By Susan Gallagher
Assumpta Nantume’s passion for biology and chemistry inspired her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy at Mbarara University of Science and Technology in her home country of Uganda. She envisioned a career as a clinical pharmacist, but during her second year of college, a field research experience in Ruhoko, a rural village a few hours away, nudged her in a different direction: global health research.
That summer, she and her fellow students worked with the community to develop education and communication strategies to encourage men in the village to get tested for HIV. The women in the village, Nantume learned, wanted to be empowered to take preventive measures if their partners were HIV-positive. Their efforts helped boost the demand for HIV testing among men by about 30 percent, a result that encouraged Nantume and got her excited about research.
That experience helped her see public health as a career option she could pursue. “I started to think that I had more to offer beyond my pharmaceutical expertise,” she says. “While mastering the intricate details of drug mechanisms was exciting, I was equally eager to understand the underlying issues that were driving health disparities in my community.”
The next year, she and another group of students were awarded a small grant to study the traditional medicines people were using to prevent malaria in southwestern Uganda. Despite discovering the challenges of leading a study—such as facing an IRB defense and wrestling with ethical issues—Nantume was hooked on research by the end of the project.
She didn’t dive into global health immediately, though. After graduating from college and completing clinical pharmacy training at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, she seized an unexpected opportunity to lead regulatory affairs at Lifeway Pharmaceutical Industries, Ltd., in Mukono, Uganda. That brief experience in the pharmaceutical industry gave her some insight into health care financing, drug pricing and the drug supply pipeline.
“I hadn’t quite found my place in global health yet, but I knew I wanted to somehow apply my expertise in pharmaceuticals,” Nantume says. “I became more curious about the policy and the regulations that governed not only the supply of medications but global health services in general.”
That curiosity led Nantume to a one-year Global Health Corps fellowship with the Global Health Council in Washington, DC—where she could gain a better understanding of how major global health actors function—before heading to graduate school. In her communications role at the Global Health Council, she helped with social media, wrote blog posts and newsletters, coordinated events and even met Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker while advocating for global health funding on Capitol Hill.
Her work with the Global Health Council, she says, helped her understand how budgeting decisions are made, how stakeholders become aware of global health issues and how to influence them to fund certain initiatives.
Nantume, who was awarded a von der Heyden Family Global Health Fellowship to pursue a master’s degree at the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI), was attracted to the program because of the welcoming culture she sensed from the people she met during the application process, including a few East African students in the program at that time. She was also excited by the opportunities to engage in faculty projects as a research assistant.
She found a perfect match for her skills and interests working with Steve Taylor, an associate professor of medicine and global health, on a clinical trial in Homa Bay, Kenya. For her thesis, she explored the use of hydroxyurea, an anti-cancer drug, to help prevent malaria in children with sickle cell anemia by suppressing the proliferation of a malaria-causing parasite.
Being part of an academic lab, developing skills in different technologies like DNA extraction and analysis, and gaining data management experience were highlights of Nantume’s time at DGHI. But the most exciting aspect of her work with Taylor, she says, was that he involved her throughout the planning and execution of the clinical trial. “He included me in calls with partners months before I went into the field, so I understood the timeline of the project, its various challenges and how to effectively navigate and coordinate a study of that scale,” she says. “It really helped prepare me for my career.”
Although Nantume is reluctant to pin herself down to a specific global health issue, she’s drawn to infectious diseases and maternal and child health. “It just doesn’t make sense that outcomes are so poor in so many communities, when birth is a natural process,” she says. “We should be better equipped to deal with these challenges, and I’d like to play a role in developing the solutions our communities need.”
She’s not wasting any time. This spring, she started a position as a research coordinator at Neopenda, a medical device company that’s working to improve newborn health services in Uganda. Nantume will be designing and coordinating a clinical study and a feasibility and efficacy study to evaluate a new product that babies wear on their head, forearm or upper chest to detect vital signs and immediately alert medical providers when any indicators are out of normal range. The device, which will prompt the provider to intervene quickly, has life-saving potential for vulnerable babies in Uganda and other low- and middle-income countries where conventional monitors are often too costly, impractical and unsustainable to implement.
Nantume is thrilled about the opportunity to contribute to the development and implementation of an innovative biomedical device. Her greatest global health passion is working with data to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions and advocating for better funding of solutions that work. “Global health resources are so meager, so we need to make the most of what we have. Luckily, our field has a wonderful track record of working with very little to achieve a lot,” she says. “So imagine if we just doubled U.S. global health funding from one percent to two percent of the budget: think of all the gains we could make.”
Nantume's greatest global health passion is working with data to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions and advocating for better funding of solutions that work.