Dr Hussein Abkallo is a biotechnologist at International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). He holds a Ph.D. and MSc in Medical Sciences (Infections Research) from the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Nagasaki University, Japan, and a BSc in Biomedical Sciences from Maseno University.
Dr Abkallo is one of the very few African scientists using the powerful Nobel-prize-winning gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 in accelerating vaccine development on the continent.
The 37-year-old shares his career path with the Sunday Nation.
Tell us about your childhood and family life.
I was raised in Gafarsa and Merti in Isiolo County. During my early years, other than schooling, herding goats on weekends and during school holidays was the other almost inevitable childhood activity. Besides, we had a small family farm by the riverbank where we grew maize, beans, and vegetables mainly for sustenance.
In those days, we had no access to TV; hence watching cartoons was an impossibility. I didn’t even know of the existence of TV sets. It, therefore, didn’t feel like I missed anything. Instead, storytelling and solving riddles were some of our favorite evening pastimes.
When we moved to Merti I had to adapt to new ways of life in the new school and environment. The centre where I was schooling had a strict timetable with prescribed activities on weekdays, weekends, and holidays. I still managed to travel back to Gafarsa during the holidays to help my mum with herding goats and other errands.
I started my early schooling at Gafarsa Primary School in the early 1990s. Gafarsa is a remote village about 200 kilometres from Isiolo town. I used to trek five kilometres to school with a hand-made bag strapped on my back, a water container in one hand and firewood in the other. The water and firewood were for the school kitchen, where a meal of maize and beans was the order of the day.
In pre-primary school, we scribbled alphabets on the dusty classroom floor and used sticks for arithmetic in classrooms made of mud and iron sheets. My father worked as a casual labourer in an irrigation scheme in Merti town, 40 kilometres away across the Ewaso Nyiro River. While in Merti, he learnt of a Catholic-run educational centre called Macci Centre Merti. Macci (pronounced as Machi) is a Borana word which loosely translates to comfort. My father transferred me to Macci Primary School in standard three due to its academic excellence and discipline. It was initially a steep learning curve catching up with my new schoolmates.
At the end of my first term in the new school, the term report was not as impressive as it used to be in my former school, where I used to be among the top three pupils in my class. I remember my dad remarking something to the effect, “Looks like you’re struggling in your new school. You must have been a giant among dwarfs in your former school”.
However, I managed to catch up, and by standard five, I was among the top five in my class. The teaching at Macci was excellent; the school had exceptional curricular and extra-curricular facilities and was one of the best in the wider Isiolo district.
I sat for my KCPE in 1997 and emerged the best student with 510 marks out of 700. I then joined Macci Boys’ Secondary School and sat for KCSE in 2001, where I attained a mean grade of A Minus. I was one of the best students in the Isiolo District. Macci bequeathed me the sense of academic excellence and discipline.
By the time I finished secondary school, the Catholic missionaries running the centre had pulled out due to an unfortunate retrogressive community politics. That effectively meant that academic sponsorships to colleges and universities had to be significantly downscaled.
However, I proceeded to Maseno University to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Biomedical Sciences, where I majored in Medical Biotechnology. Besides the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) funds, I obtained sponsorships, including from the Safaricom Foundation.
The quiet and lush green campus was a perfect setting for academic focus. After four years of studies in wide-ranging units in biomedical sciences – biochemistry, immunology, epidemiology, virology, biotechnology, to mention but a few – I graduated summa cum laude (first-class honours) in 2007.
After graduating, I spent about two hours daily in cyber cafes surfing the internet for scholarship opportunities to pursue advanced studies in Europe, America, Japan, or Australia. Less than two years later, I proceeded to Japan to pursue MSc and Ph.D. through the Monbukagakusho scholarship.
Monbukagakusho Scholarship is a very competitive and reputable academic scholarship offered by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology (MEXT). The Japanese embassy initially screens the applicants.
The screening processes include documentary examination, written test, and oral interview. The embassy then recommends the selected candidates to MEXT through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After finishing a two-year MSc working on Influenza virus in the laboratory of Professor Nobuyuki Kobayashi, I immediately enrolled for my Ph.D. studies at the Institute of Tropical Medicine, Nagasaki University, under the tutelage of Professor Richard Culleton, to underpin the genetic basis of virulence in the malaria parasite. My switch from influenza to malaria studies was informed by the burden of the disease in Africa.
After publishing high-impact research papers in some renowned scientific journals, I qualified for early graduation and earned my Ph.D. in October 2015, a few weeks to my 32nd birthday. I then moved to the University of Edinburgh in the UK for a postdoctoral fellowship on the prestigious Royal Society Newton International Fellowship to pursue further work on malaria. This fellowship is for leading non-UK scientists at an early stage of their research career and wish to research the UK.
The fellowship is geared towards ensuring that the UK engages with the world’s most promising early-career academics. At the same time, I turned down two postdoctoral offers at the Swiss Tropical & Public Health Institute (Switzerland) and State University of New York at Buffalo (USA), and an internship at the Novartis (Singapore).
Share with us your career journey.
My first job was at Barclays Bank’s call centre, dealing with recoveries of credit card payment defaults. At the time, banks and other corporates, like the telcos, were absorbing graduates regardless of their educational backgrounds. Some of my classmates who were immersed in those institutions are still working there. In addition to being my first employer, the experience I got at Barclays, for instance, telephone etiquette and negotiation skills, have been very helpful in life.
However, to pursue a research career in line with my academic training and passion, I resigned two months later after landing a clinical research study at the Kenyatta National Hospital. After a brief stint at KNH, I left for KEMRI/Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kilifi to take up a similar role. After almost a year in Kilifi, I took my first flight to pursue graduate studies in Nagasaki, Japan. The graduate studies took me six years, followed by a two-year fellowship in Edinburgh, UK.
I’m currently a research scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), where I am involved in livestock vaccine development endeavours. I use cutting-edge biotechnology approaches – gene-editing and synthetic biology, specifically – to accelerate vaccine development.
The nature of my work involves: being up to date with the current literature and advances in my field, interrogating recent findings, asking “what’s-next” question(s), coming up with strategies for solving those questions, designing vaccine development projects, empirically testing candidate vaccines, analyzing the generated data and publishing my research findings.
As a pastoralist, research and development for the poverty reduction plan are not only urgent but personal to me. I find it exciting to use my skills to solve perennial issues bedeviling smallholder farmers hence addressing poverty and promoting sustainable livelihoods.
What do you remember most about your career journey?
My academic and career journey is a firm reminder that focus and determination pays. I have always had the end in mind, pursued my passion for science, and employed my skills to advance scientific knowledge and endeavor to address humanity’s challenges. With passion and zeal, anyone can do it, notwithstanding your background.
How has been your career progression over the years?
Although I have been a student for most of my life, I have made incremental career progress over the years. Currently, I am one of the very few African scientists using the powerful Nobel-prize-winning gene-editing technology called CRISPR/Cas9 in accelerating vaccine development on the continent. I am now the technical lead of this technology in developing livestock vaccines at the International Livestock Research Institute.
What has been a key driver of your career growth?
I try as much as possible to keep abreast with relevant and latest technologies in my field. Just like computer science, biotechnology is a fast-evolving field. Being updated in your area enables you to deploy the right tools in solving emerging issues.
Over the years, I have reinforced my belief that you can chart your future without having a Godfather or a powerful relative.
As Norman Vincent Peale taught, “throw your heart over the bar, and your body will follow” I endeavor to put my full attention and focus on what I do to catapult myself to success.
Who would you single out as having been useful in your career growth?
My parents. My dad’s friends denigrated him for enrolling me in a Catholic school. But he wanted the best possible education for me, notwithstanding societal expectations. My mother taught me the value of hard work by tilling the farm and taking care of our livestock to ensure we had enough to keep us going.
My science teachers in high school for their excellent and inspiring delivery of the subjects they taught me. I have always been interested in science right from primary school, and my high school teachers did not disappoint.
My Ph.D. mentor, Professor Richard Culleton, encouraging me to believe in myself when I was in self-doubt (a phenomenon called impostor syndrome, which is very common in graduate schools). He gave me the opportunities to explore new research ideas travel the world for conferences and training. He was always available to guide me.
In the third year of my Ph.D. studies, revolutionary gene-editing technology was born. I presented to him my interest in trying out the system. Without hesitation, he asked me to order the necessary reagents on his grant and have a go at the system. Thanks to this encouragement and support, I subsequently won a grant to use the same system in malaria parasites at the University of Edinburgh. I have been using this technology ever since, and I owe my current line of specialization to the encouragement and guidance he offered me while I was his student.
Key decisions you might have taken along your career?
I have made several critical decisions along the way in my scientific career. In the early years of my career, I resigned from several positions to pursue graduate studies to advance my knowledge and gain more skills. This resolve has helped me train in some of the best foreign universities and prepared me for my current scientific roles.
Before returning to Kenya, I had the opportunity to remain in the UK or proceed to world-leading biomedical research institutions elsewhere in Europe and North America but I decided to use my expertise in my attempt to solve local issues and advance science on the continent.
What would you tell your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to follow in the footsteps of my older self.
What would you advise the youth in Kenya and Africa today?
Minimize unnecessary social media consumption. Instead, read books. Read widely. I encourage Kenyan and African youths to pursue their passions as they are integral to success. Our youths should embrace Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) to spur economic growth and development. If you have potential in any of these fields, you should not shy away from pursuing STEM despite the temptation of pursuing the so-called “marketable” courses.
I am enjoying my current role, and I am envisaging growing in it. I’m keen on taking up a pro bono science advocacy role to promote STEM in Kenya and Africa. I also dream of establishing a genetic engineering and biotechnology center in Kenya to develop vaccines and drugs.
I would also want to call upon the African governments to invest in science and technology. The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the frailties of our health systems and, to some extent, the degree of investments in STEM.
To save humanity, biotechnology has played a significant role in ensuring that Covid-19 vaccines were developed and deployed expeditiously. Africa should therefore invest in STEM to contribute to combating Covid-19-like future pandemics.