and his group at the MRC Human Immunology Unit. My interest in iron regulation, particularly in the context of malaria infection, grew as a result, and I was able to join Hal’s group to pursue this avenue. Coming to Oxford has been as big an adjustment as going to Keneba. I have a deep appreciation for the incredible facilities, and receiving reagents the same week I ordered them has still not lost its charm. I am looking forward to the research work to come in such a great environment, and know that the resilience and patience I learned in Keneba will remain.
This blog post was written by Caitlin Naylor and edited by Joe Frost (Drakesmith group).