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First Edition 2017
Griffith Magazine

A quest out of Africa

Aloysious Ssemaganda, PhD Candidate at Griffith University, Institute for Glycomics

Griffith Magazine

First Edition November 2017

The fight to find a cure for malaria has a distinctly personal connection for Ugandan-born Aloysious Ssemaganda, who knows the disease only too well.

They didn’t quite cross paths during Professor Michael Good’s tour of the Uganda Virus Research Institute in 2013, but Aloysious Ssemaganda quickly became aware that a world-renowned researcher in the fight against malaria had been to his place of work.

He discovered that Professor Good, from Griffith University’s Institute for Glycomics, was in Africa searching for a site to conduct malaria vaccine field trials. His online search also revealed an academic whose unflappable faith in his work had been demonstrated by him being the first person to receive the vaccine he developed.

Soon afterwards, Aloysious emailed Professor Good to inquire about studying a PhD under his supervision. The response was both prompt and encouraging.

“I grew up just a stone’s throw from the Uganda Virus Research Institute, so I knew a career in research was an option,” he says.

In April 2014, having bid an emotional but temporary farewell to his wife and three young children, Aloysious moved to Queensland and immediately thrived in the unique research environment that the Institute for Glycomics offered.

“Michael gives you the bigger picture and you have to work through the finer details of your project. He’s a fantastic mentor. He gives you the opportunity to think through your project,” he says.

Aloysious Ssemaganda is in the fight to find a cure for malaria at the Griffith Institute for Glycomics

The appetite for science began in high school in Uganda and led Aloysious to complete a Master’s degree in molecular biology and biotechnology at Makerere University in Kampala.

“I grew up just a stone’s throw from the Uganda Virus Research Institute, so I knew a career in research was an option,” he says.

Driven by a passion for the fight against infectious diseases, Aloysious eventually took up a long-term full-time position with the Institute’s HIV vaccine program. Then, one day in 2013, Michael Good walked into the same building and changed the course of his life.

In Africa, one child dies from malaria every two minutes. Each of Aloysious’ three children – now aged 11, 9 and 5 – have had malaria.

“In our country, there are drugs to cure malaria, but people cannot access them because of limited access to health facilities,” he says. “In some areas, people can’t afford to pay for the drugs. If we could come up with a vaccine at Griffith University and roll it out to people, this would the greatest achievement of my career.”

Aloysious recently returned to Uganda for PhD data collection and, while invigorating, there were emotional challenges: “My five-year-old son asked me, ‘Dad, when will we be together like a real family?’ That hit me hard because he has never experienced me at home. I left when he was two. He was just a baby.”

Coming back to the Gold Coast after such a testing personal exchange was understandably difficult, but a supportive research environment at Griffith – plus weekend downtime with the Ugandan community in Queensland – helps keep his focus on the end goal.

I believe we can defeat malaria

Researchers at Griffith’s Institute for Glycomics are developing a malaria vaccine, which is now at human clinical trial stage. If successful, their work could save millions of lives. Remarkable.

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