First Experience of ASTMH Conference as an Early Career Scientist from a LMIC: Dr Dominic S. Y. Amuzu reflects

The 2023 American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) Conference was a meeting of research excellence, bringing together experienced minds and groundbreaking research in the field of tropical medicine worldwide.

As a presenter at this prestigious event, the experience was nothing short of exhilarating. In this post-conference reflection, I share the highs, lessons learned, and the profound sense of community that defined my journey at the 2023 ASTMH Conference in Chicago, USA

Firstly, I enjoyed the address by the 2023 ASTMH Keynote speaker Ambassador John Nkengasong who presentation was titled “HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 Pandemic: Implications for Global Health Security”. Through his presentation, I realized a lot is being done for global health security, especially in the Africa sub-region to reduce the mortality and morbidity from HIV/AIDS.

Also, I was impressed by the number of 2023 ASTHM travel awards given to support trainees especially those from Africa. Although commendable, I am confident  a lot more will be done to support many more trainees and early career scientists or researchers (ECS or ECR) from Africa, especially those working directly on infectious diseases in the tropical regions in Africa on pathogens that the conference focuses on. This will enable such researchers make contributions from the Africa sub-region. As an ECR from Africa, I was fortunate to be supported by the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens, University of Ghana and the Malaria Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to participate in the 2023 ASTMH Conference.

Sharing Insights: Oral and Poster Presentations

I was very excited to about the opportunity to present two abstracts at the 2023 ASTMH Meeting (one oral and one poster presentation). Being selected as a presenter was a highpoint moment that marked the culmination of months, if not years, of dedicated research. As such, it was self-fulfilling to be selected for both oral and poster presentations at such an amazing conference. My first presentation via poster  was titled “GYPB Deletion variants (DEL1 and DEL2) Distribution among Ghanaian Populations and relationship with Malaria Susceptibility”. With this presentation, I showed that the allele frequencies of human GYPB gene deletions were 0.072 and 0.032 for GYPB DEL1 and DEL2 respectively across over 2000 samples in 28 different ethnic populations in Ghana. This is the first comprehensive large survey across different populations on the distribution of the GYPB gene deletion variants using PCR-RFLP high-throughput assays. I further showed that the observed human GYPB gene deletions DEL1 or DEL2 alleles were associated with absence of malaria parasites and self-reported absence of malaria re-infections. This paves the way for larger surveys in other malaria-endemic populations across Africa in relation to malaria susceptibility.

In addition, I  gave an oral presentation titled “GYPB gene deletions affect Plasmodium falciparum Invasion of Erythrocytes and Growth of Sialic Acid Dependent Parasites”. Through this presentation, I showed that certain malaria parasites (sialic acid-dependent strain: Dd2) significantly grow poorly in human erythrocytes of individuals not having the GYPB gene when compared with the sialic acid independent parasite (3D7 strains). Also, the GYPB gene deletions were linked with changes in protein expression of on erythrocytes surfaces where expression of Band 3, transferrin, GYPA and GYPC were significantly (p<0.05) increased in erythrocytes of individuals homozygous for GYPB gene deletion. Together, these finding suggests a mild protection against severe malaria  in individuals with GYPB gene deletion and may contribute to an explanation for differences in malaria infection outcomes in different individuals and populations. For more information check abstracts number 5447 and 7149.

In my concluding remarks, I used the opportunity to pay tribute to my PhD supervisor and mentor Prof Dominic Peter Kwiatkowski for his immense support for my career development and his remarkable achievements in building capacity for the malaria genomic research as well as establishing MalariaGen which is currently an international consortium that facilitates research collaborations and data sharing across various malaria endemic countries worldwide particularly the UK, Southeast Asia and Africa.

Engaging Discussions: Q&A Sessions and Other Presentations

The platform provided by ASTMH was not just an opportunity to share my work but also  contribute to the collective knowledge that drives the field of tropical medicine research. The heart of any good presentation lies the discussions that follow, and the 2023 ASTMH Conference was no exception. The thought-provoking questions and insights shared during the “Question and Answer”sessions were priceless. It was gratifying to witness the engagement of fellow researchers, clinicians, and experts, all driven by a shared passion for unraveling the complexities of tropical diseases and medicine. These interactions not only refined my understanding of subjects but also opened up new avenues for collaborations.

I enjoyed many presentations and the discussions that followed; with my most profound ones being research  by Prof Manoj Duraising’s Lab at  the Harvard University where small molecules are being developed to target glycophorin receptors to disrupt malaria parasite invasion of erythrocytes. Furthermore, I was excited about work being done by the MalariaGEN on the Genomic Surveillance of Malaria using next generation sequencing platforms through an amplicon sequencing approach in both Ghana and Gambia which was presented at the Scientific session 136 on Malaria – Surveillance and Data Utilization.

Diverse Perspectives: Scientific Sessions and Symposiums

While my role as a presenter was a focal point, the conference offered a smorgasbord of sessions, workshops, and symposia that enriched my knowledge in unexpected ways. From the latest breakthroughs in vector control to discussions on emerging infectious diseases, each session was a gateway to new perspectives, technologies and methods. The diversity of topics and speakers showcased the multifaceted nature of tropical medicine and highlighted the collaborative spirit that defines the ASTMH community. Moreover, I attend the different symposiums and the more informative and exciting one was Symposium 117: Demystifying NIH Grants for Trainees. Through this symposium I got well informed on the different types of grants available to support trainees, the application process, as well as the expectations of grant reviewers. As an early career scientist with limited source funding to explore my research ideas, this symposium was a great eye opener with respect to funding opportunites available to ECR or ECS to advance their research and support their career development.

Networking: Connecting with Peers

The ASTMH Conference is more than just a platform for academic exchange; it's a bustling hub of like-minded individuals passionate about global health and tropical medicine. Most scientific networking events provided the opportunity to forge connections with researchers, practitioners, and sponsors world wide. These connections are not only professionally enriching but also have the potential to lay the foundations for future collaborations and partnerships. As a trainee passionate about capacity development in translational science especially among early career scientist in Africa, the 2023 ASTMH Conference provided an opportunity to interact with other early career scientists where I shared with them the activities of the Early Career Scientists of Africa Society and ways it benefits members of the society. in addition, I  met senior research scientists in my field of malaria genomics such as Prof Julian Rayner from Cambridge University, UK and Prof Manoj Duraisingh from Harvard University, USA; both of whom I discussed my research activities with as well as potential collaborations we could embark on to advance science in the field of malaria functional genomics and host-pathogen interactions.

After the ASTMH Conference, I got the opportunity to give an in-person talk at the University of Toronto in Canada organized by Panoramic A Vision through “An Inspire Me Event” under the invitation of Prof Gary Bader. I shared my career journey as an early career scientist in the field of human genetics and malaria, my scientific passions as a research mentor and my role as a member of the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) Africa Network and leader of  the HCA Early Career Scientists Initiative. I further, used the opportunity to showcase research ongoing at the MRC Unit The Gambia and the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens, Ghana which may lead to research collaborations between these institutions in the future.

Gratitude and Appreciation

As a first time ASTMH presenter, my sincere gratitude goes to the 2023 ASTMH organizers for creating an environment that fosters meaningful scientific dialogue, sharing of ideas, networking and opportunities to establish research collaborations. I also want to express my appreciation to my audience whose questions and feedbacks added depth to my experience at the conference. More importantly, I will like to sincerely thank my PhD Supervisors, Mentors and PostDoc advisors Prof Gordon A. Awandare (WACCBIP, University of Ghana), Dr Lucas Amenga-Etego (WACCBIP, University of Ghana), Dr Kirk Rockett (Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics, University of Oxford) and Prof Alfred Amambua-Ngwa (MRC Unit The Gambia). I am also grateful to the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens, University of Ghana for funding my conference registration and economy flight to attend the 2023 ASTMH conference as well as the Malaria Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for funding the rest of the cost (accommodation, ground transport etc) through the Early Career Researcher Fund. To both WACCBIP, University of Ghana and Malaria Centre, LSHTM I say a big thank you for supporting me to have such a rich research and engaging experience.

Concluding Thoughts

The 2023 ASTMH Conference was an exciting event, filled with the discovery of new tools in research, opportunities to create collaborations and network. It has really inspired me to strive for excellence in translational research in tropical medicine that will impact and improve health. "Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world." - Louis Pasteur. As I reflect on my journey as a presenter and a participant, I am reminded of the collective effort driving advancements in tropical medicine and the pursuit of good science by members of the ASTMH community and I am highly honored to have been a part of this transformative conference experience. As William Lawrence Bragg puts it "The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them”. Looking forward, I am inspired to continue my contribution to the field, armed with the new knowledge and connections gained at this exceptional conference. Until the next ASTMH gathering, I carry with me the spirit of exploration and a renewed dedication to the pursuit of good scientific research that impact health in tropical medicine. 

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