When Judith Oguzie started her career in the sciences practicing veterinary medicine in Nigeria, she noticed that significant gaps in veterinary research were impacting her ability to provide care. Motivated to make a difference, Oguzie decided to study molecular biology, where she could find answers to questions that exist across species. Now, as a Doctoral Research Fellow at the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), she does exactly that through using techniques like Next Generation Sequencing and metagenomic analysis to study pathogens. Read more to learn how Oguzie’s father inspired her to become a scientist, why it’s important to study the “unknown” viruses that mosquitoes carry, and how the results of metagenomic research must be conveyed to clinicians:
What made you interested in pursuing a career in science? How did working as a veterinarian influence your decision to pursue a PhD in research?*
Growing up, I knew it was highly valued to become a doctor, engineer, or lawyer. In school, I definitely gravitated more towards science than other subjects. It was through my secondary and university education later on though, that I discovered my niche, the topics I found to be most interesting.
My first influence that encouraged me to pursue science was my Dad, God rest his soul. I think he recognized that I had a disposition that was well-suited to working as a scientist, and we had many conversations when I was growing up about how I could push toward that career path. Because my Dad didn’t come from a privileged background, he always emphasized the importance of obtaining a strong education, which was not accessible to him. He was my biggest inspiration. My second inspiration was from looking at the world around me, and envisioning how scientific solutions could be applied to the public health problems in my community.
I love taking on challenges, and this played a big part in inspiring me to pursue veterinary medicine. People see veterinary medicine as a male-dominated profession, although I think this has been changing in recent times. My love of animals and pets also motivated me. As a veterinarian, I was most interested in understanding the zoonoses that affect animals, and gaining insight into these diseases before they became a problem for humans. I wanted to know how we could best study the interface between animal and human disease. When I was actively practicing veterinary medicine, I realized that there is a serious gap in veterinary research in Nigeria. There are lots of things we don’t know. For instance, there would be occasions where it was thought to be best practice to vaccinate a puppy against a certain disease, but then the puppy would end up becoming ill with that disease. This was particularly a problem for diseases where we did not have robust answers to how humans were impacted, so we would know even less about how those same diseases impacted animals.
I decided to study molecular biology because it is a field that is applicable across multiple areas of study, and it fits perfectly within the One Health approach that emphasizes the connection between human and animal health. You can learn techniques and perform them in animals, and then interpret how the results apply to humans.
What made you decide to pursue a PhD at ACEGID?
When I was confronted with questions that I could not answer as a veterinarian, it motivated me to conduct research that would help answer those questions and determine the viability of different veterinary practices. Initially, I thought I could pursue biochemistry because I knew I had an interest in understanding processes at the cellular level. So the next thing was deciding between a postgraduate degree in biochemistry or a related field. Molecular biology has a more practical approach, which appealed to me more than the abstract approach of biochemistry.
I first heard about ACEGID through the newspaper, when they posted an advert stating that they were accepting applications for postgraduate studies. I knew that I did not want to complete a postgraduate degree just for the sake of doing it, so I had to make sure that I would be joining a program where I could actually do meaningful research. After receiving my admission into the program, I quickly realized that I made the right choice with ACEGID, and the right choice with molecular biology. The chance to do this kind of research, in animals and humans, and to answer questions that exist across species is highly motivating. I love being able to gain a deep understanding of how things occur at the cellular level, and applying that knowledge towards solving real world problems.
One of the most interesting ways that I’ve been able to do this, in the course of my program at ACEGID, is utilizing molecular biology techniques to determine the infectious diseases that are circulating in Nigeria. And what do we know about these diseases? This surveillance application is critical, because we won’t be able to diagnose a disease if we don’t know it exists. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to be able to identify diseases using the techniques I’ve learned through my PhD program. This is what I set out to do when I became a scientist.
Why is it important to understand all of the viruses that mosquitoes carry? (In addition to epidemic-prone diseases like Malaria.)
Generally, there is not enough information about the vast majority of viruses that mosquitoes carry. True, there are a few mosquito borne diseases that are well known. Everybody knows about malaria, for example, but sometimes being aware about these diseases is still not enough to prevent bad outcomes. Because even in cases where there are effective vaccines for some of these diseases, we still have awful and avoidable outbreaks, like with Yellow Fever here in Nigeria.
It is important to understand all of the viruses the mosquitoes in our environment carry because although we may know how some of the diseases are transmitted and present clinically in humans, we still don’t know a lot about what occurs at a vector level. When mosquitos take up a virus, there’s a term— vector competence, which means the mosquito needs to have a certain level of “competence” for it to be able to hold onto that virus and pass it on to a human such that a sustained infection occurs. So we need to know what are the other viruses that mosquitoes carry, in addition to epidemic prone viruses, that can modulate their ability to transmit a particular virus. Specifically knowing which viruses restrict or inhibit their ability to transmit pathogenic viruses is important.
The other important reason for uncovering these unknown viruses is that although they may not currently be infecting humans, that might not always be the case. This is an interesting topic and emerging field. In a study from Brazil, for example, they first identified a novel virus in mosquitoes, and then they went back to screen human plasma samples, and they were able to isolate that same virus from human plasma. So in addition to increasing our understanding of disease transmission, we can also identify which of these unknown or lesser known viruses are capable of infecting humans. That is why understanding all of the viruses mosquitoes carry will provide us with a preventive edge in combating pathogenic disease. Why wait until a disease becomes a problem, when we can learn about it now? We can find out if a virus is pathogenic even before it causes a major outbreak.
How has utilizing metagenomic sequencing methods impacted your study of mosquito vectors?
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that metagenomic sequencing has been applied in the study of mosquitoes in Nigeria. In the case of metagenomics, I don’t need to necessarily know what specific diseases I am looking for to use the technique, however, I also need to be careful in how I interpret my results. I’ve been able to report the occurrence of two diseases for the first time in Africa, and report the first insect-specific viruses in Nigeria. What I mean by insect-specific viruses, is that these are viruses that are found in insects, and they are not known to be pathogenic to humans. They are only called “insect-specific” because they allegedly do not grow on mammalian cell lines. However, we are beginning to see that might be a misclassification, because there may be other reasons why these viruses aren’t growing on mammalian cell lines in the lab. Because there have been instances where these “insect-specific” viruses have been isolated in humans, there is likely more to the story.
This is interesting to me because I have been able to identify many insect-specific viruses using metagenomic sequencing from samples collected as a result of the Yellow Fever outbreak. Now, the next step must be learning the role these viruses play in modulating transmission of viruses like Yellow Fever and malaria, and conducting human population screening to discern whether these viruses are actually “insect-specific.” At the serological level, can we identify exposure to these viruses? Through metagenomic sequencing, we are able to achieve the first step of identifying viruses that were previously unknown, so that we can now screen for those viruses.
I also want to mention that I have isolated “insect-specific” viruses from culture-isolates that were grown on mammalian cell lines, specifically from Vero cell lines and baby hamsters’ kidney cells (BHK). So I do think the label of “insect-specific” is probably a misnomer, and I am determined to fill in the knowledge gap of the nature of these viruses through my research.
How can conventionally “high tech” techniques, like metagenomics, be adapted to the Nigerian context?
That’s an interesting question— and it’s definitely something I touch on whenever I have the opportunity to give presentations about my work. Right now, it is more realistic to apply metagenomics in a research setting because it needs technical expertise and a lot of resources. However, there is also translational research that uses metagenomics to answer questions that we can build upon and use in a clinical setting. For example, when the Yellow Fever outbreak started, the screening panel that was initially used showed mostly negative results because Yellow Fever was not a part of the panel. Then, when we sequenced those same samples using metagenomics, we were able to establish that the virus was Yellow Fever. Now, Yellow Fever is a part of the regular diagnostic panel. See how it translates from the lab to the clinic level? It is currently too high of a burden for any clinician to adopt metagenomics into their practice, but I am hopeful that we will get there soon. The technology is evolving, and the devices are getting smaller and more affordable by the day. COVID-19 has also emphasized the need to bring “high tech” techniques into more settings before the worst happens— when it is too late to use the best available technology for an emergent disease threat due to current limitations.
For me, I think adapting to the Nigerian context means applying the “high tech” methods in research, but also making sure that your efforts are translating to the people who need this knowledge for their day-to-day work. The clinicians and public health workers need this information to be able to diagnose and treat their patients. “Oh! This is Yellow Fever.” And then they can raise the alarm to the communities and instigate a mass vaccination campaign. Using metagenomic techniques in the lab sets into motion many downstream reactions.
For Nigeria, metagenomics can provide us with a profile of all of the endemic viruses, and thus let clinicians know what they should be on the lookout for in their diagnostic panels. And helping to impart the knowledge that, just because a patient has one disease, like Malaria or Typhoid, it doesn’t automatically rule out other illnesses. Currently, metagenomics is most impactful through its translational applications, because realistically we only have the resources to conduct metagenomic sequencing in research settings, but we must communicate our findings with clinicians so they can make use of this knowledge downstream.
What advice would you give to an aspiring scientist interested in a career similar to yours?
Go for it! I can speak from experience when I say I know it’s easy to make a lot of excuses and reasons to not pursue certain opportunities that will get you closer to your goal. But I’ve learned that if you don’t step up— if you don’t try, you’ll never realize what you’re able to achieve. It may not be comfortable, and you may not always feel confident, but you just need to have the courage to take that first step. Then from there, take it one day at a time. You’ll be glad you did when you look back.
Do you have any research questions you’d like to focus on in the future?
I would like to do more research on mosquitos and other viruses in general. In particular, I’d love to do more work with the group of insect-specific viruses that I’ve isolated, which we know very little about. As I’ve mentioned, there is a lot to learn about their role in transmission and their zoonotic potentials.
I’d also like to keep using metagenomics to answer clinical questions. Hopefully, I can be a part of the group of people who make metagenomics applicable as a point-of-care technique in the clinic for diagnosing very hard-to-diagnose cases.
*Interview conducted by Kyra Benowitz on May 8, 2023