Irene Naigaga’s mother was a midwife and her father director of a medical center, so it was often assumed by her family and neighbors that she would seek a career in medicine. “In fact I hated medicine,” she remembers. “At home a little girl with mental problems used to burn herself, and the only person she would let clean her wound was me. But I didn’t like doing it.”
Instead she was strongly drawn to a veterinary field center where her neighbor worked amid numerous needy animals. As early as the second grade she would hurry through her homework so she could rush to the center to sort slides and do other chores. “One day I saw someone counting lots of money, and I thought to myself that this must be a good place to work!”
She remembers the excitement of a campaign to eradicate trypanosomiasis in cattle. She was eager to help, and one day a veterinarian showed her the squiggle shape of the organism under a microscope, and she was hooked. “The sight of the money was nice,” she said, “but the sight of that little creature is really what set my mind. My teachers tried to talk me out of it and to go into medicine instead, but I had had enough medicine.”
Following her dream, she graduated on a government scholarship from Makerere’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Then a postgraduate diploma allowed her to do research on pollution in a lake in western Uganda, where she also became interested in wildlife. Eventually she was hired by the Department of Wildlife at Makerere, which allowed her to complete her master’s at Rhodes University in South Africa under supervisors Denis Hughes and colleagues.
When it came time to search for a PhD project, she found one that was both challenging and useful: the need to develop an inexpensive but accurate technique to monitor water quality in Lake Victoria and its wetlands. “Uganda has no regular water monitoring of this important lake because it is too expensive,“ she said. She knew she could not expect to produce a highly sophisticated technique while keeping expenses low, so she turned to her veterinary background. She chose an animal high in the food chain that might be expected to accumulate pollutants over its lifespan: the Nile perch, or tilapia. “I wanted to be able to identify the water quality ‘hot spots,’ at least qualitatively. And I found I could do that with the fish. It turned out that when the water quality goes down, we can see lesions in the tilapia tissue.” This is a new technique for Uganda. It was an excellent match for Irene, because recognizing the histopathology of tilapia required a background in veterinary medicine.
“The RISE grant came to me at a time when I had finished sampling the fish, but I was really stuck. The technique was inexpensive, but I still needed to pay for several thousand dollars in lab charges. I also needed tuition to finish my degree in South Africa, where I will go in a few weeks. We don’t have a good enough library for the work I am doing, and the collection at Rhodes allows me to do better work; their literature is very accessible. I have really, really appreciated RISE. It was like God answering my prayers.”
What will be next? “After I get my PhD, I would like to do more data collection. Then I’d also like to encourage women. Women are vulnerable to pollution. They actually know the environment is polluted, but they go anyway to wash their clothes or draw water because they have no choice. I’d like to link my science of environmental health with the communities of people. I also want to be a teacher. Students need direction, and I think I can give that. Some of them are really lost; they don’t even know why there are coming to class.”