Love of Science Has Taken Kenyan Student Around the World

<p>John Ngunjiri, a Ph.D. student in molecular and cell biology, in his lab. Photo by Daniel Buttrey</p>
John Ngunjiri, a Ph.D. student in molecular and cell biology, in his lab. Photo by Daniel Buttrey

John Ngunjiri, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in molecular and cell biology, usually focuses on the microscopic movements of the influenza virus, the subject of his research.

But his own movements around the globe are as far-reaching as the virus’s impact. At 33, he has twice relocated halfway around the world to continue his education and conduct research.

He grew up in rural Kenya and earned a master’s degree in Japan before coming to Storrs to study virology with Philip Marcus, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology.

<p>A rapid test for influenza virus: The diffuse pale red pattern signals the presence of influenza virus in the sample. Photo provided by The Marcus lab</p>
A rapid test for influenza virus: The diffuse pale red pattern signals the presence of influenza virus in the sample. Photo provided by The Marcus lab

He works with Marcus and research professor Margaret Sekellick, discovering and studying the function of some of the myriad biologically active particles in the flu virus. That work may eventually lead to the development of more effective vaccines.

Last summer, he won a Pfizer Fellowship in Molecular and Cell Biology.

In Kenya, when he first thought of becoming a biologist, he wanted to study parasitology, and particularly, malaria.

“I really wanted to learn more about the things I saw,” he said.

He grew up in Nyeri, a rural province in central Kenya, where his father farmed.

“Dad would send me to collect the cattle,” he says. But there were buffaloes and elephants to watch out for. “We had to know how not to get in their way.”

He attended a poor rural high school in Nyeri, even though he qualified for the more prestigious government-run high school, because it was all that his family could afford.

The rural school had no lab facilities, electricity, nor trained teachers in biology, physics, and chemistry, subjects that piqued his interest. So he started reading, borrowing books and using libraries to teach himself. For two years after high school, he worked as a laboratory assistant and a library assistant, continuing to study.

“That’s when I started realizing I’m in love with science,” he says.

When he passed the exam to go to the free, government-sponsored university in 1994, he was the first from his high school to do so.

“All those things did not deter my determination,” he says.

In fact, they helped. He was ready to compete at the university, having been one of 8,000 out of 250,000 who qualified. When he graduated, he won a Japanese government scholarship to earn a master’s degree in biology in Japan.

He learned enough Japanese to present a paper there – memorizing as much of it as possible.

“You cannot survive in Japan if you cannot speak a little Japanese,” he says.

<p>Colonies (clones of thousands of cells that grew from a single mammalian cell) which led to the discovery of a new class of virus particles in influenza virus populations -- noninfectious cell-killing particles. (Ngunjiri, Sekellick, and Marcus. Journal of Virology 82:2673-2680,2008) Photo provided by The Marcus lab</p>
Colonies (clones of thousands of cells that grew from a single mammalian cell) which led to the discovery of a new class of virus particles in influenza virus populations -- noninfectious cell-killing particles. (Ngunjiri, Sekellick, and Marcus. Journal of Virology 82:2673-2680,2008) Photo provided by The Marcus lab

He came to UConn for his Ph.D. in molecular and cell biology to study influenza virus-cell interactions. He wants to understand how such interactions can be exploited to develop better influenza vaccines to prevent flu pandemics.

Last year he won an award to travel to the 28th annual meeting of the American Society of Virology, held at the University of British Columbia, Canada, to present a paper he wrote with Marcus and Sekellick on the relationship between noninfectious cell-killing particles, a new class of influenza virus particles that they recently discovered, and other particles that are better known.

While infectious particles are a minor subpopulation of the flu virus, they get the most attention because of the role they play in initiating infection. But little is known about how the noninfectious particles affect the severity and duration of flu.

Now the three scientists are learning more about noninfectious cell-killing particles, and how, along with other biologically active particles, they regulate the infection of genetically altered influenza viruses that are potential vaccines.

They are also studying how the reassortment (mixing of genes) of mammalian and avian flu viruses affects the production of biologically active particles. Their goal is to understand how reassortment viruses, such as H1N1, are able to spread and cause pandemics. Knowing this could help predict the pandemic potential of viruses.

“I think the flu is the worst virus to infect humans – worse than HIV,” says Ngunjiri, because it is so infectious and hard to contain.