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Guest post

The malaria geneticist cultivating the next generation of African scientists

Why Dr. Charles Wondji moved from a prestigious UK university to open a lab in Cameroon.

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Each year, I love sharing stories from around the world about the incredible work being done to fight malaria. Sometimes, though, those stories are best told firsthand. That’s why I invited Professor Charles Wondji—a malaria researcher, mosquito geneticist, and executive director of the Centre for Research in Infectious Diseases in Cameroon—to share his.

When I moved back to Cameroon, my goal was to fight malaria where the disease burden is heaviest—and help cultivate the next generation of African scientists in the process.

I was born and raised in Cameroon, a country on the western coast of Africa where mosquitoes and the devastation they carry are part of everyday life. Malaria in particular has had a tragic impact on my family; I lost my younger sister to the disease when she was just five years old.

My family was not an outlier. Malaria is the most widespread endemic disease in the country. Thirty percent of all medical consultations are for suspected cases of malaria while over twenty percent of visits to healthcare facilities here result in a malaria diagnosis. Throughout my childhood in the 1980s—before bed nets were commonly used—it was rare to hear of a family who hadn’t lost a loved one to the disease.

The Endougou family lives near our field station in Elendé, a village outside the capital city of Yaoundé. My team collects mosquitos from their home to study their insecticide resistance.

Still, I consider myself fortunate, because I grew up in a household where education was valued above all else. My parents sacrificed what little they had to give me opportunities and instilled in me a sense of service and responsibility. So I made my way through Cameroon’s school system, eventually getting my PhD studying the genetic diversity of major malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. My goal was to reduce the burden of the disease—and to one day see it eradicated entirely.

My experience in the lab of a French scientist in Cameroon opened doors to research opportunities in France and then the United States, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eventually, I settled at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) in the United Kingdom. My work had shown that the major malaria vector in Cameroon was in fact two distinct species of mosquitoes that had to be controlled separately; at LSTM, my postdoctoral research focused on mapping the genes of these mosquitoes to understand which ones conferred resistance to insecticides.

Without efficient research institutions in Africa, the progress we can make in the fight against infectious diseases is limited. That’s why the Centre for Research in Infectious Diseases was founded.

Currently, insecticide-treated bed nets are the method of malaria prevention recommended by the World Health Organization for most people living in high-risk areas. But certain mosquitoes are developing the ability to survive exposure to them. My goal is to improve the detection of insecticide-resistant genes by designing effective diagnostic tools—which will better track the spread of resistance in Africa while allowing the industry to develop more effective insecticides and, by extension, better insecticide-based prevention tools like bed nets.

Because of their low cost, insecticide-treated bed nets are a critical tool for malaria prevention—but only if mosquitoes aren’t resistant to the insecticides.

The years I spent at LSTM were incredibly formative. I was part of a curious, welcoming culture that nurtured young scientists regardless of our backgrounds. I received mentorship opportunities that my career would look drastically different without. I went on to achieve independent research status upon winning a prestigious career development fellowship from the Wellcome Trust in 2008, which funded my work and enabled me to form my own team and lab—paving the way for me to receive subsequent senior fellowships and grants. 

But in 2015, I decided to move back to Cameroon to continue my work, even though my home country lacked much research infrastructure to return to. My decision surprised many of my colleagues in the UK, but my reasoning was simple: I believe it’s important for “African science” to be conducted by African scientists—and what science is more African than the fight against malaria, given that over 95% of cases occur on the continent? I’m also passionate about identifying, nurturing, and mentoring young researchers from low- and middle-income countries who might otherwise be counted out, just like I could have been. I knew the best place to do that was to meet them where they already are—especially those who may not have had the chance to study abroad—and provide them opportunities in an environment familiar to them.

My return to Cameroon was made easier with the support of LSTM, which allowed me to maintain my research team, facilitated the ordering and shipment of reagents to my lab here, and more. But in addition to the administrative and equipment challenges, we soon reached a consensus that the dearth of efficient research institutions in continental Africa was limiting what we could do—and what research was being advanced.

CRID started in 2017 with seven people. Now we are a team of 120, including 20 PhD-level scientists and 30 PhD students from across the African continent.

That led me to establish the Centre for Research in Infectious Diseases (CRID), a non-profit research institution in Yaoundé, Cameroon, with the goal of saving lives through quality research and capacity-building. Through support from the Gates Foundation, LSTM, the Wellcome Trust, the National Institutes of Health in the U.S., and more, we’ve gone from a team of seven people to a team of 120 in just five years—including 20 PhD-level scientists and 30 PhD students from across the continent.

Today, CRID is also one of the few genomic reference centers in Central Africa, with state-of-the-art equipment that allowed us to surveil COVID variants in Cameroon and monitor the pandemic locally. In effect, investments that were made in the infrastructure to fight one type of health crisis—vector-borne infectious diseases—ended up being investments in the fight against another health crisis, too.

An international research institution in Cameroon means that aspiring scientists don’t have to leave the continent to get the training they need and opportunities they deserve.

At CRID, we are African scientists doing African science. We are studying—and working to end—the diseases that impact us and our families, on the ground in the places we are impacted instead of labs hundreds or thousands of kilometers away.

Mosquito collection isn’t exactly “fun”—but it’s important and meaningful work, especially when done by people who lost loved ones to malaria and know the stakes.

I believe this approach is critical to make real progress and see results. The fight against mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria, yellow fever, and the dengue and Zika viruses—along with infectious diseases like HIV and tuberculosis—is a global fight. But with the right investment, mentorship, and opportunity, African scientists can and will continue fighting on the frontlines. After all, it’s truly the fight of our lives.

That is my story, but part of why I returned to Cameroon was to mentor the next generation of African scientists so they could write stories of their own. Here are three of them:

Dr. Magellan Tchouakui, Cameroon, Medical Entomology and Vector Control

Dr. Tchouakui is an expert in assessing the impacts of insecticides on major African malaria vectors’ abilities to survive and reproduce. He’s passionate about putting that research to use, and leads the testing of many companies’ novel insecticide formulations to improve bed nets and indoor-residual sprays.

Dr. Mersimine Kouamo, Cameroon, Functional Genomics

Dr. Kouamo employs tools such as transgenesis to “knock down” certain genes in mosquitoes, allowing her to study the genes’ functions and understand which ones enable the mosquitoes to withstand insecticide exposure. She is also a role model to younger female scientists.

Dr. Leon Mugenzi, Rwanda, Molecular Genetics of Vectors

Dr. Mugenzi’s interest is in providing and improving the tools used to control the spread of malaria. During his PhD work at CRID, he designed the first DNA-based diagnostic tool to detect metabolic resistance in mosquitoes to insecticides, which helps prolong the effectiveness of bed nets.