Summer Research Spotlight: Araba Wubah ’17
Briefly describe your summer research experience.
This past summer, I spent six weeks doing immunology research in the beach town of Cape Coast, Ghana, in the Central Region, working with Dr. Paulina Ampomah of the Biomedical and Forensic Science Department of University of Cape Coast (UCC). In particular, I was studying the antibody levels of people who lived in the Central Region, working closely with a hospital northeast of Cape Coast and with the Nursing School of UCC. Dr. Ampomah and I studied the reactions of people’s antibodies to specific antigens that are found on the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest strain and most common in sub-Saharan Africa. We also wanted to see the effect of other communicable diseases on the suppression of the immune system. Our results suggest that repeated exposure to the malaria parasite can produce stable immunity and other communicable infections may lower antibody levels of individuals in malaria-endemic areas.
What attracted you to the program?
My parents’ alma mater is UCC, and I was interested in finding out what their college experience was like, knowing that there have been many changes in the education system since their time. Also, the program is one of the few international research programs for undergraduates funded by NSF in sub-Saharan Africa.
How does your work this summer apply to your studies at W&L?
Taking part in the program allowed me to expand my research skills beyond the neuroscience techniques I have learned at W&L. Although there was some lab equipment we used there that I have had experience with here, such as pipettes and centrifuges, I also learned new techniques such as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay and using blood smears stained with Giemsa dye to determine the amount of parasites in individuals.
Describe a typical day.
Waking up around 7:30, I would get ready for the day, before heading out to grab breakfast at the hostel restaurant with the rest of the REU group. We then walked over to campus, specifically the College of Life Science and Ecology. Four of the students in the group worked in the same lab, while two of us worked in the floor beneath them. Before getting to work, I informed Dr. Ampomah of my arrival, which is both a customary and professional thing to do in Ghana. She either came down to the lab to go over our plans and help me understand our goal for the day, or I continued working on previous tasks, such as separating plasma from red blood cells. This normally took up most of my morning, and around noon, our group reconvened before we went down to the local market to grab some lunch from a chop bar (local restaurant). Two of the members always ate at a small shop that served fried plantain and bean stew, and they loved it. After that, we bought some fruit before heading back to our labs and getting back to work. Most of the time the day ended between 4 and 5 p.m., but that depended on whether or not there was electricity. We often had dinner at the hostel restaurant before either working on some research or hanging out in the hotel lobby, interacting with local people or meeting tourists.
Did any particular courses or faculty members help prepare you for the experience? How so?
Dr. Natalia Toporikova, my research mentor, definitely helped in that she is always telling me to “go and experience something else.” Although I have visited Ghana before, this was the first time I was there for an extended amount of time and without my parents. Not focusing on neuroscience while I was there made me appreciate what she always advised me to do.
What was the most interesting or unexpected aspect of your experience?
The most interesting aspect was being the expert/leader of the group. Since I have been to Ghana numerous times and I could actually understand the language, I was put into that position. Normally, with my parents, I am the novice and I tend not to know exactly what is happening. We also had cultural field trips on the weekends; one of them involved visiting Elmina castle, one of the few remaining castles from the colonial times where slaves would pass through on their way to the Americas. It was a sobering experience to see the dungeons in which they lived for weeks before they passed through the Door of No Return.
What key takeaways or new skills are you bringing back to W&L?
I believe I learned how to be a better leader, since the rest of the REU members were all new to Ghana, and they had to rely on me to keep from getting lost. Working on my project with minimal supervision also taught me more about independence. I would say that living through frequent power outages taught me to persevere and to manage my time to take advantage of the intermittent availability of electricity.
How did your experience this summer impact your future plans for your education and/or career?
My research helped me to acquire knowledge about malaria and other infectious diseases, which made me realize I could combine neuroscience and immunology and hopefully work on neuroimmunology in the future. It made me realize I can pursue a career in healthcare, possibly in public health or medicine.
What advice would you give to other students interested in this program?
Go and explore. Do this program if you want to learn more about yourself in another environment while also learning about ecology or biomedical sciences.
Describe your experience in a single word.