“The Fellowship programme has completely changed the way I think on the job…”

World Antimicrobial Awareness Week 2020

Fleming Fund Fellowships support training and capacity building for scientists, epidemiologists and clinicians in over 20 countries across Africa and Asia. In Nigeria, Eme Enkeng says her experience as a Fleming Fund Fellow is helping her become a leader in Nigeria’s scientific community and improve laboratory practices country wide.

Nigeria’s public health reference laboratory sits just outside the city centre in Abuja. That’s where Eme Enkeng, a medical laboratory scientist for the Nigerian Centre of Disease Control, works. Growing up in Lagos, Eme was fascinated by biology, even as a child. “I love biology. I love the colours, the colour changes and seeing how bacteria grows over time. It was also always easy for me to understand.”

She went on to study medical bacteriology because it was a hands-on profession. She could read about a disease or pathogen and then go use a microscope and run tests on in the laboratory. “I prefer seeing, I prefer practical application - bacteriology gave me that picture,” she said.

After working in Lagos for several years, her managers saw potential in her and asked if she would move to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, to help set up a National Reference Laboratory. Only the best scientists were chosen for the move, a decision aimed at improving the whole country’s microbiology capacity.

From the beginning, working in Abuja was a learning experience, she learned new testing methods and laboratory skills and was recently awarded a Fleming Fund Fellowship. The Fellowship programme has provided her with bespoke scientific and leadership training and expanded her perspective on microbiology.

“The Fellowship programme has completely changed the way I think on the job,” she said. In the past, she used to run a standard panel of tests (called antimicrobial susceptibility testing) to determine whether a specific drug could be used to fight a particular bacteria. But through the Fellowship, she learned about the intrinsic or natural resistance of specific pathogens.

Intrinsic resistance means that bacteria are naturally resistant to certain antibiotics. This happens because some antibiotics target specific components of a bacteria’s structure. For example, bacteria that have no cell wall (e.g. mycoplasma) have intrinsic resistance to an antibiotic that destroys bacterial cell walls. “I’ve learned how to do antimicrobial susceptibility testing (AST) completely differently. Our visit to our Host Institution [academic mentor] blew our minds. There is so much we need to correct,” said Eme.

She has also become acutely aware of her new position as a leader in the microbiology community in Nigeria. The level of training she has received is unique and many of her colleagues have high hopes for how she can use her new skills. “The Fellowship has given me a big sense of responsibility, because working at this reference laboratory means we are affecting the whole population when we get it wrong. Doctors can injure patients when we make errors.”

In the coming months, Eme hopes the knowledge from the Fellowship will help her support the laboratory to get accreditation and improve the quality management system, nationally and locally. “When we are up to standard, doctors and laboratories across the country will believe in us.”

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